Reclaim the Power - End Coal Now: Last week’s direct action at Ffos-y-fran

Guest post by Al Williams, activist with the Campaign against Climate Change and Reclaim the Power

Reclaim the Power video of the action

On 30th April, on the 185th anniversary of the Merthyr Uprising, Reclaim the Power set up an Action Camp, 400m above sea level on Gelligaer Common in South Wales between the village of Fochriw and the town of Merthyr. As the camp was set up, travellers from across Wales, England and beyond helped clear up some of the fly-tipping that has blighted this stunning mountain location - something the camp organisers intend to return to and pursue further. The camp was organised on sustainable principles and powered by renewable energy and vegan food. After three days on the mountain, 300 climate activists shut down the UK’s largest opencast coal mine at Ffos-y-fran and the story resonating across the Principality, the UK and beyond.

Events in Wales kicked off the global Break Free 2016 campaign - a two week wave of escalated action to keep coal, oil and gas in the ground by challenging power with non-violent direct action. 

Activists in South Wales risked arrest, but claimed the moral high ground, arguing that, in an area well endowed with wind power and potential for solar, there are plenty of opportunities for jobs in renewable industries - coal is the dirtiest of fossil fuels and Wales must keep it in the ground, if the UK is to help prevent runaway climate change.

Many felt that the mass trespass action was necessary, in the face of escalating climate change and a lack of action from governments across the world. Activists feel the Paris COP21 agreement does not go far enough - indeed fossil fuels aren’t even mentioned in the text itself and it’s clear that the desire to keep global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels will only be realised with an increased participation of people power. The action was conceived in solidarity with local campaign group United Valleys Action Group (UVAG), who have been battling against the mine for over ten years. A proposed extension to the existing scar on the landscape, at Nant Llesg to the east, which would increase the capacity of the mine by over 50%, is being fiercely opposed and raising awareness of this issue was a key aim. Despite being defeated at the local level, mining company Miller Argent have appealed and the decision will now be made by the Senedd this summer.

Reclaim the Power’s End Coal Now action was a timely reminder to local politicians ahead of Welsh Assembly elections. The Welsh government have already imposed a moratorium on coal mining, yet opencast activity continues at Ffos-y-fran and nearby Tower Colliery, while a further planning application at Varteg to the east, is in progress and has also gone to appeal. It’s worth noting that on the day, three Green Party politicians - Natalie Bennett, Alice Hooker-Stroud and Amelie Womack joined the action and later posted a short video on Social Media filmed inside the mine. Despite claiming to be environmentally progressive, both Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats were silent about the action on the day itself.

My family live twelve miles south of the proposed Nant Llesg extension, so coal extraction in South Wales crosses my own personal red line. When you understand the issues at stake, it becomes untenable not to act. For the climate justice movement, #RedLines symbolise an environmental limit for the planet that should not be crossed. They were a key theme to the protests which countered the conclusion of the COP21 agreement and are an integral theme of the global Break Free campaigns.

Climate Camp Cymru’s Kelvin Mason outlines why he’s been fighting opencast mining in the area for nine years: “I’ve been campaigning against Ffos-y-fran and climate change since 2007. After meeting the Residents Against Ffos-y-fran - who are now with the United Valleys Action Group, Welsh activists took a series of direct actions to close the newly opened mine, including an occupation with polar bears and clowns! In 2009 we had Climate Camp Cymru in Merthyr with 500 people. It’s great to be back this year with Reclaim the Power. My motivation today is the same as back in 2007, we have to keep fossil fuels in the ground to have any chance of keeping climate change within limits the Earth might be able to live with.”

Mani Blondel explains his reasons for acting: “The camp and the action were about creating a glimpse into another world that is possible. One where people support each other, based on solidarity, where we work together based on common goals and beliefs, decide things by consensus and let all voices be heard and finally we take action, where we see injustice.”

Local residents are resisting a mine on their doorstep for a number of reasons: aside from the clear climate change concerns, opencast coal mining is a huge blot on the landscape and pollutes air and water and industrializes rural areas, increasing traffic and noise. Lung diseases such as cancer and emphysema are far more prevalent in the Merthyr area due to the existing mine and this would only be exacerbated by continuing down this road. As opencast mining disrupts the surface, the local population suffer the brunt of the consequences, as the dust is blown all around - windows need to remain closed and washing hung out to dry is blackened. Residents at nearby Fochriw, have been warned that construction of a vast new hole in the ground for the proposed extension, will create an “overburden” that will reduce the amount of daylight they get. It’s clear their way of life will be severely disrupted.

The common itself is a an area of upland heath, characterised by grassland, small lakes and peat moss with significant biodiversity - a habitat valued by the community, that is home to: lapwings, nightjars, skylarks, curlews, peregrine falcons, kestrels, bats, adders, grass snakes, common lizards, frogs, toads, newts, numerous mammals and many species of dragonfly.

By 6:30am on Tuesday 3rd May, an advance deployment, who had entered the mine before sunrise, had blocked the main access road, preventing workers from entering the mine. One hour later, two waves of red boiler-suited activists followed them into the mine and shut down the days commercial activity. They were met with no resistance and once onsite the teams set out to make the action look beautiful with banners, umbrellas, red dragons and giant inflatable cubes. They also brought soundsystems and a carnival atmosphere ensued.

A third group headed south to make some noise outside the commercial headquarters, where they were met with a heavy police presence, who defended the entrance. Undeterred protesters erected a red line barrier between themselves and the police and a tripod from which a lone protester staked a claim to the territory. Red umbrellas spelled out End Coal Now and people sang improvised lyrics to pop classics to make their point. Other chants of “We Are Unstoppable Another World Is Possible” and “What Do We Want? Climate Justice - When Do We Want It? Now” have now become favourites of campaigners across the world. The family friendly party continued throughout the morning, with children, the elderly and the less able joining in, as a dragon train snaked its way amongst us. Film crews arrived and we made the lunchtime news on BBC Wales and ITV News. This was encouraging, but Break Free is a global campaign and there was even a film crew from Iran there to cover events.

Later that morning, I joined the drone team, who took up a position overlooking the devastation on a ridge above the main action. From this perspective, the deep scar of the mine had to be seen to believed - below, a striking red line formed and they sent the drone in to capture some spectacular footage. 

As I trudged slowly back to camp, amid spectacular mountain scenery and distant views of the Brecon Beacons to the north, I attempted to reconcile what I saw before me: a former industrial town, that had been dumped upon from a great height; there was the mine itself; it’s proposed eastern extension; an incinerator project by the company Covanta, which UVAG had fought and successfully defeated and there in front of me, a vast landfill site, on reclaimed land, alongside Dowlais community and the northern edge of the mine.

Back at Miller Argent’s mine HQ, having achieved their objective, some of my group, who had decided to blockade the entrance to the mine, but not risk arrest, later decided they would show some solidarity and enter the mine to take a closer look at events. So, we walked back and once again I surveyed the mine from above. Down below, after allowing the protesters to occupy for the mine unopposed for eight hours, police were now attempting to shut the protest down - yet they seemed to lack urgency. Were Miller Argent afraid to court attention by having the protesters arrested for aggravated trespass? Were the police threats of arrests just a bluff?

Activists stalled for time, yet refused to back down, and an impasse ensued, which by all accounts was good natured. Eventually, after successfully disrupting the days second shift, the remaining Reclaim the Power protesters decided their objectives had been met and marched triumphantly back to camp - linked arm in arm in long lines, where they were greeted by huge cheers, some amazing vegan food and warm teas and coffees or cold local beers, depending on preference. No-one was arrested and thus the largest action of its kind in the UK was successfully concluded. The energy in the camp that evening was electric. UVAG felt their campaign had been rejuvenated by the weekends events and the friendships made. There was a real sense of achievement and empowerment - many had undertaken direct action for the first time and among those, were two people I had cycled to the camp with from London, over five days, with the Time to Cycle collective.

Jacinta MacDermot, explains why she felt it was necessary to step up: “I went to Ffos-y-fran because taking action is a great antidote to despair. I cycled there because I needed to do something positive with my body and my voice, and I want to stand up and be counted. We’ve seen throughout history that where there’s a will, there’s a way. We can change things but we have to get on with it and do it ourselves.”

Hillary Vipond, who also helped organise the Time to Cycle ride continues: “We’re achieving critical mass. We’re biking, we’re networking, we’re keeping fossil fuels in the ground by putting our bodies in the way of extracting them. If ever there was a moral imperative to dissent it is now, when all life on the planet stands threatened by climate change. Come join us, we will be here for as long as it takes - until we win”.

Civil disobedience offers activists a chance to write themselves into the climate change story. The break free campaign has already empowered many to seize the moment and confront the corporations who are wrecking our planet. People in the Philippines, Brazil, Nigeria, Australia and New Zealand have already coalesced around a common aim - to push back against the Ecocide caused by fossil fuel extraction, in order to assist a transition to cleaner, greener less destructive forms of energy production. Reclaim the Power will continue to show solidarity with UVAG and push for a ban on coal extraction in Wales and the closure of Aberthaw Power Station, which breaches EU pollution limits and is powered by coal from the mine. The recent news that Aberthaw is to scale back operations is a step in the right direction - for too long Ffos-y-Fran and Aberthaw have been mutually dependent on each other’s existence, now it seems the end is in sight.

Another world is possible. If 300 of us can shut down a coal mine, just imagine what 30,000 could do.

UVAG issued the following statement following Monday evening’s meeting: “It was unanimously agreed, the camp couldn’t have gone any better. So many individual stories that we brought, we could have filled our entire two hour meeting. The United Valleys Action Group are elated and still up on Cloud Nine. Our deepest gratitude to everyone who made this happen. You’re all welcome back anytime. Not UNTIL WE WIN, but AFTER WE WIN also!”

This weekend, thousands of activists will descend on one of Europe’s largest lignite opencast coal mines in Lusatia, Germany for this years Ende Gelände action (Here And No Further). Other actions are planned for the USA, Canada, Ecuador, Turkey and South Africa over the second week.

Together we can Break Free from fossil fuels and Turn The Tide towards a better future!

The Guardian’s report -

Reclaim the Power’s wrap of the action, with plenty of beautiful photos -

These videos show excellent coverage from on from the ground cameras and the drone.

Reel News video which explores the local issues in some detail -

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