Most European countries are relying heavily on coal imports to fuel their power stations. The coal travels long distances to be burnt in Europe, generating profits for European companies and cheap electricity for European consumers. As European coal industries have been on the decline – partly for economic reasons, partly due to phase-outs for ‘green transitions’ – import coal has become increasingly important to fuel European coal power stations and the steel industry. Official numbers from 2017 show that 41 percent of coal imports came from Russia, followed by the USA with 18 percent, and Colombia with 17 percent.
Hard coal is mined underground – through ‘deep mining’, or over-ground – through ‘opencast’ mining methods, as in the Cerrejón mine in Colombia (see below). In the US Appalachia region, coal is extracted through ‘mountaintop removal’ – a particularly destructive method where rocks and soil are just blasted away and dumped in nearby valleys. The first step in the ‘development’ of a mine is usually the clearing of land (including people, wildlife, and biodiverse habitat) and the removal of topsoil, which is the most fertile soil. In a second step, the ‘overburden’ is removed, sometimes through drilling and insertion of explosives to prepare it for massive machinery to shovel it to the side and trucks to transport it off-site and deposit it in dump sites. This allows huge diggers to reach the coal seam, or ‘coal layer’. The thickness of the seam can be as little as a few centimetres or over 100 metres, and anywhere in between.The four biggest coal mines – in the US, China, and Russia – hold between one and two billion tonnes of coal, and some are spread over the size of over 30,000 football fields. The stripping of soil and the digging up of coal not only destroy and fragment highly diverse and valuable ecosystems in biodiversity hotspots, such as Colombia, but they often go hand-in-hand with the violent eviction and dispossession of local – often indigenous – communities.
Human rights abuses are commonplace in many mining areas. Local people suffer from a range of destructive health effects and air pollution – linked to cancer, asthma, heart and lung diseases, neurological problems, and acid rain, among others. The following sections and testimonies by local community members show how coal extraction affects their communities, many of whom are indigenous peoples.