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September 29, 2011

Coal Country: From India to the Heart of Appalachia, Day Three

WV_Indian Delegation01
Blair Mountain: the biggest piece of American history you never heard of.

When I was in school, I never learned about the coal wars that raged in West Virginia in the early 20th century. As we gathered in Blair, West Virginia, for an Indian and Appalachian potluck, longtime resident Wilma Steele told us about how miners who tried to unionize and make a better life for themselves lost everything when the companies who owned the towns and the very houses they lived in kicked them out. And as the workers were paid in script that was only good in stores owned by the mines, they had no savings and no ability to go elsewhere.

But turning out miners and their families wasn’t enough. During the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike, the coal operators sent a train called the Bull Moose Special through the tent city to gun down the homeless miners as they slept. The violence culminated in the battle of Blair Mountain, the largest civil uprising in U.S. history. Even the government got in on the act, pitting bombers against the striking miners.

WV_Indian Delegation08 The most marginalized people are the easiest to exploit.

Coal never brings economic prosperity to local communities, whether they are in Appalachia or India. Wilma explained that West Virginia is one of the poorest states in the country, and the coal fields are the poorest part of West Virginia. Mountaintop removal mining employs even less people than traditional coal mining, and workers are forced to fight over the few jobs that remain while any hope of another industry, such as tourism, is blown away with the mountains.

Coal keeps communities poor, and anyone who attempts to fight the companies is seen as fighting the state.

Delegation 3 This is something Vaishali is very familiar with. When Konkan fishermen and rural farmers whose livelihoods are at risk from massive coal development protest the companies that are exploiting them, the state cracks down. In places like Andhra Pradesh, violence reminiscent of West Virginia’s coal wars is breaking out.

Just as in West Virginia, the coal companies in Konkan are destroying all other local industries. Vaishali told the group that in the past a whole network of farmers, labor agents, small transport businesses, exporters, and importers existed to distribute Konkan’s world famous Alphonso mangoes. But coal development could wipe out the entire system. Meanwhile, the small ports that fishermen once used are being taken over by power companies in need of imported coal to feed their plants.

Amulya is seeing the same thing happen on the other side of India in Orissa. The coal plants are sucking up all the ground water, leaving rural villages and farmers with none to sustain them. The companies have even attempted to cover their tracks by dumping water into the wells, but with the water table destroyed they run dry in four to five days. Once the plants are finished with the water, they discharge with all the toxic pollutants through leaky pipes into faulty impoundments, further poisoning communities.

As in West Virginia, the Orissa’s coal companies exploit the situation with poor labor practices. The rural farmers who lost their livelihoods can’t even get a job in the coal mines or at the plants because they employ contract laborers with little job security that are unlikely to unionize.

If we cannot learn from our history, we are doomed to repeat it.

WV_Indian Delegation04 The striking miners from West Virginia’s coal wars were known as rednecks for the red bandanas they wore. Today many dictionaries define rednecks as uneducated bigots. What better way to defeat your opponents than by co-opting their very identity and portraying them as ignorant thugs?

But the truth is that the mine workers were ahead of their time. The coal companies imported workers from across cultures and races in an effort to keep the labor force divided, but the mine unions were the first to pledge not to discriminate based on race and the first to pay black and white workers the same.

The labor struggles in West Virginia unified people across cultural barriers, but their history was largely ignored or rewritten by the coal elite. Now a new grassroots struggle is building in India. But by sharing our stories as we did in Blair we hope that future generations will remember the struggle and ensure that energy development is done sustainably and not at the expense of the most vulnerable.

-- Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club. Read Nicole's Day One and Day Two posts about this trip.

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