Picture from the mass action at the Garzweiler coal power station in the German Rhineland in 2014. credits to Marco Kühne.
To supply European countries in energy, a large amount of coal is imported from abroad, as the coal is often cheaper. In Europe, the imports from Russia account for 30.4%, from Colombia 23.7 % and Australia 11.5 % in 2015. The UK is the country that imports the second largest amount of coal, after Germany. From all the coal we burn, 30% comes from Russia, 23% from Colombia and 16% from the USA. But what is the story behind all this coal that enables us to live the way we live?
Coal extraction, wherever it takes place, has very negative impacts on both the local communities and ecology, but also the planet as a whole with the release of methane and carbon dioxide, greenhouse gases that are released in the atmosphere . More about opencast mining here. However, the impacts are far deeper than that.
The coal industry is backed by powerful corporations that operate with impunity, disregarding the few environmental regulations in place and severely damaging the human rights of local communities. Companies often do not pay reparations to compensate or at least relieve the cost of coal, that is, giving a monetary value to the lives and ecosystems that are destroyed. This means that multinationals are free to continue destroying the people and planet with nothing to stop them.
In Europe, RWE and other mining companies are required to offset the environmental damages they cause: for the destruction of a 12.000 years old pristine forest with a unique ecosystem and many protected species, RWE is required to plant an artificially biodiverse forest close by, only to ensure that the carbon that should have been capture by the forest will still be capture with the new woodland. No talk of all the emissions caused by the extraction and burning of coal. No talk about the protection of ecosystems that are priceless and irreblaceable.
In Colombia, the lands are seized without consultation and indigenous communities who have lived there for hundreds of years are forcefully displaced off from their homes to make way for gigantic opencast mines, where are extracted billions of tons of coal. You can imagine the size of these holes, and the amount of dust in the air… and this impacts the local communities and species living in these regions, as the water is polluted with chemicals and oil, the dust ends up in the ground and the crops, there is acid rain due to the explosion of dynamite and people suffer from aggravated respiratory diseases. Coal is physically destroying the living conditions in this region. The landscape is tuned upside down with massive mountains chains created from the waste from digging up the ground.
95% of this coal is exported to western countries. Not only do the opencast mines destroy the land, hurt the communities and damage the environment, locals do not receive anything in return, neither electricity nor reparations for the disasters caused. The mining companies are contracted by energy giants like BHP (the world’s largest mining company, read more about the impacts of BHP here with a testimony from a woman from an indigenous community in Colombia), Anglo American (a British multinational, largest producer of platinum), Glencore (an Anglo-swiss multinational that ranked twelfth in the Fortune Global 500 list of the world’s largest companies).
Not only do these energy giants hold great power as money enables them to bypass regulations and court cases, they also have physical power to suppress any type of resistance. Between 1996 and 2016, more than 3 000 environmental activists and leaders of indigenous communities were killed by paramilitaries who are payed by the governments doing business with these multinationals. In such, it is a private militia defending by all necessary means the interests and profits of large corporations.
In February 2015, the UK government announced a coal-phase out by 2025. But opencast mines are still being opened, coal is being burnt and the UK government is still supporting the coal mafia. Indeed, Coal Action Network reports that between 2011 and 2016, the government underwrote £109 million in insurance to global coal projects, including Russian coal which exports coal back to UK power stations.
The UK has only the fourth largest production of electricity via renewables. Why is coal still being extracted, imported and burnt in the UK when the money could be invested in renewable energy and people could be skilled into sustainable jobs? When so many lives and our planet could be saved.
Resistance in Colombia is organized between indigenous communities, social organisations, students and NGOs. They protect the rivers by cleaning them, they organise farming autonomously to regain their food sovereignty and defend the land heritage. They educate about the land and condemn corporations, but cannot take part in peaceful civil disobedience as they risk being killed. Recently, there were shootings at a peaceful demonstration, and two community leaders were killed. Let’s use our privileges and show solidarity. Let’s end coal now.
Here’s a great list of links and additional reading on the true cost of fossil fuel extraction and combustion: http://londonminingnetwork.org/related/