More on China's vast coal mining industry and the economic and environmental impact.
Duane Moles is a student at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California Berkeley, concentrating on documentary film. He spent the summer of 2007 interning at Al Jazeera English in Washington, DC, and has also worked in radio news at KQED, the PBS affiliate station in San Francisco.
As part of a class at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, I traveled to China last spring with an assignment to report on the country's environment. Having grown up in a coal-mining region in West Virginia, I was really interested to see what life was like in China's coal belt.
More than in any other country, coal is the lifeblood of China's booming economy. Coal-fired power plants provide 70 percent of the country's electricity, and more than 30,000 mines operate throughout the country -- about 20 percent of which are illegal and, thus, unregulated.
China is also the most dangerous place in the world to be a coal miner. On average, 13 people a day die in mine accidents there, and more than 80 percent of mining deaths worldwide happen in China.
I headed west from Beijing to coal country, Shanxi Province, as part of a team of three reporters. Our plan was to see what life was like in a small village in the region. We knew that in November 2006 a villager named Hao Hualin had talked to Chinese news outlets about how the mines were burrowing beneath his village, causing homes to collapse. But we had no idea about the consequences of his speaking out.
The unrelated death of a reporter looking into illegal mines earlier that year was certainly in the back of my mind as we headed toward Hualin's village, Hao Jiazhai. Mining bosses killed the reporter after he threatened to expose their operation. The story became international news, and the talk had been that the reporter was trying to blackmail the company. But was that just a convenient excuse for the killers? And in this dangerous atmosphere, would anyone really talk to us?
What began as an investigation of environmental degradation turned into a story of whole villages being literally undermined by an aggressive coal industry.
To establish some common ground, I brought with me my family's West Virginia mining pictures -- my father having worked in the coal mines when I was a child. Whenever people were suspicious of my interest in coal, I just pulled out the photographs and started talking about West Virginia. Almost always I was instantly offered a cigarette.
While China's environment has taken a serious beating as the country bulls its way forward, I was surprised by peoples' disgust when I talked with them about the mountaintop removal mines that are slowly leveling West Virginia. One former miner asked me why we would destroy the mountains that way when we could use an underground mine and leave the mountains intact. I didn't have a good answer.
Within minutes of arriving in Hao Jiazhai, we found Hualin's home in the largely deserted village. When Hualin's mother opened the large tin doors to their courtyard, she was reluctant to speak with us. She broke into tears, but waved us into their home. Sitting on a platform in the main room of the house, she recounted how the intimidation against her family accelerated from broken windows to physical attacks on her and her son. Despite her initial reluctance, it was clear that she wanted to tell people about her experience. By the next day, though, fear won out: She left to stay with her sister while we interviewed Haulin and other villagers.
What began as an investigation of environmental degradation turned into a story of whole villages being literally undermined by an aggressive coal industry -- and of people who faced brutal retaliation when they blew the whistle on what is happening to their communities.
-- Duane Moles