Climate Camp Cymru: Ffos-y-Fran mine action
What would it be like to live just 37 metres from the gaping chasm of an opencast coal mine. Seems unimaginable eh? Surely it’s not possible? Who would choose to live this way?
Well, noone as it goes. But for some there is no choice, as shown in the aerial view above. The people of Merthyr Tydfil have no choice. Despite mass complaints from locals and a large scale direct action featuring polar bears and George Monbiot (a Welsh resident) it was decreed by politicians far away that coal would once again be mined from these hills. Last year the hilariously named ‘Ffos-y-fran Land Reclamation’ scheme began in earnest.
Miller Argent is the company (funded by BT pension funds) responsible for scooping out the tops of these hills and delivering the low grade coal to the old coal fired power station at Aberthaw, which is now being run with 40% Ffos-y-fran coal. Tellingly, the environment section of the Miller Argent Ffos-y-fran website is empty; “under construction” whilst a photo of the mining ‘team’ lined up in front of their shiny new yellow diggers is given pride of place.
Of course there is plenty of space for company propaganda too, giving highly spurious reasons for destroying the landscape in the name of ‘reclamation’. But this was never ‘derelict’ land as Miller-Argent would have you believe – it was common land used widely by locals. As happens across the world, common or marginal land is seen as unimportant when in fact it often serves an important purpose to the populations close by. The truth of the matter is that this area has been prodded and mangled for its coal since it was first discovered – the hills are riddled with old mine workings. These were abandoned as economically redundant until new technology appeared on the scene and new government policies made it financially viable to crash into the landscape once more, just as it was recovering from centuries of destruction.
As I climbed the hill towards Ffos-y-fran I cursed the wording on the website – “just 15 minutes walk from the station” it trumpeted. There were an awful lot of taxis passing me as I struggled towards a sign chalked enigmatically on the wall. “Getting There” it said. It lied. After another interminable uphill climb past rows of terraced houses I reached a roundabout. Not long after a huge neon yellow sign reading Clean Coal: Dirty Joke strung along the hedge revealed the entrance of Climate Camp Cymru. A van of Heddlu (Welsh for police) was parked idly on the other side of the road, but otherwise all was tranquil.
I passed the familiar sight of the welcome tent and some solar panels atop a van, and came across someone I knew almost immediately, who offered me a tasty plate of vegan nosh.
Perusing the beautiful and conclusive bilingual handbook about what workshops to do in which tent or “gwagle” I was massively cheered to see that Climate Camp Cymru had really taken Mia Overgaard‘s beautiful designs for the Climate Camp in London to heart (adapting the poster by adding some sheep and daffodils), and had used it on their handbook – sadly this hasn’t happened for the Climate Camp in London next week which, rather confusingly, seems to be using designs from multiple people. The perils of design by consensus…
Once my tent was up I went on a tour of the site with my camera and found myself chatting to a pair of old biddies in a car at the back gate. They were keen to support us but felt unable to physically join us – I learnt that their parents were colliers and they thought they’d seen the last of the industry when it closed down last century.
With some coyness they told me how they’d taken their placards into the council chambers when it was announced the ‘reclamation’ was reopening (dontcha just love the use of the word ‘reclamation’ – sounds like something to do with Shakespeare or have I got my history all muddled?!) I thought that was pretty impressive myself and told them as much.
After dinner there was a plenary with a group of activists talking about community campaigns and how best to work with local residents. Activists from Plane Stupid, Rossport in Ireland, Mainshill in Scotland and Smash Edo in Brighton were joined by two members of RAF, or Residents Against Ffos-y-Fran. It was really thrilling to hear how similar everyone’s stories were and how possible it was to learn and grow stronger by offering solidarity with each other. By the end the tent was whooping and a plan had been hatched to go for a walk into the mine the next day.
This was to be a hot topic of discussion at the neighbourhood and site wide meetings the next morning. Somehow, in a matter of hours, the word was put out amongst residents in town and by lunchtime we’d gathered our walkers. Joining us were members of the Rebel Clown Army, out of retirement after their costumes were confiscated at Kingsnorth last year, and the penguins from Climate Caravan of 2008 – expert in the art of the waddle.
We climbed over the gate with no problems but by the time we’d got to the roundabout a few confused police were attempting to curtail our progress. However, once the penguins had siddled around there was no stopping everyone else. We continued our ramble up towards the heart of the mine as locals slowed in their cars and their kids joined us. The clowns gamboled playfully around the police who hadn’t a clue what to do with these strange creatures, expert in the art of the carefully timed wind-up.
And then we got to the intersection where the road continues through the centre of the great scar that is the mine. The police weren’t having it, even though it is a public highway, with a Section 12 (emergency restraint) being cited to stop us advancing any further. For our own safety mind you.
Some people stayed on the road but the majority of walkers just decided to follow the penguins up onto the hill on the other side. I passed a large van of aggressive sounding police dogs, all the better to chase trespassers across mines huge opencast mines I hear.
Despite the deployment of two large police horses as well as the dogs we failed to provide the running targets the police might have liked after three tense and boring days of sitting in their vans. Instead we wandered around the hilltop with the clowns and the penguins, taking in the full enormity of the mine and being given a potted history by the locals.
As the drizzle moved back in again we descended the hill to head home for tea and discovered that one man had been arrested shortly after being bitten by a police dog for trying to break through the lines on the road. He was taken into custody and held for over forty hours during which he successfully contested bail conditions which meant he could not attend Climate Camp in London next week.
The police were notabley absent on the walk back to camp, contrary to a statement released to the press stating that they escorted us home. I guess we didn’t provide the excitement they might have liked at the top of the hill and they lost interest. We even passed a few cheeky scoundrels
“We set out to police this event, in a manner which reflected the needs of the protestors to lawfully protest… We are pleased that we achieved this aim and were able to avoid scenes in trend at other protests in the UK,” said South Wales police in a statement released yesterday. I had no idea we were ‘on trend’ as they like to say in the fashion world!
Before dinner we went on a mission to buy some beer from the local store (cider of all cheap varieties is a must in this town if the shelves are to be believed) and a local lady kindly gave us a lift back up the hill – on the way she told of how she’s just had to install new windows because the dust has got so bad between the panes of glass. It’s a common refrain with locals, who suffer from all kinds of complaints due to the dust and noise coming from the mine, which, unbelievably, is open from 7am to 11pm six days a week. This in a town which already has the second highest incidence of chest complaints in Britain. But that’s okay! Because Miller-Argent is regulating pollution emissions. Well, self-regulating if you’re being picky. Self-regulating and under no obligation to share the information if you’re being particularly pushy. Understandably the locals aren’t exactly happy with this situation.
The folks from Bicycology had a small bike generator with which to power films, so I spent much of that night glued to the screen, which showed, amongst other things, a film about mountain top removal for coal in Virginia in the USA. The mountains
In Virginia there have been huge and devastating floods in the valleys below the mined areas, which have lost their topsoil and are no longer able to soak up rainfall. The companies responsible have of course abdicated all responsibility but I remember Geography GCSE! Back then I learnt that if you screw with the ability of the earth to soak up water there will be consequences. Could the same thing happen in the steep valley of Merthyr Tydfil? It seems highly likely if opencast mining continues.
On Sunday I went on a workshop to learn more about plants in the area, and was delighted to discover that the yellow berries packed tightly onto the branches of Sea Buckthorn are edible; tiny and tangy they are the richest source of vitamin sea after rosehips. I’ve brought a bag home to soak in some vodka – and wouldn’t you know it I discovered that the berries are used in a favourite Danish schnapps recipe.
After lunch the final plenary looked at how the Climate Camp movement can go ahead in Wales and how relations with Merthyr Tydfil will continue going forward. There was a real feel of excitement in the air as it was decided that Climate Camp Cymru would have it’s first official national gathering within the next six weeks and many people seemed more determined than ever to make it down to the Climate Camp in London next week. Tat down, (clear up of the camp) continued apace afterwards and I left feeling extremely happy that I’d made the effort to travel up to Wales and take part in the camp.
I’m now getting even more excited about the week long Climate Camp in London which starts next Wednesday 26th August with a city-wide “swoop” on our yet-to-be-revealed site. If you care about the planet you live upon (and you should, it’s the only one we’ve got!) come and join us this year. There will be hundreds of workshops on sustainability, direct action and how the financial system is affecting our environment – not to mention a diverse program of evening entertainments. We’ll be camping over the Bank Holiday weekend so why not come visit? It could be the life-changing experience it was for me at Heathrow in 2007.