On the 3rd of May I was one of the 300 people who shut down the UK’s largest coal mine; a place called Ffos-y-fran in South Wales. Going on any action can cause its share of trepidations—even if you don’t identify with the ‘disabled’ tag; but the decision to take action against coal, for the local community, and ultimately for the future was actually a joy to take.
Facilitated with the Reclaim the Power network, who had set-up camp on the commons above Merthyr Tydfil, we then proceeded to have five days of action-planning, skilling-up, networking and ultimately connecting with others. I was amazed by the truly multinational scope of the camp, with people from all over Europe, America, India and beyond. The local resistance organisation UVAG (United Valleys Action Group) provided us with support and a vital personal perspective on their ten-year long struggle against the opencast mine.
Walking over the narrow hillpath and down into the mine and seeing the small communities nestled cheek-by-jowl nearby it saddened me how these people were being treated with such callous disregard; unfortunately, a familiar feeling for any who experience long-term health conditions.
A tiny bit of history then: The Ffos-y-Fran ‘Land Reclamation Scheme’ is the UK’s largest coal mine, and proposed to become much bigger if the developing company Miller Argent get their way. Locally and nationally controversial, the Welsh Assembly has already called for a moratorium on opencast coal mining in 2015, but Miller Argent ignored them. They proposed to build another huge mine at the adjacent site of Nant Llesg, and despite being rejected by the County Council, then raised the threat of legal actions should they be refused!
The actions of the day were many; from those of us who could making our way, column-style, down into the mine itself (following a gigantic red-dragon from Wales!), with other affinity groups already locking on to machinery, or blockading the front gates. Despite any reservations we might have had; there was a carnival atmosphere that day, as the space was transformed from a dull and poisonous wound, to the feeling of a spontaneous summer party.
I am aware of how lucky I am of being able to be there. My disability is (mostly?) an invisible one—a mental health condition that has curtailed my activism over the years, during the different seasons of mood that I can go through. Knowing that action-camp life can sometimes be strenuous (especially the come-down after the action) I took the opportunity of going to the Well-Being Tent run by the camp’s Tranquillity Team. This was a quiet, supportive place where people could catch a few hours’ sleep, a cup of tea, or have just simple and supportive conversations should they need it. Unlike the clinical care that I have received in the past, this space felt entirely different: you didn’t have to be mad to go there, just as you didn’t have to be ‘ill’. No judgements were passed you were allowed to sit and read, or zone-out, talk, or whatever you needed to. This actually felt very supportive and self-led care rather than the mainstream ‘top-down’ approach to care. I also took time to speak with GBC (Green and Black Cross, a legal advisory group for activists) about the possibility of being arrested and what to expect as a disabled person, the pros and cons of carrying medicine on me etc — more on that in another action-report.
Sometimes there can be a sense of wariness over disability and activism, as if one might preclude the other. From what I saw at the Reclaim the Power camp (I saw at least one wheelchair user there as well) this view is entirely outdated. Disability rights and access to safer spaces is a vital part of the climate struggle, just as the climate struggle is a key part of disability rights here and abroad. The right to live visibly and with dignity is the right to a safer space for all of us: the right to live on a world which is not being destroyed under our feet and over our heads! Fuel Poverty Action (a campaigning group also represented at the camp) state on their website that “as well as polluting our environment, fossil fuels are also increasing in cost.” Unconventional and extreme fossil fuels such as opencast mining, deep-sea drilling and fracking are all driving up the costs of heating our homes, as well as endangering our planet. Academics from the Universities of Leicester and York found back in 2015 that disabled people in the UK [and the world] bear a much higher burden of fuel poverty, and a much higher risk of climate change due to substandard housing, inefficient insulation, and institutionalized economic poverty.
I’m coming to the view that direct action is actually good for the heart, just as acts of civil disobedience are good for civil society (where would we be without the Suffragette movement, without the chartists, the bus-boycotter’s and the peace campaigners?). Despite how my Impairment might define me in some ways, they did not impede me taking action to defend our planet—and being a part of a community taking action was joyous.