Until recently the small town of Merefa was best known locally for its beautiful church and as the location of a holy spring called Ozeryans’ke.  Now it’s making headlines as the site of a David vs Goliath-esque battle to stop fracking for gas that risks polluting the waters of its spring forever. 

You cannot drink gas” has become a rallying cry for local people in the commune which is now united against the gas project and has the full support of the Merefa Council.  It wasn’t always so. It all started with a small group of women concerned about the health impacts of the project and losing access to clean water.  

One of the three women Olena Beryozkina picks up the story: 

“It’s a sad story, why I moved here. I have a handicapped son, epileptic since childhood. That’s why in 2003 we decided to move from a noisy city to a village with clean air, peace and quiet. Then, in 2007 a gas company showed up with a license to frack and that was the end of the peace and quiet’’ 

(Left to right) Tetyana Osmak, Olena Berozkina, Nataliya Riabukha

Despite threats from the backers of the gas project and slurs on her reputation, Olena started raising concerns in the local area.   She was soon joined by two other women, Nataliya Ryabukha and Tetyana Os’mak. In 2016 they founded a non-government organization called “Merefa Alternative” to educate people about the negative impact gas production could have on their community. And they wasted no time starting other community projects like DOBREbus – the first shared public bus in the town centre that helped them build trust and relationships within their community. 

The women faced huge pushback from the companies involved and the authorities.  They were intimidated and slandered with nicknames like “separatists” and “agents of Kremlin” because of their activities. 

“The CEO of the gas company invited me to “have a talk” in 2012 and threatened to sue me. Back then, I had no backing since the locals were too frightened to protest. Hardly anyone believed we could win. But activists from other villages phoned me and thanked me for my steadfastness because they were also intimidated into stopping their own struggles. I was inspired by them to keep fighting and it paid off.  Eight years ago I was alone, and now the whole community stands behind us.”

Their determination was enough to persuade the Merefa Council to challenge the environmental impacts assessment for the project and on February 14, 2020 the council deputies passed their third resolution on banning gas extraction within the Merefa community. 

Merefa Council deputies vote to ban fossil fuel extraction in their commune, February 2020

These resolutions were ignored by the gas company which started prospecting anyway but that only incensed the local community further and has helped bring even more attention and support to the women’s fight. 

Even as legal battles continue, the  community is holding its ground. In February they held a mass protest to blockade the regional highway, carrying a symbolic coffin emblazoned with the words “RIP environment”.  

Merefa residents come together to blockade the regional highway in protest at gas extraction

And people power is working.  The gas company recently announced at a Merefa town hall meeting that it was ceasing its prospecting activities!   The legal battles continue — and the local community will keep pushing for all licenses for mineral extraction to be revoked. 

They may be up against huge vested interests, including the Ukrainian state since currently extraction licenses can be granted without community consultation and approval.   However, the fight against gas in Merefa started by Olena, Tetyana and Nataliya shows that with dedication, community resistance can keep fossil fuels out of our communities and bring people together in support of a clean, renewable-powered future. 

Story and photos from 350 Eastern Europe Campaigner, Julia Pashkovska