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March 31, 2011

The Sierra Club in India: Carbon Footprint, Oppression Footprint, Corruption Footprint

As coal and climate activists in the United States, we often speak of the carbon footprint of Big Coal and the utilities that burn the stuff.  In the coalfields, we also know of the oppressive, corrupt, and ruthless practices of coal companies that destroy mountains, communities, and lives to get the coal out. 

The most blatant example of these practices in the U.S. is Don Blankenship in his reign of terror as CEO of Massey Coal. From buying a West Virginia Supreme Court Judge to the human toll at the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, Blankenship's footprint could never be measured solely in tons of carbon extracted from the earth. 

Visiting India for the first time with a small Sierra Club delegation to meet activists engaged in opposing coal plants ten times or more the size of the typical U.S. coal plant, it is even more apparent to me that we really need to judge Big Coal in terms of its oppression and corruption footprint every bit as much as its carbon footprint. 

Across many villages in rural India, farmers and fisherman are having their livelihoods destroyed and their land taken to make way for massive generating plants to export power to cities and for mega ports where coal is imported from places like Australia, Indonesia, and the U.S. The same oppressive, corrupt, and socially corrosive practices experienced in our U.S. coal fields are imposed upon rural Indians only on a scale that dwarfs, but in no way diminishes, the tragic toll of coal mining in our country. 

The good news is that just like in our Appalachian coalfields and in the Powder River Basin, Indian citizens are fighting back and winning against the corporate interests and their captive public officials who comprise Big Coal. Our small Sierra Club delegation is in Goa, India participating in a joint workshop with Indian coal activists to share experiences, tactics and strategies. Clearly, sharing strategies for fighting coal mines, coal plants, and coal ports on the ground is important, but it is also obvious that greater efforts need to be focused at the international level to reign in the power, money, and influence of Big Coal where investment decisions are made and deals cut.  

Over the years, efforts targeting the World Bank and the US Import-Export Bank have had some effect. However, as development accelerates in counties like India and China, there is a critical need for international cooperation and strategies among coal and climate activists to ensure that modernization efforts benefit everyone and not just the few at the expense of the poor and the environment.

-- Glen Besa, Director, Sierra Club Virginia Chapter

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