Perspective on “Appalachia and Wales: Coal and After Coal”

Sylvia Ryerson shared her experience at the Appalachia and Wales conference with the Rural Blog yesterday. She writes:

Scholars, community organizers, activists and students gathered at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., over the weekend for a three-day symposium, “Appalachia and Wales: Coal and After Coal.” The event focused on the historical ties and parallel trends in production between coal-mining regions in Appalachia and Wales over the last century.

Like Central Appalachia, Wales has a long history of coal mining. Yet most of the mines in Wales shut down in the 1980s, forcing former mining regions to find alternative ways to sustain their communities. And now, coal production in Central Appalachia is declining, and market experts expect the trend to continue – and perhaps accelerate, depending on the regulatory environment for the industry.

“Given the issues going on around the Appalachian coalfields right now, we need to look at what has happened in Wales since the closing of the mines from about 1986 on,” said Pat Beaver, director of the Center for Appalachian Studies at ASU and co-organizer of the event. “The experience of Wales could inform how we think about the future of Appalachia and a sense of urgency about thinking about the future in Appalachia.”

Author Jeff Biggers delivered the keynote address on Thursday evening, discussing the importance of developing an economically responsible plan to decrease the nation’s dependence on coal, oil and other fossil fuels, coupled with a plan to bring new renewable energy jobs to coal-mining regions in the United States. Dr. Helen Lewis, a founding scholar in the field of Appalachian studies, began the second day of the conference by telling the history of organized exchanges between Welsh and U.S. coal miners, which stemmed from her research and filmmaking in Welsh coalfield communities in the 1970s. Beaver got Appalachian State involved in these early international exchanges, and since the late 1970s the university has had annual study-abroad and service-learning programs in Wales.

Dr. Hywell Francis, an author, activist and the Labour Party member of Parliament for Aberavon, Wales, since 2001, has been collaborating with Lewis and Appalachian State since the exchange project first began. Francis explained how when the pits closed in Wales, miners were entitled to redundancy money, training programs and incapacity benefits.

“There should be lifelong learning opportunities for those people who change their careers – whether voluntarily or whether it’s compulsory,” said Francis. “And in the case of the serious economic dislocation caused by mass pit closures, then there ought to be proper educational training opportunities within those communities, within travelling distance. And for those educational training opportunities to be not necessarily using the same skills, but developing new skills in the creative industries.”

Guest speaker Mair Francis founded one such initiative in the Welsh coalfield, a women’s training center in Dulais Valley, Wales. Working in collaboration with the Welsh university system, the center provides part-time course enrollment, free child care, and transportation – key elements, Francis contended, for making it possible for many women to complete courses.

“This was the first time that a city-based university was locating itself in the valleys on a permanent basis, in one of the most deprived places in the area,” Francis said. “We were able to build links then with the local college in the town, and with the workers educational association to develop a curriculum so that things could progress from one course to another.”

During the time when the mines were shutting down, the center provided a critical public space for women to develop their own skills “so that they created jobs for themselves, rather than defending the jobs of their husbands or their sons or their fathers,” Hywell Francis explained.

The other speakers at the symposium were Dr. Ronald Lewis, emeritus professor of history at West Virginia University, specializing in the history of the coalfields in Appalachia and Wales; Dr. William Schumann, lead teacher in Appalachian State’s study-abroad program in Wales since 2003, and Amanda Starbuck, director of the coal-finance campaign of Rainforest Action Networks.

In addition to the speaker presentations, Appalachian coalfield residents engaged in roundtable discussions with representatives from Welsh coal communities. Representatives from many coalfield organizations, including the Alliance for Appalachia, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, JOBS in Mingo County, W.Va., and the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, were present. The discussions focused on what lessons can be learned from the initiatives and organizing strategies used in Wales after the mines closed, and how this knowledge can inform the ongoing work for a just economic, social and environmental transition in Appalachia.

Sylvia Ryerson is an VISTA volunteer at WMMT-FM in Whitesburg, Ky. Its full report on the symposium can be heard on “Mountain News and World Report” at 10:30 a.m. EDT Sunday, Oct. 24, and 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 26. The report will be posted Friday, Oct. 22 on the station’s website.

Kristin Tracz

About Kristin Tracz

Kristin Tracz served MACED’s Research and Policy team from 2009-2012 working on clean energy policy, energy efficiency programs and the Appalachian Transition Initiative. She joined MACED after finishing her Master of Environmental Management degree at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. She now lives and works in Washington, DC.