Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Coalfields of North Spain

It’s going to be very difficult to condense my 3 weeks in Spain into a readable blog entry, but I’m going to try and hope that I do this period of time some justice.

I started with a harrowing two-day journey from Edinburgh, Scotland to the plane that would take me from London to Madrid, Spain, followed by the bewildering experience of navigating the Spanish capitol’s subway system to arrive at my translator/travel partner Maggie’s apartment in the old working-class part of town. Some friends in Whitesburg, KY had put me in touch with Maggie a few months ago when I had asked if they knew of anyone who could help me with a chunk of time in Spain. Maggie is from the US originally but has lived in Madrid for the past 10 years. She works as a professional Spanish to English translator to pay the bills, but spends most of her time getting involved with interesting projects (like this one which definitely deserves support). Luckily she found my Watson Fellowship project to be something worthy of donating a couple of weeks to. I somehow found my way through the narrow, cobblestoned, steep, winding old city streets to the door of her flat, and soon we were having a traditional Spanish lunch in an old hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Before long we were back on the subway to travel to our first interview of the trip with a woman that was deeply rooted in the Spanish coalfields.

Anna, the mother of a friend of Maggie’s, was from a long line of coal miners from the region of Asturias. She was very interested in talking to us when she heard that someone from America wanted to learn about coal mining history in Spain, but nothing could have prepared me for the intensity of the experience I was about to have. Maggie and I emerged from the subway station to meet Anna and her mentally handicapped daughter (who I didn’t know was coming), and immediately Anna launched into a rapid string of conversation with Maggie. First I should mention a few things: one, I was running on barely any sleep from having a crazy schedule of buses and flights over the past couple of days. Two, this was the first time I had been in a non-English speaking country and I was still adjusting to the fact that barely anyone spoke my language. Three, Spanish culture is very different from American or for that matter British; people love to talk a lot, they speak very fast, and they like to be close to you, look deep into your eyes, and touch you as they talk to you. All told it was a very surreal and bewildering experience that I found myself in the midst of.

I knew very little about Spanish history or Spanish mining before coming here, but I began to learn very quickly. The coal miners of this country have a long and very strong tradition of labor organizing and struggle, much like miners in the US and the UK. However, Spain had a very brutal civil war from the years 1936-1939 that ended with 36 years of a fascist dictatorship. The miners had been some of the most radical anti-fascist activists and fighters before and during the war, which meant that they were prime targets for capture, torture, forced labor, and execution. Prior to the war Spain had been seen as one of the most progressive countries in the world for union activities and workers’ rights; the mines were able to secure an 8 hour work day and good pay in 1919. During the 36 years of the Franco dictatorship it was illegal to unionize and they lost all of their previous labor rights victories, but many clandestine strikes and actions took place anyway. It wasn’t until the regime was almost over in 1972 that any new labor agreements were signed between workers and the industry, and this was only after 2 years of intensive demonstrations and strikes in 1969-1970. Franco died in 1975 and for the first time in 36 years a democratic government was possible. Once again unions were able to flourish, and Spain is possibly one of the most pro-union places in the world.

Anna didn’t actually tell me all of that, but I thought that I should at least set the background for the journey I was about to set out on. She did tell me loads about guerrilla fighters in the mountains, miners that went missing to never be seen again, how many in her family had been miners, and lots and lots of stories. Unfortunately I couldn’t understand a word of it as she stared at me intently and pointed to various family pictures and old magazine articles, and she was so wrapped up in telling the stories that she seldom gave Maggie a chance to translate any of it. I still felt like I was having a connection with her, but it was strange to have it in such an abstract way. By the end I was completely mentally exhausted.

Before going further I feel like I should explain a bit about the goal of my time in Spain and indeed for this trip in general. I originally wrote my Watson proposal with the thought that I would mainly try to spend time gaining experience with specific types of projects that I think could be part of a solution for a more sustainable Appalachia, such as community-scale biomass energy, value-added organic agriculture, and land remediation. Since I’ve started, I have been much more drawn to finding places that mirror Appalachia in other parts of the world in order to broaden my perspective on the issues that are currently facing us back home. Ideally I will find innovative solutions within some of these “parallel Appalachias,” but I have to realize that more often than not I will have to go to other areas to find the solutions. The time in Spain ended up being much more about having a parallel experience than about finding solutions, though I certainly did try for the latter.

Maggie and I left the next day to drive 4 hours north of Madrid into the coalfield mountains of north Leon. It was very dramatic to see the landscape change from the mostly flat, arid plains and mesas of middle Spain into the looming rocky mountains. I remember coming down the main mountain pass at dusk and thinking that it looked quite a bit like coming down Pine Mountain in Letcher County, KY. We initially stayed at a place that we had been told was something of an organic agriculture training institute, but this ended up not being the case so much. From there we drove on up through the mountains of Asturias to the city of Gijon, where Maggie had a few contacts we hoped could prove useful. They were quite helpful, and soon we had a general plan of where to go and when.

Before getting down into the coal mining mountains of Asturias (a region that borders Leon and which is in north-central Spain), we spent a few days in Gijon and also in Ovieda, the capitol of the region. After a mildly interesting meeting in Ovieda we wandered up the street into a situation that was a bit unexpected. In front of the main parliament building in the center of town, about 200 people were gathered holding banners and looking rather stern. With some guesswork and help from Maggie, I realized that this was a pro-coal mining rally with Spanish banners saying things like “Bring a Carbon Capture Plant to Asturias” and “For the Future of Coal, Sign the Decree!” A union leader gave a speech out of a bullhorn, followed by a few rounds of deafening noise makers.

The people we had been meeting with before the rally then took us on a brief tour of the historical parts of the city that ended at a very old-school Spanish restaurant. Apparently you can only get a real meal in Spain between 1:30pm to 3:30pm and luckily we were in that window. This “lunch” is called a “menu,” and it’s meant to be a massive meal that you center your entire day around. Most people eat a little toast and have some coffee in the morning, stuff down a huge “menu” in the middle of the day, take a nap or drink strong coffee afterward, and then have a small “dinner” around 9-10pm with some drinks. This whole arrangement was another shock to my system, but the food (lots of oil and pork!) was quite satisfying.

The lunch conversation was largely focused on the event we had just witnessed and the background behind it. Apparently Spanish coal mining is no longer economically competitive with cheaper imports from Poland, Russia, and India. In order to keep the mines alive and miners employed, the industry has to be heavily subsidized by the government in the form of decrees that require power plants to burn a certain amount of Spanish coal. Since Spain is part of the European Union (EU), they are bound by agreements and decrees that come out of Brussels in Belgium that affect all of the countries in the EU. The EU generally doesn’t like policies that allow countries to focus on their domestic economies in favor of international trade, and it’s also trying to phase out any policies that promote the use of coal. In about a week and a half, the EU would decide whether to allow Spain to continue to subsidize the use of domestically-mined coal until 2014 or whether to cut it off immediately. Lots of pro-coal rallies and hunger strikes were therefore planned for the lead-up to the Brussels decision day of September 29th.

One other twist that I found interesting was the split between state-owned coal mines and privately owned (for-profit) coal mines in Spain. Apparently about 30% of the total mines are state mines (known as HUNOSA), and the rest are owned almost entirely by one guy named Victorino Alonso. He is something of a mafia-esque character with close ties to top politicians, and he is known for using unsavory tactics to get what he wants. We were told that he has refused to pay his workers for the past couple of months, saying that he will go bankrupt if the EU doesn’t sign this decree and that the workers need to stage massive demonstrations to pressure them into signing it.

We drove from Ovieda back to Gijon for an Asturian renewable energy conference that someone had emailed Maggie about. It was taking place at a big fair and conference center which happened to be hosting a big genetically-modified cattle show at the same time; it was kind of like the Kentucky State Fair but much smaller and weirder. The conference wasn’t too impressive to be honest. The presentations were very boring, almost nothing was about actual projects or real plans to do anything, and there were no really innovative ideas proposed. We spoke to a couple of the presenters afterward about my project to try to find leads for worthwhile places and projects to check out, but while people were quite nice they didn’t have any concrete suggestions to offer for things happening in the region to transition to a more sustainable economic and resource base.

After a nice bit of time checking out the Asturian coast line, we found a route to take us down into the coal mining valleys of the mountains to the south. Again the change in landscape was quite striking. From the lush rolling hills next to the sea, we were soon driving into the Spanish Eastern Kentucky. Before long the hills were much steeper and heavily wooded, the roads windier, and the homes a bit more run down but with lots of character. When we finally saw our first coal tipple, I would have felt like I was back home if not for the Spanish barrel tiles on the roofs of the houses. Then it was one tipple after another, sometimes with the familiar conveyor belt structure spanning across the road. Eventually we made it to our destination for the evening, the home of Luisa.

Luisa is the mother of one of Maggie’s good friends, and she is a 78 year old widow of an Asturian coal miner and comes from one of those families where pretty much everyone was involved in mining. She was one of the most pleasant people I’ve ever met and was delighted to have a young man in the house that she could cook enormous meals for. She told me lots of very interesting stories that I couldn’t understand, and sometimes Maggie would be around to translate but other times we would have fascinating conversations that were mysteries to us both. Sometimes she would ask me a question, and then repeat it louder and louder with the hopes that I would eventually understand, but to no avail. Even if I had known basic Spanish it probably wouldn’t have helped since Asturias has its own very distinct dialect that is mostly Spanish but also has lots of unique words and sentence structures. Maggie described it as somewhat “Yoda-like” (Ran to the store the boy did; Going where are you?).

The next few days were spent exploring the area and going to some meetings that ended up being quite productive. We spent an hour of time with the historian for the main mining union (CCOO) and it wasn’t nearly enough; I could barely keep up with the rapid fire onslaught of information. Benjamin was very friendly, surprisingly young and hipster-ish, from a long line of miners, and wanted to give us tons of books (all in Spanish of course). My brief notes are a page and a half long which I can send to anyone who’s interested, but I’ll just bring up some of the highlights here. Spanish union history is filled with anarchists, communists, and more centrist groups that all managed to work together under some very harsh conditions as described earlier. Black lung has been pretty much eliminated in Spain because underground workers only have 7 hour shifts and they’re strongly encouraged to wear breathing protection. For every year that a miner works, they earn 1 ½ years of retirement, so that lots of people retire when they’re about 45. Most coal in Asturias is at a very steep slant because of the way the mountains were formed. A lot of the mining is still fairly manual with a pneumatic hammer type of thing, but bigger mines have longwall sections now. HUNOSA doesn’t do any surface mining because of the damage to the environment, but Victorino does. He also gets away with using non-union labor by hiring short term “construction contractors” for all of the heavy machinery instead of actual miners. Most of this activity is in north Leon.

We also met with a member of the Green Party in the Asturian parliament who likewise had huge amounts of information to relay. Enrique had lots of interesting perspectives on the big-picture situation of coal in Spain and transitioning the coalfield regions to newer ideas, but it seemed as though many of his good ideas and well-written plans were being more or less ignored. Apparently the electric companies in Spain would like to switch from coal to natural gas since they have constructed some expensive new gas-fired power plants that are barely being used. However, Spain has no domestic natural gas and instead imports it from unstable places like Colombia and Algeria through the mega-company Repsol. There are plenty of issues around poorly reclaimed surface mining and illegally mining land without permission by Victorino’s company. The Greens have put forth plans to parliament to develop a distributed renewable energy economy in the region that would focus on job retraining for former miners. The plans have been approved, but no action taken because of the influence of the huge power companies that want to retain control of power sources. There is quite a bit of renewable energy in Spain but very little in the coalfield areas. Even where renewables exist they are mostly huge projects that are controlled by the same huge companies that own the coal-fired power plants. Everyone knows there’s a pressing need to transition the economy and energy base of the region, but lack of will is preventing anything from really happening.

Before leaving Asturias to go to nearby Leon, Maggie and I made a trip over to a working HUNOSA mine to get a tour and even to go underground. Unfortunately when we arrived a belt had just caught fire, so we only got a tour of the outside area from a young engineering intern. He could actually speak a little English, so for once I was conversing a little with someone other than Maggie. We did get to meet some Spanish miners who were just coming off shift, and to my surprise there were a couple of female miners among the crew. Maggie had some good conversations with a few of them, then we got to go up into the big pithead pulley gear towers (almost all underground coal mining in Europe is deep shaft mining, so they have to use these massive cable and pulley systems) and finally into the control room where the guys seemed quite happy to have a girl to talk to for once. One fellow thought we should stick around for the protests they were going to have in the next couple of days; he was really looking forward to setting things on fire in the streets.

The drive to Leon was another exercise in dramatic landscape changes. The transition from the green, medium-height hills of Asturias to the tall and almost alien-looking arid mountains was quite intense and then it was back to green forested mountains but this time they were much taller. I had fallen asleep in the car and woke back up in the town of Villablino. Maggie was talking on the phone with a member of the Green Party who we thought we would meet with in this town, but apparently he was in exile now after he had been physically threatened on more than one occasion for trying to stop an illegal surface mine on a nearby mountain. As I looked around I could have sworn we were in West Virginia, and I wondered if this area would be as polarized and conservative as some people had warned.

We stayed in nearby Ponferrada that night but ended up back in Villablino the next morning as we followed our couchsurfing host German up to his job as a forest fire lookout guy on a mountain tower above the little mining town. After taking in the massive view, we decided to spend a day getting out into the mountains and drove over to a forest reserve that was supposed to have some of Spain’s last bears. No bears to be found, but it was nice to just get out and be in the nature of the area. I think we both needed to air out a little bit too; it was actually a bit stressful for both of us to be trying to more or less plan this trip by the seat of the pants while also dealing with another person. We also got to stop at a pub in a sleepy little town where the bar was held up by old coal wagons and talked to the owner’s son about the lack of opportunities in the area and how he pretty much has to move to Gijon to be able to have a career even though he’d prefer to stay in his home village.

After the hike we went back to Villablino with the intention of talking to local people about the situation around the future of coal mining in the area, but first we decided to take a detour to a nearby mountain that had been strip mined for coal and then abandoned. It was very surreal to drive up the steep windy mountain roads to the yard of abandoned heavy equipment and then to hike on up to the higher parts that had been mined; again it was almost a little too familiar. To be honest this didn’t seem anywhere near as serious as Appalachian surface mining. The mountain was more or less resculpted to the original contour and it wasn’t as expansive as the strip mines I grew up around, but it was still striking to see something so similar halfway across the world.

After driving back into town and finding a little bar that looked pretty “working class,” we picked out a couple of guys for Maggie to go talk to. The first was a very recently retired miner, which surprised me because he didn’t look any older than 40. He had a very interesting perspective on things, not at all the hard-line pro-coal agenda some people had said we would encounter here. He said that everyone has known for a long time that coal mining has a very limited future here, and that the government has done a piss-poor job of finding real alternatives for the economy of the region. He thought that most people would definitely support renewable energy jobs since they’re desperate for pretty much anything, and that most folks are definitely in favor of protecting the local mountains. Afterward she talked to a much older retired miner, and to my recollection he more or less echoed some of the same sentiments.

The next day was set to be a day of pro-coal rallies in medium-sized cities across North Spain in anticipation of the decision for whether or not to sign the EU decree to extend Spanish coal subsidies for another 4 years. Ponferrada was one of those cities, so we decided to spend the whole day there talking to people before the rally and then being in the middle of it. Maggie was very good at having very direct, frank, and revealing conversations with miners and their families, and we learned that they are very aware of the many facets of their situation and quite capable of accurate analysis. It was strange to hear them acknowledging that Victorino Alonso is basically manipulating them into staging these demonstrations to pressure the EU into signing the decree that will keep their jobs viable but also that they are protesting and organizing against his backhanded tactics. They also acknowledged that coal is a dirty fuel and that we need to be moving to renewables, but as long as Spain is going to continue to burn some amount of coal then it should be Spanish coal and not shipped in from thousands of miles away.

These miners had walked for dozens of miles from their home villages, and they would be walking dozens more to the capital town of Leon. We walked a mile or so with them, and it was a strange feeling to be in solidarity with these people that reminded me so much of people back home but also knowing that their livelihoods would only be around for another 4 years at the most. In a way it was gratifying to hear so many of them say that they wanted alternatives for their communities since I am proposing the same for Appalachia, but it was disheartening to see that so little had actually been done in this direction when they are so seriously needing it.

We headed back to Madrid the next day, bidding the coalfields of Spain goodbye. I spent a few days exploring the city and eating weird food from different countries before spending way too much money on bus tickets to Zaragoza and then to Huesca. I wanted to briefly check out a renewable hydrogen energy project in the brown coal area of Aragon before moving on to Germany.

The Hydrogen Foundation had been suggested to me by Enrique in Ovieda as one of the only innovative projects in a somewhat coal-related area that he was aware of. This group of young engineers is working on ways to develop innovative approaches to hydrogen technology that use 100% renewables as the energy source. The hydrogen would be used not only for vehicles in the future, but they are also looking at using it for large scale stationary power storage so that intermittent power sources (like solar and wind) can be used to charge a hydrogen fuel cell bank and then discharged when the power is needed. This could also be used to send hydrogen through a pipeline to remote villages in the Pyrenees mountains where small local generators would create power where it’s needed. These are ideas that I had not considered before, and I wonder how they could potentially be relevant to a decentralized renewable energy future in Appalachia. The other aspect I really appreciated was the fact that everyone on staff there was between 25 and 35 years old and were all from the Aragon province. If I can manage to put projects together when I return to the US, I would definitely like to follow this model.

My next to last day in Spain was spent wandering around in the midst of a mind-numbingly massive amount of people in the streets of Madrid. This was the General Strike, a once-in-a-decade phenomenon where everyone in every kind of job across the country is supposed to go on strike for the entire day. This time was in protest of the most recent wave of EU labor policies that have made unions weaker and opened up the way for more cheap imports, at least from what I could tell. I don’t think there’s too much point in going into tons of detail for this day, but I will say that it was strange to be in the midst of a humongous protest in a foreign country that I felt very little connection to when people that I know very well were in the midst of this protest back home in the good old USA. I ended up feeling very alone in a sea of thousands of people.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to adequately sum up the little bit of Spain that I experienced. The people were consistently very friendly, even if I couldn’t speak their language at all. Everyone was very forthcoming and frank, and seemed to be quite happy that someone from so far away was genuinely interested in their situation. I felt like the parts of Asturias and Leon that I spent time in mirrored Appalachia very closely in several ways. There wasn’t a great amount of material wealth, and people who had lived hard lives through very tough working conditions were very proud of their culture that had grown up around this shared past. At the same time, that reality was rapidly changing and nothing concrete was coming in to take its place. It seems that this is a common theme for mining areas. The other theme so far has been that everyone wants to see some type of alternative jobs appear, but even in countries and regions that have progressive ideas (such as renewable energy and organic agriculture) those ideas seldom make it to the places that need it most, such as the coalfields. I hope that these lessons can be transferred back home to Central Appalachia so that we can find ways to make this transition happen for us rather than to us.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Nathan!!. I'm glad you like my country!!. It's fun read about how you see Spain and Spanish people. Do we talk so fast? and so much? hehehe...