By the time a lump of coal arrives in a European coal-fired power station it has travelled a long way.
It has been on this planet for so long that it was already old when the dinosaurs appeared. Right now, that lump of coal is sitting in the coal bunker of the German power plant of Datteln IV. Tomorrow it will disappear in the combustion chamber.
Its story begins in Russia, in a region that is called Kuzbass today. After millions of years in the southern Siberian soil, the lump of coal is dynamited out of the ground. During the short flight it sees a moonscape beneath: open pit mines several times the size the forest from which it was once made. Loaded on a coal train, it travels north-east, passing areas that were once villages, lakes from which noone drinks, and cities whose doctors have specialised in lung diseases. It travels further through Russia to the gigantic coal terminal of Ust-Luga near St. Petersburg from where it is shipped over the Baltic Sea to Rotterdam and up the river Rhine.
Tomorrow, that lump of coal will burn and the people in the region will have electricity to drive around in electric cars. To watch television. To pursue a lifestyle that can only be sustained for a short time-span – much shorter than the aeons it took the soil to become coal – and only at the cost of exploiting people and nature in other, seemingly far-off, regions of the world. Regions like Kuzbass.
Hard coal is a clear example of a supply chain through which colonial patterns and legacies are reproduced. Coal destined for Europe is mined predominantly in Colombia, on indigenous land in Russia, and in the United States, endangering and destroying the health and lives of people, wildlife, and plants in the mining regions.
Hard coal and profits end up in the industrial centres of the Global North – for cheap electricity and shareholder revenue. And the people in the Russian Kuzbass or the Colombian Cesar? They end up with polluted air, contaminated water and soil, and destroyed ecosystems. They are evicted, their resistance is criminalised, and entire communities become economically dependent on mining, to name just a few of the consequences. All this is rooted in a long history of colonial structures and justified by racist ideologies of Western societies.
At the same time, hard coal is one of the biggest climate killers, rivalled on a global scale only by oil and natural gas. If only a fraction of the coal power plants that are currently planned around the globe are commissioned, the 1.5°C climate target, to reduce the worst impacts of the climate catastrophe, will be unfeasible. Today, in 2021, very few European countries produce large quantities of hard coal. More than ever, hard coal is imported. It comes via bulk carriers to the big harbours like Rotterdam and Hamburg and is then transported to the steel and coal power plants to fuel the European imperial way of life.
The social and environmental problems associated with mining are outsourced to countries in the Global South which have lower environmental standards, labour standards, and rates of pay than Europe. This business follows the capitalist logic of the economic system: profit maximisation at the cost of local community and ecosystem health. And these profits are defended at all costs. The US company Drummond, for instance, paid militia to enforce their mining concessions in the Colombian province of Cesar. The result of the militia’s ‘work’: 3,100 people killed and 59,000 displaced from their homes through these activities. The Russian state harshly criminalises and prosecutes land defenders, while fossil companies and other climate criminals are subsidised by governments across the world.
This book provides an overview of the European hard coal industry and its supply chains, and illuminates the entanglements between coal, colonialism, and capitalism.
Its goals are threefold:
The book includes not just short informative texts, but also numerous graphs, figures, and references to further literature. Many people have contributed their expertise.
To give a voice
In this book, we tried to centre the voices of those who are most affected by – and actively resisting – coal mining across the world. We asked them to tell their stories, as can be seen in chapter five.
We hope that this book can make a tiny contribution to the struggles against coal, against colonial continuities, and against the capitalist system – and to a better life for all.
We – the editors of the book – are active in ‘Still Burning – network against hard coal and neo-colonialism’.
The network inspired the idea for this book. We are all from Western European countries. We position ourselves as white. We share the goal of acknowledging and making European colonial history more visible and fighting its present-day continuities. We would further like to highlight the local resistance of people in mining regions, which is not well- known in Europe. Across the world, people have resisted mining and ecological destruction for generations.
The forms of action and protest culture of the European climate justice movement are inspired by the historical resistance of many Black and Indigenous peoples as well as People of Colour. We want to be explicit in our acknowledgement of their struggles and oppression.