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Creating a sustainable future for Spain’s mining communities

The miners have taken to the streets because the Popular Party government is not fulfilling its commitments to the mining sector under a five-year Plan for Coal agreement signed between government and unions last year.

Aid to mining companies in this year’s budget was cut to 111 million euros from 301 million euros in 2011.

These subsidies are direct aid to the sector, but they are also designed to revive the mining areas by reducing or eliminating mining activities and creating new ones.

To be sure, the cuts made by prime minister Rajoy are not about the Spanish state, nor the EU, being short of money.

The State has injected 4,500 million euros into private Spanish bank Bankia, and is pledged to shell out 19,000 million euros more. Europe has rescued Spanish banks with 100,000 million euros. The mining sector is asking for a mere 200 million euros to prevent its demise. In Spain, let alone Europe, there is money. And plenty of it to rescue the banking and financial system. But there is no money to save the coalfields.

Cuts undermine revival of coal-mining areas

The cuts made the right-wing government of Mariano Rajoy seriously undermines the ability of the mining areas to develop the necessary infrastructure and provide incentives to encourage firms to set up new activities in mining areas. These cuts eliminate any possibility of reviving the mining regions.

Yet there could be a socio-economic alternative for the mining communities, compatible with sustainable development. The government could make a clear commitment to economically diversify the mining areas by allowing them a role in the development of an alternative energy sector, integrated into a wider national energy planning.

Subsidies go to privateers

To date, the tax money Spain has provided to the sector is not well used. Grants are chucked at private ‘entrepreneurs’ who are using the miners for their own purposes and are exploiting resources that belong to everyone to further swell their profits. The fact that over 80% of production comes from opencast mines that are profitable or at least break even means subsidies more than compensate for any losses.

This spending should ‘nationalized’ this public spending’. If it were it could be invested directly in wages for miners and an effective, progressive conversion of these jobs away from the coal monoculture.

Although, to be sure, the problem isn’t about the extraction of coal, but burning it, for this is what causes the pollution. But pollution is not a consideration, it appears. After all why would politicians want to end Spanish production but plan to continue to import cheaper coal from South Africa, Russia and Indonesia.

Alternative employment

There is, however, an issue of energy planning. And it is this: are we to remain committed to thermal, or back renewable energy; do think there is a need for a ‘strategic reserve’ because it is reasonable and socially desirable to preserve a mining technology that maybe tomorrow would be needed, and the effects of pollutants could be mitigated in part by the capture of CO2? ; and if so, we need to quantify this and where jobs are no longer needed in mining, provide alternative employment now.

But to date there’s been a real lack of effective policies for re-industrializing mining areas, despite years of subsidies that were supposed to achieve this end.

That has left mining companies in almost complete control in the mining areas. There are no other major employers, so they dominate their workforces, their dependents, relatives and communities. And this puts the coal workers up against a wall : they must defend the only means of living to which they have been condemned.

So this struggle is about defending jobs and a dignified livelihood for these workers and their families. It is not about defending a particular economic activity that is harmful to health and environmental conservation and the planet for future generations.

A solution

In short, what is needed is:

  • the recognition of coal as a strategic energy source, maintaining the current Coal Plan and drafting new sustainability criteria until 2018,
  • audit the accounts of the Plan and take action in cases of fraud in its development and lastly but most importantly:
  • nationalize coal, because until the arrival of the Rajoy Government the greatest threat to the mining areas was the blackmail of private businessmen and unscrupulous profiteers of public money, using the workers for their own interests.

This is a summary of the views of Enrique Javier Diez Gutierrez, Professor at the University of León, as set out in an article in Mundo Obero, the journal of the Communist Party of Spain, July 9, 2012

About revoltingeurope

Writer on Europe's Left, trade union and social movements @tomgilltweets or @revoltingeurope

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