Around the world, people are fighting back against the coal industry. Theyface repression, harassment and violence – but sometimes they are successful. A chapter from the Coal Atlas.
International environmental organizations have been protesting for 30 years against the exploitation of nature and the mining of coal. At the grassroots level, local communities are fighting back, too. The Wayúu community in Tamaquito is struggling against Cerrejón, a huge open-cast coal mine in Colombia. Locals have mounted a health campaign against two urban coal-fired power plants in Chicago. In Shenzhen, China, the city council rebelled against a 2,000 megawatt plant.
The most visible protests can be found in the developing world, where the use of coal is rising quickly. All around the world, people are taking to the streets: in Australia, Bangladesh, China, Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, India, Malaysia, Mozambique, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and South Africa. Farmers in Inner Mongolia, China’s biggest coal region, have risked their lives by blocking coal transports. In the big cities, people demonstrate against the smog.
Communities affected by coal in Mozambique have repeatedly protested by blocking the Sena railway line that carries coal to the port of Beira. India’s government is expanding the use of coal more than any other country; a national alliance has responded with hunger strikes and protest marches. The activists have been ordered about, imprisoned and threatened. Despite adverse conditions in Colombia, communities are working together to expose the truth about coal mining. Their actions include holding popular tribunals against mining, visits to sacred sites, and autonomous public hearings.
In Australia, the world’s second-biggest coal exporter, an alliance of Aboriginal communities, farmers, churches, doctors and environmentalists wants to halt the construction of new port infrastructure and the expansion of existing ones in Queensland. These facilities are intended to serve new or expanded mines to be sited across the Galilee Basin. The alliance uses a variety of tactics, including strategic legal action, lobbying, divestment campaigns, public education and non-violent direct action. It has secured significant victories. For example, Friends of the Earth Australia helped establish Lock the Gate, a powerful alliance that is active throughout Australia. Also, Market Forces, a campaigning organization, has helped shift many millions of dollars in investment away from destructive fossil-fuel projects.
In the United States, environmental organizations have been fighting to phase out coal. Thanks to the efforts of a broad coalition, a total of 200 coal-fired power plants – some 40 percent of the country’s total – have been retired since 2010. Such successes are based on a wide-ranging set of arguments: climate change, health threats and environmental damage. In 2014, mass protests against the discharge of toxic waste from mines into rivers took place in West Virginia and North Carolina. Hundreds of thousands of people had been left without drinking water for weeks.
Friends of the Earth Korea works with local communities who have long fought against the expansion of coal-fired power plants. Plans to expand the Yeongheung plant were cancelled recently as a result of protests against air pollution. In an unusual move, the provincial government backed health research in Dangjin, site of a 4,000 megawatt plant. This study revealed high levels of hazardous heavy metals and other toxins on people living near the plant.
In Europe, protesters in countries ranging from Denmark to Italy, Croatia and Turkey have undertaken various actions against new coal power plants. They draw attention to the environmental and social costs, the need to protect the climate, and the goal of making energy supplies renewable. The United Kingdom was one of the first countries where such protests gained visibility. The first “Camp for Climate Action” was set up near the Drax power station in Yorkshire in 2006. In a highly symbolic action, some 600 activists tried to break into the plant to disrupt its operations. In the Thames estuary, Greenpeace activists repeatedly blocked access roads to the highly polluting Kingsnorth coal-fired plant over a period of three years.
When the operator abandoned the site, Greenpeace claimed a major victory. Although the British anti-coal movement lost steam during the economic and financial crisis, the approaches it pioneered live on. Climate camps, with their mix of actions, information and discussions, have spread to Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, South Africa, and the United States.
In Germany, campaigns against coal have been held for decades, though they have been only local or regional in scope. Around 2006, however, protests grew louder after investors announced plans for 38 new coal-fired power plants. Climate Alliance Germany was formed in 2007. This broad coalition includes churches and development organisations such as Bread for the World and Oxfam, which added coal to their campaign agendas. The alliance launched an anti-coal movement in 2008. In the following years, environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth Germany and Deutsche Umwelthilfe tried to stop the projects, in part through the courts. They were successful: 22 new plants were stopped and many more delayed. The court orders have been accompanied by public pressure questioning the role of coal in climate and energy policies, and pointing out the plants’ lack of economic viability.
Since 2011, the German lignite mining areas have also seen a range of protests: both local rallies and big, international actions. In 2014, environmental NGOs organized a human chain stretching several kilometres through Lusatia, with 7,500 people from all over Europe. In 2015, 6,000 people formed another chain in the Rhineland. There, in August of the same year, about 1,500 protesters took part in the largest act of civil disobedience seen in Germany for decades. Under the banner “Ende Gelände” (Here and no further) they climbed into the Garzweiler mine, forcing it to shut down for nearly a day. The mine’s operator, German coal giant RWE, has taken legal action against 800 demonstrators. Nevertheless, activists consider the event a huge success for the climate movement.
This is an updated and translated version of an earlier article in German.