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Gender and Climate Justice: Stop Mountaintop Mining

The Feminist Task Force put the coal industry on trial in West Virginia recently for an abusive mining practice called mountaintop removal and verdict was clear: GUILTY.

Coal has long been the life and blood of rural Appalachia, but women at the first US-based Gender and Climate Justice Tribunal testified that blasting away mountaintops to remove the underlying coal is devastating communities and creating public health risks for women and their families.

“All the research points to what mountain people have known since mountaintop removal began: it is not possible to destroy our mountains without destroying us,” says Beverly May, a family nurse practitioner. “It is not possible to poison our streams without poisoning our children for untold generations to come.”

Living in close proximity to mountaintop mining has been linked to birth defects and higher rates of cancer, according to a West Virginia University study by Michael Hendryx.

Maria Gunnoe, winner of the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize, doesn't need to read a research paper. Her daughter has suffered from breathing problems since inhaling dust from a nearby coal operation

“This is an assault on my family for coal,” says Gunnoe. “(We are) being sacrificed for energy in this country.”

“People are poisoned, displaced, their homes destroyed, their cemeteries desecrated and the perpetrators are often viewed as too big or too powerful to fight,” adds Dr. Laura Miller.

“Fly to Appalachia and see what's going on,” urges Lorelai Scarbro, a witness at the tribunal. “Knock on the doors of the people in our community, listen to their stories, look in their eyes when you can tell that they're drinking poisoned water and they're dying and then after you do all that, then you have to believe us and when you believe us, you're going to want to change it.”

“We have to stand up. People are suffering and dying and its time to end it. For the past 150 years, we've had coal shoved down our throats, with a promise of prosperity that has never come,” adds Gunnoe.

The Feminist Task Force is working to ensure that the voices of these women are heard in the corridors of power at every level, from local communities to the United Nations and G20 as it advocates for better policies and fundamental human rights.

“The persistence and dogged cruelty and crimes of the coal industry haven't deterred these women, their families, their activism, even in the face of death threats,” says FTF global coordinator Rosa Lizarde.

“We take a very local view of what's happening here and we can relate it to what's happening around the world to women. These issues around climate justice – around mining issues – are really global issues.”

Appalachian coal is not mined solely for domestic use. In fact, much of it is exported to India to meet its growing energy needs. Not only does that increase the carbon footprint of the industry, it also affects the health of Indian families where the coal is burned.

A climate tribunal in Chicago on 10 June highlighted how coal ash harms the health of people who live nearby.

“We have gone from where they dig the coal to where they refine it . . . and it's a road of destruction!” Lizarde told participants in Chicago.

The tribunals in West Virginia and Chicago were organised in collaboration with the Loretto Community at the United Nationsthe Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), the Eco-Justice Collaborativethe Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) and Citizens Against Ruining the Environment .

The FTF will next carry the voices of these women – and their sisters who have testified in more than fifteen Gender and Climate Justice Tribunals across Africa, Asia and Latin America – to Rio de Janiero for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, more commonly known as Rio+20.

The event on Thursday 21 June entitled “Organizing for Change: Women's Tribunals as Civil Society Advocacy”, will present the methodology of the tribunals and feature short video presentations of women who provided testimony.

While the tribunals clearly highlight the damage inflicted on women and their communities by climate change and coal mining, they also present stories of hope and determination.

Beverly May, the nurse practitioner in West Virginia, sums it up well: “we’re not defeated, there’s still some mountains left, there’s still communities left, there's still hope.”

--Contributed by Michael Switow, a Feminist Task Force member and consultant


The Feminist Task Force is a coalition of grassroots, rural and urban women's rights activists who advocate for gender equality as central to poverty eradication.


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Photo Credits: Center for Health, Environment and Justice, Gallery: West Virginia