by Benjamin Brown
On Tuesday May 3rd, there was an aberration from my normal routine. Rather than dragging myself reluctantly out of bed, I was up at dawn, tense and excited. Rather than preparing for a day of work, I was zipping myself up in a bright red jumpsuit and scrawling a contact number for legal support onto my arm with permanent marker. Today was the day I would join with over three hundred other protesters and take part in an act of mass civil disobedience against Ffos-y-Fran, the UK’s largest opencast coal mine.
Our convergence on this site, near the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil, was at the invitation of local campaigners from the United Valleys Action Group. We came to stand in solidarity with their fight against the mine whilst amplifying our call for green jobs and a future free from fossil fuels. An end to coal, and an end to the political intransigence that has delayed action on climate change for far too long.
At 7.30am, under the drone of police helicopters, we descended into the mine, and with a series of lock-ons, blockades and other disruptions, we peacefully shut down operations on the site. Conscious of the historical significance of coal from when miners fought for the right to a livelihood in the 1980s, treating workers at the mine with respect and dignity was a priority at all times; our indignation was directed firmly at the company bosses and the politicians who have failed to support a just transition away from fossil fuels. Banners were hoisted onto JCBs, music and chanting echoed through the air, and with our bodies we assembled to mark out a strip of red that stretched across the mine. The message was clear: new coal is a red line that must not be crossed if we are serious about tackling climate change.
treating workers at the mine with respect and dignity was a priority
We had entered a huge pit, a hole in the ground, an excavation of massive proportions burrowing into the earth. Surrounding us, mounds of ‘buried sunshine’ – piles of glistening black coal, fossilised organic matter that has lain dormant for 300 million years.
Once burnt, total emissions released from the coal extracted at Ffos-y-fran will amount to almost 30 million tonnes of CO2: equivalent to the annual emissions of 25 million people. At the Paris climate talks earlier this year, world governments pledged to limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees, meaning that 80% of fossil fuels have to stay in the ground. Yet Miller Argent, the private company operating the mine, have plans for another huge coal mine at Nant Llesg, right next door to Ffos-y-Fran. Looking around the mine, this strange unworldly space where ‘raw geology is liquidated into energy and money’, I was struck by the absurdity of the situation, especially when the renewable energy industry in Wales is so ripe with potential.
I was struck by the absurdity of the situation, especially when the renewable energy industry in Wales is so ripe with potential
For years, the hugely inspiring United Valleys Action Group have campaigned against opencast coal, and the new proposed mine has received thousands of objections from local residents who face the prospect of further scars to the landscape in which they live and the loss of common land. That now, in 2016, a new coal mine can even be considered for approval speaks volumes about the priorities of corporations and politicians and their total lack of touch with the realities of climate change which is already destroying the livelihoods of indigenous people and frontline communities around the world.
New coal would be a disaster. But the end of coal presents a huge opportunity. With the phase out of new coal fired power plants already announced by the UK government, Wales is well placed to harness the growing momentum for green jobs (which, despite cutbacks and a lack of government support, remains strong in the wake of the Paris climate agreement). Fossil fuels are still be subsidised to the tune of £323 billion per year, more than five times that received by renewables, but here at Merthyr the mine only provides around 200 jobs, compared to the thousands that could be created in renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, insulation and transportation.
Fossil fuels are still be subsidised to the tune of £323 billion per year, more than five times that received by renewables
As we left the mine after several hours, I could not help myself smiling. It is easy to feel hopeless and despondent when thinking about climate change. Yet what I witnessed at Ffos-y-Fran was something else. People joined together to confront the climate crisis by taking power into their own hands, and in doing so created something beautiful. The mass trespass at Ffos-y-Fran was the first of a global wave of actions against fossil fuel extraction under the banner of ‘Break Free 2016’, where from the Philippines to Canada, South Africa and Brazil a series of events are planned to draw a red line between ourselves and the fossil fuel industry. Our movement is getting stronger. Our message is getting louder. And we will fight until we win.
 Check out Gavin Bridge’s excellent paper ‘The Hole World: spaces and scales of extraction’ in New Geographies 2
Featured image © Kristian Buus