Protesters throw inflatable ‘cobblestones’ into the air. Photos: Reclaim the Power
‘End Coal Now’, the Reclaim the Power occupation and camp at an opencast coal mine in Wales last week, was a resounding success. As it kicked off the Groundswell year of action for climate justice, understanding exactly how the Reclaim the Power action resounded is vital to the climate justice movement.
In Wales, more than three hundred people dressed in red boiler suits drew a line across the coal mine to symbolise that carbon emissions are exceeding viable limits for future life on Earth. The line included a fire-breathing Welsh dragon and the inflatable cobblestones that have become synonymous with climate action since protests at the COP21 climate summit in Paris last year. Singing, dancing and playing football, occupiers non-violently closed the mine for twelve hours.
Media coverage of the action exceeded Reclaim the Power’s expectations. It was the lead item on TV news in Wales for three days straight and featured in the Guardian, Western Mail, the Times and even the Daily Mail. And all this just two days before Welsh Assembly elections, coverage of which typically focuses on the same old places, people and issues.
The four-day camp took place adjacent to the notorious Ffos-y-Frân opencast mine near Merthyr Tydfil. The 11 million tonne coal mine has a devastating environmental impact both locally and globally. Dust, noise and visual pollution has generated opposition to the mine in the local community since 2004. Developers Miller Argent have monstrously reshaped the landscape, creating mountains of filthy over-burden along with a hole in the ground the size of 400 football pitches. This in an area that is otherwise reinventing itself as a centre for tourism and clean industry. In terms of climate change, were it to continue to mine until 2025 as proposed, the coal produced from Ffos-y-Frân would result in the emission of a sickening 25 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Around 95 per cent of the coal from Ffos-y-Frân goes to the 1,555 megawatt Aberthaw power station. In January this year Aberthaw received a public subsidy of £27 million pounds to continue operation. However, the power station is the subject of a case before the European Court of Justice because it emits more than twice the legal limit of harmful nitrogen oxides. As a result, in late April, Aberthaw was forced to announce that it was downgrading its operations. From now on it will only generate electricity at times of peak demand, and even then will source cleaner coal than Ffos-y-Frân can produce.
Despite this seeming death blow, the developers of Ffos-y-Frân are seeking planning permission for another opencast mine. Right next door to Ffos-y-Frân, Nant Llesg would produce 6 million tonnes of coal and so be responsible for around 13.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Groundswell is a call to escalate climate justice actions. Across the world actions are planned on every front, from fossil fuels through border controls and the arms industry to financial markets. Groundswell aims to help groups taking action to form links and support each other.
Following the End Coal action, the next big one re-kindling the fire in the eyes of climate activists across Europe is Ende Gelände, roughly translated as ‘here and no further’. In 2015 a lignite mine in the Rhineland was occupied and shut down by fifteen hundred people. From 13 to 16 May this year the target will be a coal mine in Lusatia owned by Vattenfall. Reclaim the Power activists will be heading for Germany together in minibuses, via public transport and on bicycles to be part of Ende Gelände.
A Reclaim the Power spokesperson said, ‘Thousands are expected to join the Ende Gelände mass action. If Czech state company ČEZ buys these coal fields from Vattenfall, they’re also buying massive resistance from the climate justice movement. We are the investment risk!’
Blockading the coal depot.
The Reclaim the Power camp was a hugely impressive feat of organisation. For four days on a bitterly cold hill-top three hundred people made use of marquees and geodesic domes for meetings and workshops, enjoyed gourmet vegan food, generated all the energy they needed with a small wind turbine and an array of photovoltaic panels, and made use of virtually odourless compost toilets.
The Reclaim the Power network organises horizontally and participatory democratic process is key to its success. That highly disciplined process features exercising care and respect for others, making certain all voices are heard. At its heart is consensus decision-making which, though sometimes time-consuming, invests the network with its solidarity and collective resolve. Though the process is well-known in social movements from anti-G8 mobilisations to the Camp for Climate Action, it is still poorly understood and ill-appreciated by more traditional political organisers.
Local common cause
Reclaim the Power did well to find ready common cause and form a coalition with the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG) which opposes opencast mining across south Wales, particularly Ffos-y-Frân and Nant Llesg. Indeed, this coalition resulted in RtP formulating its action consensus for the occupation to accommodate UVAG’s concerns, including a commitment not to damage machinery. UVAG are acting against the mine on a number of fronts, including through the courts, and are wary of anything that might be used against them.
In response to an unfounded smear campaign that the End Coal camp had left rubbish behind, UVAG and Reclaim the Power organised a collective mass clean-up of the whole of Merthyr Common for later in the year. The Common is an infamous site for fly-tipping. Despite commitments to do so, Ffos-y-Frân developers have failed to clear it up.
Alyson Austin of UVAG said, ‘Having Reclaim the Power here is such a boost to our morale. It’s given us the fight to carry on. We feel now like there’s light at the end of the tunnel and we can actually win this.’
The campers occupy coal trucks.
Timing and targeting
Although the timing of the action just a couple of days before Assembly elections helped get media coverage, it may have been too late to guarantee that open-cast mining and climate change were hot election issues. That they had already set out their stalls for the election may also help to explain why some NGOs and climate alliances in Wales did not lend Reclaim the Power their active support. By contrast, the Frack Free Wales network rallied round to be at the camp and take crucial parts in the action.
Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats (now a singular in Wales) and the Green Party already had manifesto commitments to end coal and make the transition to renewable energy. The target for Reclaim the Power’s efforts in Wales should always have been the environmental dinosaur of Welsh Labour. Reclaim the Power’s red dragon should have gone straight for Welsh Labour’s soft underbelly, now flabbily re-elected to government. The unions and the climate justice movement also need to come together. In Caerphilly last year, supporters of UVAG were heartbroken to be opposed by workers of the Unite union.
Despite Bethan Jenkins and Jill Evans of Plaid Cymru being active, long-term opponents of opencast mining, neither could make it to the camp because of hectic pre-set election campaign schedules. Only the Green Party found time to support the occupation. Natalie Bennett visited the camp together with Welsh Greens leader Alice Hooker-Stroud. Alice told the media: ‘Fossil fuels must stay in the ground if we’re to act responsibly on climate change. There is huge potential for renewables in Wales, creating a clean energy economy fit for the future.’ Tragically, though, the Green Party did not win a single seat in the Assembly, while UKIP, who are committed to cut all Welsh government spending on climate change, won seven new seats.
Finally, Reclaim the Power did not have the time and resources to put into mobilising a mass movement in Wales. In 2009 Climate Camp Cymru (CCC), part of the Camp for Climate Action network, attracted more than 500 people to a camp at Ffos-y-Frân. Such a mobilisation was only made possible because CCC held gatherings all over Wales for a year in advance of the camp. When one activist this year encountered the red dragon, the most potent symbol of Wales, he asked ‘Is it Chinese new year?’ Social movements for climate justice mobilising globally need to engage with not only local issues and communities, but also regional and national cultures and politics.