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From Russia to Colombia, the villages destroyed by Britain’s coal addiction

Anne Harris reports on the people being made homeless because of mining to feed the UK's coal-fired power stations

February 29, 2016
6 min read

Rocks fall from the sky and dust coats houses, gardens and streams. Homes crack, sacred sites are destroyed and the wildlife is driven away.

This was the reality for the residents of Kazas, a village of predominantly indigenous Shor people living in the shadow of enormous open-cast coal mines deep in the Keremovo Oblast, Siberia. The Kemerovo Oblast is Russia’s biggest coal mining region for coal to export and the main region where indigenous Shor and Teleut people live. Kazas was destroyed in 2013.

For the Shor people ‘assimilation, loss of language and traditions became overwhelming’, say three NGOs working with indigenous communities. At least eight other similar villages have met the same fate. The Russian government has repressive laws which have targeted groups active in supporting the indigenous people’s battle with the extractives industry.

The UK imports more coal from Russia than any other country and is the second largest market for Russia’s coal, after China. Our electricity demand causes their suffering.

Infographic: Coal Action Network

Ditch Coal, a new report from the Coal Action Network, describes the situations in the three countries which combined supply 95 per cent of the coal imported to the UK. These countries are Russia, Colombia and the USA with 43 per cent, 33 per cent and 19 per cent of the coal imported to the UK respectively.

There are still 12 power stations burning coal, but the fuel is no longer the leading producer of energy in the UK. The government has announced that it intends to close the remaining coal power stations by 2025. But for communities on the front-lines the realities of coal mining this is too long and without legislation to enforce action, meaningless.

Forced out in Russia

Back in Kazas, mining companies wanted the village and its inhabitants gone so that they could extract the rich coal seams underneath. Checkpoints controlled the village, restricting movement. The spirituality of the Shor people has been totally disregarded, with the sacred Karagay-nash mountain being desecrated and destroyed by mining.

Life in Kazas was made unbearable for the residents and when most agreed to move, the companies claimed that they did so voluntarily. The anger of those living there showed they felt that they had reached the end of the line and had no options.

For those who didn’t consent to leave, the situation became more threatening. The director of a subsidiary of Sibuglemet said, ‘If they don’t sell their houses and estates to Yuzhnaya, then the houses might burn down.’ Sibuglemet supplies coal to the UK.

Within a month of threats being made arson attacks began on the houses of the families who had refused to leave. The crimes have never been investigated.

Houses in Kazas being bulldozed after suspiciously-timed arson attacks. Photo: RAIPON

Land given to villagers as a substitute is by all accounts unviable, and in worse condition than the land that they were forced to leave had become. No land has been assigned for their traditional subsistence activities, hunting and fishing. Villagers have not received compensation that would enable them to rebuild their houses and most do not have any savings left that would allow them to rebuild themselves. These rural peoples have been dispersed to urban areas.

‘Company killers’ in Colombia

‘The companies talk about voluntary displacement, but it is forced displacement,’ says Nubia Maria Florian Ditta. ‘We are worried. We are fighting to get land titles for our collective land. This will help us protect our ecosystem as they push to expand the mine.’ Ditta is a member of Las Cruces Community Council, and their village is threatened by the expansion of a coal mine worked by an American company Drummond, which supplies the UK.

In addition to forced relocation, companies exporting coal from Colombia to the UK have been allegedly implicated in financing paramilitary mass murders, executions, and disappearances.

Hernando Figueroa Pallares has evidence of Drummond dumping 500 tonnes of coal at sea after problems with a barge transferring coal to an international ship. He planned to go to the authorities about the incident, but before he did an assassin came after him, thought to have been sent by the company.

As Hernando describes it, ‘He was in the entrance of my house with a gun in his hand… He came out in to the yard but he didn’t see me because it was dark. He had the gun ready. I thought if I leg it he is going to kill my wife, so I decide to see what God’s will is. Without my shirt on, I shout and run at him. The first bullet enters me in the lung.’ Hernando was lucky to survive, though he still lives in hiding. Many others have been killed in similar incidents.

Ditch coal

Imported coal is not the only problem. Around 31 per cent of coal burned in the UK is still produced in the UK. In Britain the main coal mining issues include a planning system biased towards companies in preference to community needs, noise, dust and traffic, as well as sites being abandoned without restoration (in Scotland there are thought to be 20 unrestored sites).

Wherever there are coal proposals in the UK there are communities fighting applications. Since the announcement of an intended coal phase-out, County Durham residents had the shocking news that a mine application by Hargreaves has been successful after an appeal, at Field House. Another five applications for new open-cast coal mines are still pending.

Wherever coal is mined the conditions are unacceptable. We need the government to announce a complete and legally binding phase-out of coal, whether imported or UK-mined, as soon as possible.

But we can’t just wait for the government: the Coal Action Network also calls on those of us who consume electricity supplied from unsustainable fuels to stand in solidarity with those most affected and take our complaints directly to the companies involved, by taking action against mining, coal infrastructure, and power station operators. Now is the time to ditch coal.

To see the complete Ditch Coal report, or to get involved in the struggle against coal see www.coalaction.org.uk. Anne Harris is a campaigner with the Coal Action Network and co-author of the report.

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