Yunnan landslide highlights the devastation wrought by coal mining

It took the local authorities less than two days to decide that the landslide which killed 46 people in a remote Yunnan village on 11 January 2013 was a “natural disaster.”  None of the surviving villagers were convinced by this hasty conclusion however and 72 of them signed an open letter to the State Council in Beijing asking for a proper investigation that focused specifically on the role played by the nearby Gaopo coal mine.

Many villagers believed the landslide had been caused by an explosion at the mine, telling the official Xinhua news agency that they saw “earth and rocks sprayed up into the air” at the time of the landslide.  Their descriptions were unnervingly similar to those of Liu Guokui, a resident of another small village in the same county that had been devastated by years of mining work.

Well over a year ago, Liu had talked to China Labour Bulletin Director Han Dongfang about the environmental destruction caused by the nearby Tongchanghe coal mine and described how explosions at the mine had:

Thrown rocks up out of the mine shaft. Our houses were only a few dozen meters away and they fell on our roofs... This was the second time this happened. The first time [the previous year] was very serious, our roofs were knocked in, our furniture, our pots and pans, everything was destroyed.

Liu specifically warned in his interview that the constant explosions and excavations by the mining company had made the surrounding region unstable and that the few villagers who remained there lived in constant fear of landslides:

Nobody dares go out now. There is nothing you can do about it because the mountains have an arch-like shape. It is not just a simple slope; there is an incline that ends in a vertical drop. This is a recipe for a landslide disaster, which could be triggered by any kind of vibration.

One of the key points made by Liu was how powerless the villagers felt in the face of ruthless mine bosses and their gangs of thugs who were in league with local government officials. And this sense of powerlessness was felt again in the most recent disaster in Gaopo, when local government officials immediately cremated all the bodies of the victims without even seeking family approval.

In Liu’s village of Heba, local officials were basically in the pocket of the mine owners, who could do whatever they liked. As he told Han Dongfang:

My parents’ house was only several dozen meters away from an explosives store... there were several tons of explosives and several tens of thousands of detonators there... can you imagine my parents living in such a dreadful place? How frightening it was? But there was nothing we could do about it. I went to the county Public Security, and the deputy chief, the guy in charge of safety, said he had investigated things, but it was just empty talk. They did nothing.

Land grab

The Tongchanghe mine was originally located some way away in Pingshang township. But then, Liu explained; “they just started digging.” Protests to the local Department of Land and Resources proved futile:

After they had finished investigating, they made no proposals. Township chief Liu Zhifeng told us, ‘What is illegal is your complaining; we cannot close the coal mine down once it has started excavating. It has official permission and approval.’ Later he also told us that approval had been given at the central government level, and ‘there is nothing unjust about it.’

The villagers then wrote to the Department of Land and Resources at the provincial level, and followed it up with a visit to Kunming. For their pains, they were threatened and the mine manager accused them of ‘ignoring procedures’ and being troublemakers.

Over six years of operation from 2005, the mine routinely changed location, ownership and even its name. When the mine started to approach Heba, the villagers were offered 25,000 yuan per mu in compensation for their land.  The “offer” was made by village and township government officials and it came with a sting in the tail: if the villagers refused, the local officials said, they risked being arrested and thrown into jail. The villagers refused to cooperate, and blockaded the village to keep the mine people out. Then one of the protestors was attacked by thugs working for the mine.

On the day they were preparing to carry out the land expropriation, this guy, Liu Guowei was cut up with knives. He got several dozen cuts. He was almost killed; it was really bad, they were very bloodthirsty.  After he had recovered from his injuries, the coal mine paid him 120,000 yuan in compensation, but then another bunch of thugs was sent in by the coal mine boss again and this time his 17-year-old son was attacked, again with knives, again several dozen blows. It was a kind of revenge attack. Nobody did anything about it.

At another site that the mine was developing, Liu said, management responded to local villagers’ attempts to keep them off their land by “flinging explosives and detonators into a group of them and killing two of them with an excavator shovel.” Here, as in Heba, the police refused to help or take action against the suspects.

Liu said that even the county governor and Party secretary refused to help, telling villagers: “The coal mine boss offered you 25,000 yuan per mu, and you should be content with that. If you are not, it is nothing to do with us, you need to go elsewhere.”

The villagers took his advice and headed to the national capital, Beijing. And like nearly all petitioners, they ended up exactly where they started:

After we arrived in Beijing, the State Bureau for Letters and Calls referred us back to the provincial office in Yunnan. The people in the provincial office then referred us to Zhaotong city, and when we got to Zhaotong we were referred back to the county level. The county government referred us to Pingshang - back to where we started.

Driven out of their homes

The environmental destruction caused by mining has been so great that villagers can no longer work their maize fields and even their water supply has been compromised. Villagers had traditionally drawn water from an artesian aquifer in the mountains but the mining company cut that supply off when it opened new shafts. This forced villagers to get their water from the upper reaches of the nearby river. But even here, the baleful influence of the mine has proved inescapable. Wastewater, slag and sewage from large-scale mining operations were being discharged directly into the river. Following a complaint from villagers, the mine stopped discharging wastewater directly into the river, but instead allowed it to seep covertly into it. When production is scaled up, Liu believes, the problem will be much worse, with all the mining spoil going into the river.

From what we hear, production capacity has increased from 300,000 tonnes a year to 600,000 tonnes. The reserves are very rich. It seems they have now reached a sixth seam, and it is the thickest at over three metres in height, while the thinnest is 2.2 metres thick. They estimate they can mine here for 100 years.

The encroachment of the mine, together with the harassment by the mine boss and local officials has forced nearly all the villagers to leave and seek work elsewhere as migrant labourers. Liu himself had got a job as rural healthcare worker in the neighbouring province of Guizhou, some 100 kilometres away.

There are 13 mouths to feed in our family, and we only have a few patches of land left. I had my elderly parents to think about, and I have an older brother who has a mental disability - he has to stay in the village.

But despite being forced out of their homes, Liu said the villagers were determined to keep fighting:

We will stay out of the way until the time [for action] comes. We will lie low, disperse ourselves, and earn our bread… We do not dare to go back. The government is bullying us, and the mine boss will send guys with knives. If there is no way out, we will go to Beijing again. We will probably have to sleep in the garbage to make our protest. We will do it until we get some response.

Liu said the villagers had considered litigation but they did not have any proof that would stand up in court:

We have approached lawyers, but they soon lost interest in the case when they realised there was no money in it. We do not have much money. We tried someone in Kunming, and found another in Zhaotong, but the Zhaotong lawyer said there was no hope while the Kunming lawyer went on about how much money we would need and he was not very confident about the outcome of any confrontation with the government. It wasn’t just the money. Neither lawyer dared to take the case on.

Liu stressed that the goal of any litigation would be to “get our land back” but also, at the very least, try to guarantee a safe environment in which coalmining posed no danger to the villagers. The coal mines in the mountainous area surrounding Liu’s village are notoriously dangerous both for miners and local residents.   Mine explosions are tragically common in southwest China with the most recent gas explosion, a few hundred kilometres away from Liu’s village in the Jinjia mine in Liupanshui on 18 January, killing all of the 13 miners who were underground at the time. The area is also prone to earthquakes and extreme weather, both of which can contribute to landslides. Just three months ago, in October 2012, a landslide in the neighbouring county of Yilian took the lives of 19 people, 18 of them schoolchildren.

As Liu Guokui pointed out, in an inherently unstable environment, the rapid expansion of coal mining has amplified the danger of landslides to such an extent that many villagers have been forced from their homes. Those who cannot leave have to live from one day to the next, not knowing if they will be the next victim of a “natural disaster.”

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Han Dongfang's interview with Liu Guokui was first broadcast on Radio Free Asia in seven episodes in August 2011. To read the full Chinese transcript or listen to the audio file of the broadcast please go to the workers’ voices section of our Chinese language website and follow the links.

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