Yesterday the installation of dynamos and turbines,
The construction of railways in the colonial desert;
Yesterday the classic lecture
On the origin of Mankind. But to-day the struggle.
– WH Auden, ‘Spain’ (1937)
The start of the track was marked with the words ‘BUEN CAMINO’, written on the ground with yellow spray paint and an arrow pointing ahead.
They say the Camino de Santiago, a series of pilgrims’ routes in Northern Spain, is for those seeking spiritual guidance, or, for the atheists, meditative solitude. Suffice to say that in mid-2018, after two years of Trump, consecutive Coalition governments at home and some personal tumult, the idea of walking alone for five days was immensely appealing. Instead of the ‘Basque’ or ‘French’ sections of the Camino, which attract thousands of people seeking ambulant enlightenment every summer, I’d decided to take a little-known route called Camino de San Salvador, which, unlike all the other routes that go west towards Santiago de Compostela, goes north from León to Oviedo, over the Cantabrian Mountains and through the mining heartland of Spain.
I had none of the hiking gear that I’d seen hanging off my fellow pilgrims at the albergue, or church hostel, in León the night before. I’d packed a jumper, a raincoat, a bilingual book of short stories, six pairs of undies, lunch and a toothbrush into a small backpack. To anyone that commented on my meagre belongings, I replied that I had come to Spain completely unprepared for the trek. But I also liked to think my approach was closer to that of the frugal monks whose feet had worn down the Camino over the centuries.
After a few kilometres of picturesque vineyards, farms and villages, the track led onto a long section of the highway, where two smokestacks from a coal-fired power station loomed ahead of me. I ate my lunch on the track next to a wire fence that surrounded the power station. There were no people on the site, only huge machines crouched over the concrete grounds.
On the road into La Robla, where the first day’s journey would end, the walls were scrawled with graffiti: la mina no se cierra, ‘the mine will not be closed’; que los ricos la paguen la deuda, ‘let the rich pay the debt’. La Robla was surrounded by dry, bald hills, and made up of workers’ cottages and 1970s apartment blocks. I ordered a caña at the first bar that opened after siesta hours and asked the owner about the graffiti. He explained that the majority of the mines had, in fact, been closed, and that the population of La Robla had almost halved in the last three years.
The graffiti was from 2012, when this entire region exploded in strikes and protests. In December 2011, conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy announced the government would cut €190 million in subsidies to the coalmining industry, leading to the loss of around 8000 jobs in mining and 30,000 other jobs indirectly. Subsidies to retrain mining workers to move into the renewable-energy sector would also be cut.
With unemployment in Spain sitting at around 24 per cent, the miners knew that there would not be work for them elsewhere. For the communities that had depended on mining for two centuries, this was an existential struggle. In response to Rajoy’s announcement, around 8000 miners in the provinces of León and Asturias went out on indefinite strike in May 2012. Within weeks, this escalated to a general strike throughout Asturias. When the Guardia Civil were sent in to crush the protests, the miners, using their knowledge of the mountain terrain, erected barricades and deployed homemade rocket launchers to fend them off. They blocked train lines and roads, and locked themselves to mineshafts.
In June, 200 miners from Asturias, León and Aragon marched 430 kilometres from Oviedo to Madrid to build support for their struggle and deliver their demands to the government. People in towns along the route provided food, medical supplies and beds. Twenty days later, they were greeted by 150,000 supporters in Puerta del Sol, the square at the centre of Madrid that had been occupied for months by the activists of the anti-austerity Indignados movement. The night-time protest was lit by the torches on the miners’ hard hats.
Despite a virtual media blackout, the Spanish miners had become a symbol of resistance for people across Europe outraged by the constant attacks on their living conditions following the Global Financial Crisis. But Rajoy and the EU were all too aware of this. Not unlike Margaret Thatcher in 1985, Rajoy was determined to make an example of the miners and cauterise what he knew could easily spread. The day after the miners arrived, he spent the morning announcing a further €55 billion worth of austerity measures, including cuts to unemployment benefits and the privatisation of ports, airports and railways. As he read out his plans in parliament, an MP from Rajoy’s party, Andrea Fabra, infamously shouted that unemployed people could ‘go fuck themselves’.
The strike, having failed to spread to other parts of the economy, was called off in August. In January this year, the closure of the power station outside La Robla was announced.
A couple of months before walking the Camino, I went on a camping trip to the Barrington foothills, in New South Wales’ Hunter Valley, for a friend’s birthday. Over two 37-degree days, we lazed around a swimming hole surrounded by green rainforest. But this spot was like an island of fecundity. In 2017, the Hunter had received the lowest level of rainfall on record. The usually verdant hills that I’d visited as a teenager were dry and brown, and the cattle on surrounding farms were looking wan and feeding on imported hay. Local papers described it as the worst drought in living history, comparing it to the ‘dust bowl’ of the 1960s.
Last year was the third-hottest year on record after 2016 and 2017 – a year of climatic extremes all over the world. One source of these extremes lies deep in the valleys and mountains of the Hunter Region, as it does in those of Asturias. Walking through the north of Spain, I was reminded of the Hunter, which surrounds my home town of Newcastle. The region contains a similar contrast of astounding natural beauty alongside vast swathes of exposed and disturbed earth, and its coalmining towns sit in the crosshairs of climate change and neoliberalism – battered by the elements, and up against some of the most powerful political forces in their respective countries.
Hunter mines fuelled the expansion of Australian capitalism throughout the twentieth century. Soon after the first dig for coal near Nobbys Beach in 1801, on Awabakal land, more was discovered nearby, and what is now suburban Newcastle was a series of coalmines for decades. Beneath the city, the earth is still riddled with tunnels that make it impossible to build structures above three stories in most parts. The industry spread as far inland as Merriwa, and along the border of what is now Wollemi National Park.
The mines of the Hunter also sit cheek by jowl with some of the oldest wineries in the country, which emerged in the nineteenth century to service the trade routes leading to Sydney. But the two industries lead an increasingly uneasy coexistence: the open-cut mines with trucks as big as houses rolling along their vast grey inclines and the rolling purple hills of the vineyards are within two minutes’ drive of each other. As new extraction methods and decreasing concentrations of ore mean that greater amounts of land are needed to turn a profit, the mines have encroached further into grapevine country. Entire towns have disappeared under mines, or been abandoned after expansions made them unliveable.
Two centuries of mining have left deep scars in the earth. Aerial photos show the gargantuan concentric circles of open-cut coalmines, which are ominously called ‘final voids’. Currently, when mines cease production, their owners are not required to fill in these voids. There is a creek outside the coalfields town of Neath that sometimes glows red, as sulphuric acid, iron and aluminium leach out of abandoned coal workings underground. No fish are able to survive in this poisonous mix.
In spring, the immense, dry crags of northern León, their peaks still capped in snow, are surrounded by a sea of yellow and purple wildflowers. The flowers only last for about a month before they wither in the heat of summer. The occasional iron cross, hermit’s cabin or shepherd’s hook thrust into a stone along the Camino serve as reminders of how many pilgrims have walked through this place over the centuries and been humbled by either God or nature. On the third day of the walk, the hard, dry mountains give way to the impossibly green hills and valleys of Asturias. The trail snakes through damp forests and farms, where the soil is that deep, rich brown you find in places where rain is a constant feature of the landscape.
While Spain is the driest country in Europe, Asturias is the wettest part of the country. The Cantabrian Mountains that run through the region separate the North from the dry deserts and plains that make up most of the Iberian Peninsula. According to a medieval legend, the Milky Way, which flows across the sky in the same direction as the mountain range, was formed by dust raised by the feet of travelling pilgrims. The pre-Christian antecedent to the Camino was the old Callis Ianus, named after the pagan god Janus. The god of beginnings and transitions, and also of passages, endings and time, Janus is often depicted as having two faces, which allows him to look simultaneously into the future and the past, holding the key that opens the gates to the unseen world.
Callis Ianus later became a Roman trade route, which ended at Fines Terre – the ‘End of the Earth’ – on the Galician coast. Like Hunter Valley wineries, Spain’s wine industry sprung up along this route to ease the passage of travellers. Around 1500 CE, it became the Catholic pilgrimage it is known for today. But the pilgrimage was all but forgotten by the early 1900s, and remained so until the 1950s, when it was revived by fascist dictator Francisco Franco, whose regime was closely tied to the Church.
Franco himself had a long, bloody history in this region. In 1934, two years before he led the Spanish colonial army in a coup against the Second Republic of Spain, Franco was sent to quash an insurrection led by miners in Asturias. With other workers, the miners had taken over the entire region and declared it a socialist republic. In what was often called the Asturian Commune, the workers organised militias, transport, the distribution of food and their own judicial system. They used makeshift weapons and barricades to fend off Franco’s troops. But with things moving at a slower pace in the rest of the country, the Commune was isolated and, after two weeks of battle, it was defeated.
Franco wreaked a terrible revenge on the rebellion, especially in the pit villages. Over 2000 workers were murdered, many more imprisoned and tortured. Others fled into the Asturian mountains, where guerrilla warfare raged until the 1950s. But after years of repression, a new generation of Asturian miners posed the first major challenge to Franco’s dictatorship in 1962. Asturias had become the industrial powerhouse of Spain, with around 52,000 people in the state employed in mining alone. A two-month strike, with support across the country, forced the regime to concede to their demands for higher wages, reduced hours and improved conditions.
But between 1990 and 2015, coal extraction in Spain dropped by 76 per cent. By the time of the 2012 strike, national coal provided only 3 per cent of the country’s electricity. The miners this time around were not in a position to grind the country to a halt without outside help. With the recent closure of yet more heavy industry in the north, particularly in metallurgy, the future of Asturias hangs in the balance.
The coal industry works hard to keep the towns of the Hunter on side; they fund local sports teams, events (like the ‘Voice for Mining Family Day’ football match in Newcastle) and infrastructure, tying the collective identity and reliance of Hunter towns more tightly to coal. As public services and council spending in the regions have been gutted, this dependence has intensified. A friend who grew up near Denman tells me that when, as a teenager, he confronted the local mayor about the closure of a local skate park, the mayor told him the only way to get a new one was to petition the mines to build it.
The Valley’s fortunes are closely tied to the increasingly volatile boom-bust cycles of the mining industry. A drop in global coal prices between 2013 and 2015 saw a 15 per cent decline in employment in the Hunter, while there was an increase in employment in the rest of the state. Sometimes, the consequences are immediate; four days before last Christmas, 388 workers at Mount Pleasant coalmine were sacked without warning. But shifting to another local industry is no simple matter. Aside from the lack of jobs, the conditions fought for in mining over the years means there is a yawning gap with other, largely non-unionised industries; the average annual salary of a miner is $108,000, compared to $55,000 for an assistant winemaker.
None of these conditions have been handed to miners on a platter. Miners’ strategic place in the Australian economy, and their historic militancy, means they have been able to wrest a larger section of the profits than that held by workers in other industries. But this strategic importance is a double-edged sword. When miners have fought back, governments and mining companies have often responded brutally. In 1929, at the beginning of the Great Depression, 4000 miners marched on the Rothbury coalmine to protest the entry of scab labour onto the site after a months-long strike against wage cuts and increased working hours. Police opened fire on the crowd, killing one miner and seriously injuring others. And during the 1949 coal strike, Labor prime minister Ben Chifley sent in troops to work the South Maitland mines – the first time in Australia’s history that the military was used to break up a strike.
But despite this radical history and the relatively high union density in the Hunter coalfields, there has been little in the way of a fight for the jobs that have been haemorrhaged in the industry. Thousands more jobs are predicted to be lost over the next decade.
The Hunter has been a safe Labor seat since 1910. But in May, Joel Fitzgibbon, in the seat for twenty-three years, received a 9.7 per cent swing against him. Many of Fitzgibbon’s primary votes went to One Nation’s Stuart Bonds, a cattle farmer, mining mechanic and union member, who got 21 per cent of the vote – the party’s highest vote in the country. One Nation, who tempered their virulent Islamophobia and anti-immigrant racism for the election, ran an explicitly pro-coal campaign, capitalising on Labor’s equivocation over Adani and its lack of any guarantee of jobs for coal industry workers in the shift to renewables. Bonds’ argument that the decommissioned Liddell Power Station be replaced by at least one new coal-fired station obviously struck a chord with many people wondering where their next job would be.
Many of the villages along the Camino, some of which are centuries old, are now virtually empty, with only a handful of elderly residents still sitting in the town squares or tending to their gardens. Rows of stone and terracotta houses sit boarded up or crumbling. The mechanisation of labour in agriculture and pit closures across the north have seen entire towns abandoned. It is now possible to buy a whole village for around AU$250,000. Apart from the port city of Gijón, where there is a housing-availability crisis, the decline of heavy industry across Asturias has meant that people, especially young people, are leaving the region in droves.
The anarchy of the market is writ large in the housing sector throughout Spain. In the years before the GFC, the country experienced a housing-construction boom fuelled by the same debt-ridden loans that had thrown the country into crisis. There are now around 8.4 million empty houses in the country, and the coast is dotted with ghost towns made up of apartment blocks that have never been lived in. Meanwhile, around 3 million people in Spain are sleeping rough.
Just as the Rothbury miners were made to pay the price of the crisis in 1929, so workers in Spain have been made to pay since 2009. Far from arising from environmental concerns, as some opportunistic conservatives argued – Spain continues to import cheaper coal from other countries – the cuts brought down on the Asturian miners were part of the austerity package imposed by the EU to diminish the country’s post-GFC debt. While Spanish banks have been bailed out with public money, the public sector has been gutted and wages suppressed. There has been mass resistance to austerity in Spain, the most famous being the Indignados movement. But the various anti-austerity mareas, or ‘tides’, which filled the streets of Madrid when I lived there in 2013, had subsided by last year.
One indication that the optimism of that time had begun to give way to pessimism was the regrouping of the far right. After years of austerity, anti-immigrant policies and a violent crackdown on the Catalan independence movement, the right-wing forces that had been relatively latent since Franco’s death in 1975 were gaining confidence. Spain had been unusual in post-GFC Europe in that no significant far-right force had emerged. A Catalan socialist, Pau, had said to me, prophetically, in June last year, ‘Va a venir’ – ‘It will come. You’ll see.’ By November, a new fascist party, VOX, had become a serious force in Spanish politics, winning 10 per cent of the vote in a snap general election in April.
In 2010, environmental activists descended on Muswellbrook for the then-annual ‘Climate Camp’. When a couple of curious locals showed up, they were greeted with suspicion by many of the activists – these were men who burned the guts of the earth for a crust every day.
During the camp, an argument had raged among a handful of activists. One group insisted that concerns around employment and the future of mining towns were legitimate – that the campaign should not simply demand closures, but make positive demands for public investment in renewable energy and retraining for local workers. Another, larger group argued that the priority of the campaign was to close existing coal operations. The latter group won out, and the camp culminated in a march through the town that demanded the closure of all coalmines and coal-fired power stations around Australia, including the nearby Bayswater Power Station, which at the time employed 500 people.
One of the women who had argued the minority case at the camp tells me that, when she and a friend left the protest early and walked back through town, some locals who were sitting on the balcony of the pub threw salted peanuts down at them as they walked past, yelling, ‘Get out of our town.’ ‘I couldn’t help but think, “fair enough”,’ she told me.
The severity with which miners have been dealt in places like the Hunter and Asturias corresponds to the economic position they’ve held, feeding the engines of the global economy, and their potential to put the system in a chokehold. In Spain, this power, once immense, is now massively diminished. In Australia, where coal still generates the vast majority of the country’s electricity, one can only imagine the possibilities. But for now, that power remains unrealised. Instead, the political right has managed, in part, to capture fears of a future with no jobs and of the decimation of towns dependent on a dying industry.
Coalmining communities stand, like the pagan god Janus, at a crossroads. There is nothing uncertain about the fact that climate change will be catastrophic if coal continues to be dug from beneath these mountains and valleys. But the question remains as to what and who will shape any post-coal future: a climate movement that mobilises workers in the fossil-fuel industry and beyond around both jobs and the environment; or the same forces that, for decades now, have ravaged the earth and people’s lives in places like the Hunter and northern Spain.
In Mieres, the last overnight stop on the Camino, there is a statue in the park commemorating fallen miners around the world. The seven-metre-tall stone statue is a truncated male torso, with a mine chute running through its centre. Either half of the torso is held together by horizontal stone bars that look like the rickety bits of wood that used to tenuously support the long chutes and tunnels of old mines. The statue is at once sad and stirring. In a way, it resembles a cage, like those that once held the canaries whose deaths would serve as a warning when there was a gas leak in the mine; but the stone torso is also twisted in such a way that the body seems to be striding proudly, chest and shoulders held high, towards the mountains.
With thanks to Tommy Cameron for his insights into the Hunter, and Ruben Vargas for helping me understand Asturias.
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