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updated 5/17/2007 12:54:49 PM ET 2007-05-17T16:54:49

"We'd never objected to anything in our whole lives," says Irish farmer Willie Corduff. But when Shell Oil proposed to put a high-pressure gas pipeline through his family farm, Corduff changed his quiet ways. He and a handful of his neighbors refused to allow Shell on their property -- a stance that landed them in jail, and gained them international attention as the "Rossport Five."

Shell has its sights set on the Corrib gas field, which lies off the northeastern coast of Ireland, more than a mile and a half below the seabed. After the field was discovered in 1996, the Irish government -- eager to develop it and increase domestic energy supplies -- turned over rights to Shell and its partners. Shell planned to bring raw gas ashore at Rossport, the small farming town where Corduff grew up, and send it through a six-mile pipeline to a proposed refinery. The government granted Shell permission to construct the pipeline, leaving only Corduff and his neighbors to stand in the way.

The Rossport Five spent 94 days in jail. Since their release in late 2005, local opposition to the pipeline and refinery has only increased. Rossport residents have founded the Shell to Sea campaign, which is pushing to have the gas processed offshore -- an option Shell says is prohibitively expensive. In October, Shell broke ground on the refinery near Rossport, but Corduff remains unbowed, and hopeful. "I'd love to see this done properly, our natural resources gained back, in hopes that they would do some good for our country and our community," he says.

Corduff, 53, was awarded one of six 2007 Goldman Environmental Prizes at a ceremony in San Francisco on April 23. He spoke to Grist from San Francisco.

Grist: Tell me about Rossport. What's life like there?

Willie Corduff: It's a beautiful place, a beautiful place to live. It's a quiet, unspoiled community, with all the old traditions -- we milk cows, feed hens and ducks -- and we have clean air and clean water. I've been farming with my father all my life -- he passed away just two years ago -- and my sons are doing it now, and I have a grandson and a granddaughter, so there's a fourth generation there. It's a way of life, a way of life that Shell is working on taking away from us.

Grist: How did you first learn about Shell's pipeline proposal?

Willie Corduff: When they started to come to the area to drill trial holes -- we knew nothing about it before then. We just never expected something that big to come to our little community. The pipeline was a high-pressure gas pipeline -- and as far as we have learned, it was never done in the world before, not on land. This was raw gas, in from the well, and they were treating it on land, in the middle of a small community, one with valuable estuaries and plantations and all that type of thing. This area is protected [by the European Union] and we just couldn't imagine that this project would be allowed to happen. We thought, "Where are the protection agencies now? How come they're not stopping this?"

Grist: Did anyone ask you for your opinion on the proposal?

Willie Corduff: No, they wouldn't listen to our opinion. That was the hardest part. We tried to explain to them, at the beginning, that we could not allow this to happen because it was going to finish our whole community.

We'd done research into this -- we weren't used to this type of work, and we had no money for it -- and we found that the oil and gas that was found on our coast, on the Irish coast, had been sold off by the Irish government for absolutely nothing. They gave it away. So we knew that there were going to be no benefits here for anyone in our community, that all we would get was the pollution and the destruction and all that type of thing. When we heard that, we said we have to fight this.

At the moment in Ireland our nurses are out on strike -- on the streets, the poor things, marching on the streets -- looking for higher wages. I mean, if [oil and gas development] were done right they wouldn't have to be out there. The country could afford to pay them their wages and let them do what they're good at doing.

Grist: What were the first things you did when you learned about the project?

Willie Corduff: When Shell came on our land in 2005 -- our own holdings of land, which are very, very small -- they were pegging it to survey for the high-pressure pipeline. I went to them and told them they were trespassing, and they said, "No, Willie, we're not, we have got the authority to come in here," and I said, "Well, I want to see it. Would you show it to me?" They said "No, we're not obliged to show it to you." I said, "I have to see something." So they left for that day.

They came back on the land a few days after that, and we did the same thing. So we were brought to court in April of 2005, and [Shell] got out an injunction against us, saying that we couldn't interfere with them doing anything on our property. The judge told us that if we interfered with Shell again, we'd be jailed.

They came on our land again in June, and we stopped them again, so we were brought to court again and given an indefinite sentence. When the judge gave the sentence, he said to Micheál O'Seighin -- a teacher, one of the men who was jailed with me -- he asked Micheál, "Have you got a family home? Have you got a family car?" and Micheál said yes. "I'll take all that off ye," he said. "I'll fine ye hundreds of thousands of Euros, and I'll make sure that you pay it, and I'll lock up every farmer in [County] Mayo if I have to."

Well, it was scary. But when the judge said, "Go out and think about it," we didn't even leave the courtroom. So we were jailed.

Grist: So how did you manage to stand up to that kind of intimidation?

Willie Corduff: We knew we were going to lose everything we had. It wasn't a lot, but it was what was handed down to us, so it was an old tradition. And we loved where we lived.

There were times you'd break down and get emotional about it, and say "Oh, God, what's going to happen to us?" like when we were put to jail, which was an awful shock to our system. When you've kept quiet and peaceful and respected the law, it felt terrible for that to be done to you. But when we were put to jail, the whole community came out to support us. People came from Dublin, Cork, everywhere to rally behind us -- they had huge demonstrations. So that gave us strength.

And the prisoners were very nice to us when they knew why we were there. We were in there with murderers, you know, and God help us, a whole lot of young people that the system had let down. They would come up to us and ask, "What are you in for?" and we'd say, "Well, you know, to protect our place, our little farms," and they used to laugh. "Oh, no, lads, don't tell me that!" They didn't believe us. But then when they saw it on the television, they really respected us.

Grist: How have you continued your activism since your release?

Willie Corduff: When Shell lifted the injunction in September and let us out, thousands of people in Dublin marched for us, and people were coming up to us and saying, "Don't give up, lads, we're behind you." So we've just gotten stronger, and we've upped our campaign.

Grist: What does this prize mean to you?

Willie Corduff: It was a complete shock. I thought "Jesus, why me?" The government has painted a really bad picture of us -- all they had ever told us was, "Oh, go home and have sense, you're stopping progress, and keeping people out of jobs." So it's just been a complete shock -- I just don't realize yet what I have got.

Grist: How do you plan to use the money?

Willie Corduff: To tell you the truth, I haven't even thought much about it. We were never used to money, we never had money. It'll help the campaign and it'll help the whole thing, but in the excitement of all this, I haven't even thought about it.

Michelle Nijhuis is a freelance writer in Paonia, Colo., and the winner of the 2006 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism.

© 2013, Grist Magazine, Inc. All rights reserved.

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