In Chinese coal town, black gold for some is black death for others

In Chinese coal town, black gold for some is black death for others

Coal may be Shanxi’s black gold, but it is the peasants of this north Chinese province who have to live with the consequences as their homes sink, water supplies dwindle and pollution worsens.

Xiaoqinghe, a small market town perched on top of a hill in Shanxi, has a beautiful name that is somewhat at odds with reality.

It means “Little Blue River” and conjures up images of a pristine countryside — exactly the opposite of what life has been like since the local coal mine opened in 1993.

At the gate of the city’s mine, a mosaic shows the three men who dominated Chinese communism over the past half century — Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and
Jiang Zemin.

Small pieces have fallen off Mao’s portrait, leaving the face of the Great Helmsman disfigured — not unlike the pockmarked landscape around Xiaoqinghe.

“There’s a lot of dust around here,” said He Keyun, a 53-year-old villager who has become an unofficial leader of the town’s low-profile protest movement. “There’s a lot of sickness, a lot of coughing.”

All for nothing, he says, explaining that locals have received none of the benefits from the mine. Not even jobs, which have been given to ultra-cheap workers from other provinces.

He outlined a long list of costs to his village that do not get taken into account when Chinese authorities and international businessmen marvel at the nation’s rapid economic growth.

“Our houses are unfit for living, we can’t cultivate our land, the trees we have planted up the mountainside have started to whither, it’s even hard for us to get potable water,” He said.

Intensive coal extraction has eroded the subsoil of this bleak North China landscape, and entire villages have started to sink, with some buildings subsiding by inches.

In Xiaoqinghe, deep cracks mark the walls of the homes, as if the village had been struck by an earthquake.

Some buildings have already been abandoned and are now covered with wild grass.

The village chief, who is hardly ever present, is accused by locals of having pocketed the money the mine paid out in compensation for the damage.

Anger runs particularly deep as mine bosses and authorities in China’s coal mining industry, who deliver 70 percent of the nation’s energy, have earned untold riches from the black gold.

High-ranking central government officials and reports in the state-run media have repeatedly acknowledged in recent years the difficulty in breaking the nexus of corruption that allows local industries and authorities to reap huge profits.

A little more than an hour’s drive away from Xiaoqinghe, in the village of Haojiazhai, the scene is depressingly similar.

Villagers use the steel beams usually employed in the mines to support their collapsing houses. Water is being brought in by truck.

Every now and then, another family in the village gets an official letter instructing them to evacuate their home and move to a new house constructed further down in the valley.

“We don’t want to move down, it’s even more dangerous, the subsoil there is too frail,” said Hao Zhenfeng, a 57-year-old peasant.

According to official figures, the area affected by erosion caused by excessive mining in Shanxi reached 2,940 square kilometres (1,180 square miles) in 2004, and the zone is growing by 94 square kilometres a year.

Out of a total population in Shanxi of 33 million, more than one million have been affected by deformed terrain, aridity and other ecological disasters brought about by the mining, according to the government data.

Officials drew up a three-year plan which, starting from 2005, aimed to relieve nine regions particularly affected by the problems.

The plan cost 6.8 billion yuan (870 million dollars), of which 40 percent was funded by the central government and the rest by local collective enterprises.

But, as one official charged with implementing the project recently told the local media, this will not deal with the problem of water shortages or the other challenges to the environment. (AFP)

Share this post