Last Wednesday I went to Wales. Not for a typically British summer holiday (although we were all wearing waterproofs), but at the invitation of local campaigners of the United Valleys Action Group on the day Caerphilly County Council decided whether to approve or reject a proposed opencast coal mine at Nant Llesg.
The moment the Council voted unanimously to reject the coal company's application was euphoric. Cheers, tears, and a sense of release from the overwhelming burden filled the room, packed with people who have already had to "live underneath" the opencast Ffos-y-Fran mine for the past nine years.
Yes, I've given away the ending - because for me, as a newcomer to this particular fight, the conversations I was lucky enough to have with the local residents-turned-activists throughout the day made just as much of an impression. These were some of the most impressive, courageous campaigners I've met, who have had to put up with an opencast coal mine and landfill site in their backyard, and fight off plans for an incinerator in addition to this Nant Llesg application. Their words will stay with me for a long time.
That land's greenbelt - you can't build homes on it, but you can build coal mines
If seeing a giant black hole in the ground wasn't nightmarish enough, the bizarre non-senses surrounding the existing Ffos-y-Fran pit put us firmly into Orwellian dystopia. As residents Alyson and Chris Austin described what it's like having floodlights, hydraulics and 'black rain' from the coal dust bear down on your village (just think how much it rains in south Wales), they wryly told us that the blackened abyss was, in fact, classified as greenbelt land. Remembering the coal mining history of the area, Chris revealed another cruel paradox. While the health problems caused by old coal mining afflicted the workers down the mines but left surrounding villages relatively untouched, today's opencast mine spews out coal dust across whole communities, who are excluded from the "health and safety protections" for workers at the site.
You think your local authority will keep you safe... But now it's us versus the world, again
It was the authorities' total abandonment of the community to corporations' "callous disregard of local people and democracy" that I found particularly disgraceful. Chris told us how his local authority had shirked all duty of care over the Ffos-y-Fran mine, leaving coal company Argent Miller free to self-regulate its destructive activity. This is the same company that had "worked in the way around the protection" to their planning application for Nant Llesg, manipulating legalese to design an application where a 'remediation zone' between homes and the pit's edge could easily fall under a requirement to be mined itself, removing any kind of buffer between people and diggers. Having appealed to the Welsh Environment Agency over the existing mine, residents were palmed off again, told "It's not our responsibility, talk to your local authority". Data protection clauses have also prevented these campaigners from fact-checking the coal company's claimed job creation. This battle goes beyond environmental destruction - it was also the struggle for local democracy that was written into neighbourhood banners reading "Opencast coal: not again, not ever".
Please ask yourself what services could be provided by the Council with that money?
Bullies aren't happy people. Reliant on a huge carbon emitter that's becoming increasingly uneconomical, coal company's business models are clearly on the way out. Maybe this is why Argent Miller has been playing so dirty in Caerphilly, trying to cheat its way into the future of the region. With momentum growing for the Council to reject the mine, news broke of a threatening letter Argent Miller sent to the councillors of one of the UK's most deprived areas, warning of the damages they would seek to recover if the Nant Llesg mine was rejected. This is really nasty. Playing politics with austerity-struck councils demonstrates the arrogance of a corporation believing it could endlessly shift the rules of the game to suit its own ends - until now.
It's 2015. Coal is history we don't have to suffer anymore
Coal's place at the heart of south Wales' cultural history was recalled by speakers at the rally and residents in the pub alike, remembering family members and village identities built around coal mining. But again and again, members of the community repeated, "But that is in the past." What came through was a real need to "learn lessons from the past": of communities driven apart over the pain of pit closures and a legacy of health problems "blighting our communities". Rather than looking backwards for regeneration, I heard calls all over to "move on" to new jobs, fit for the 21st century, that are sustainable in both senses of the word. These campaigners don't want jobs that forfeit the quality of life for surrounding communities, or prop up an industry fuelling disruption globally. "It's about climate change, isn't it?" explained one resident on why he got involved, while another asked incredulously, "How inconceivable is it at this moment in time to even consider investing in fossil fuels?"
People have been asked to pay too high a price for this kind of development
As we listened to multiple councillors' assertions that approving the Nant Llesg mine would be "asking too much of these people", the tension built until the final decision served a victory to the years of hard work by people who stood up and said: "No more are we going to accept this cruel, destructive industry tearing communities apart to fuel our communities". Just as campaigners in Germany will this weekend will be saying Ende Gelände ("this far and no further"), the residents I spoke to told me how they can no longer accept the legacy of health problems, daily disruption and arrogant disregard for the natural landscape to benefit coal companies. At Ffos-y-Fran we witnessed how the land that had been carved out in search of coal had been dumped into giant spoil heaps, completely changing the landscape. These heaps had been sprayed with a quick-grow covering to provide the illusion of green and pleasant land - which on closer inspection revealed anaemically green stubble. It would be almost laughable if it wasn't such a kick in the teeth to the surrounding villagers who told us, "Our countryside means a lot to us".
How about that to put Wales on the map: saying no to fossil fuels
"The climate is changing," one Friends of the Earth Cymru campaigner told me - the political climate, that is. Remarking that he had never seen such strong and well-organised resistance to an opencast coal mine, he also praised the quality of debate and care taken by the councillors. As applause met the councillors after the decision, they humbly replied, "We're just doing our job, we're listening to you." Seeing a county councillor base her vote against the mine on her responsibility to tackle global climate change was striking: this is where change happens, these really are "the battle lines for next few years." These individual battles add up. Much of the mentality of "We won't give up, we can't - there's too much at stake" isn't going to go away, even after victories like these. These communities are building a new cultural legacy, one premised upon securing a better future for their children that doesn't include coal extraction or fracking. Referring to one of the Welsh Assembly's new laws, one speaker addressing the crowd told us, "If opencast coal mining doesn't contravene the Future Generations Act, I don't know what does."