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September 26, 2011

Coal Country: From India to the Heart of Appalachia

Delegation 2
Activists from Appalachia and India meet.

"You are not alone."

We are on our second day of cultural exchanges between Appalachian mountaintop removal coal mining communities and Indian coal activists, and if there was one theme, it was "You are not alone."

Appalachia Rising

West Virginia activist Catherine Hoffman summed up the purpose of our meeting in Oak Hill West, Virginia by saying simply, "I had no idea that what's happening in India is happening here." In both Appalachia and India, people suffer because of coal mining; they are poorer and have very little chance to control their own fate. It is, in fact, all too easy for the coal industry and the media to pretend that the opposition doesn't exist.

But it does. Across the world, local communities are rising up against coal projects that evict people from their land, make the water undrinkable, destroy local economies, and pollute the air. What gives us hope is that many people in countries all over the world are in the same fight as folks here in Appalachia.

As the discussion progressed, the same stories of corruption, intimidation, and even violence came up again and again. And every time, the development and prosperity promised to the local communities never appear.

MTR Trespass Site
Mountaintop removal site.

Paul Brown is a West Virginia coal man. He is the grandson of a coal miner, the great-grandson of a coal miner, and the great-nephew of a coal miner. He spent 21 years as an electrical inspector in coal mines.  But he cannot support mountaintop removal mining. As a child, he saw firsthand the inequities coal brought to his community. Even though he grew up in a new home in the heart of coal country, his family didn't have access to electricity. Instead, they burned coal oil for light.

Appalachia provides a preview of what coal will bring to India's poor. After 100 years, the coal fields in Appalachia are still the poorest parts of West Virginia. Why should we expect that coal communities in India will fare any better in the next 100 years?

India's Fierce Coal Struggles

Halfway around the world and a few decades later, Amulya Nayak sees the same thing happening in Orissa on an even more frightening scale. For every megawatt of power, 10 people are displaced from their homes –- forced off their land to make way for coal development. Pollution from mines and power plants makes farming and fishing impossible, and with their land taken away, the local people lose their livelihoods that support their families for generations. But the plants do not provide employment for local people. Instead, companies rely on contract workers who cost little, are easy to fire, and are less likely to unionize. After sacrificing their land, their economy, and their way of life for coal-fired power, Orrisa's poor can't even access the electricity being generated. Despite living next door to the power plants, 90 percent of people in Amulya's district don't have access to electricity.

The situation is so critical in Orissa that communities have declared: "We don't want electricity, we want to survive."

Vaishali Patil put the realities Indian communities are facing into cold, hard statistics. She explained that the government is forcing people off their land for the benefit of industry under the guise of development, but in reality they are only helping a small portion of Indian society to prosper while the rural farmers become even poorer. In 1962, 70 percent of Indians relied on agriculture, and 80 percent of these people owned their own land. Today, 70 percent of Indians still rely on agriculture to sustain them, but only 30 percent of farmers own their own land. She asked the audience, "How can you call these projects development? Whose development are we talking about?"

How can forced land acquisition be in the national interest when the majority of people do not actually benefit?

Delegation 1

Shared Struggles

"I'm getting tired, but I will prevail."

This was Catherine Hoffman's message, she and many folks from around the world are featured in a new Sierra Club publication profiling everyday folks taking the fight to big coal. Tomorrow we will gather again for Moving Planet, a nationwide day of action, to enjoy a traditional Indian meal and continue to share stories and learn from each other. Now we know that there is support in India, China, Australia, South Africa, and other places where affected people are rising up in protest against coal projects that sacrifice their water and their air with nothing in return. But now they are fighting together.

-- Nicole Ghio

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