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On the vision of a more democratic Scotland, Neal Ascherson wrote:
“The dream is to throw bridges across that historic gap, the chasm which separates those who are accustomed to being heard and those who are taught by centuries of uprooting that their lot is to survive change, not to plan it.”
It is a dream currently being put to test in the heart of South Lanarkshire, where despite fierce and widespread local opposition, work begins on the mining of Mainshill Wood, by the village of Douglas, where failures in local democracy meet ecological crises. Operations begin after a heated two- year struggle between a local community council and Scottish Coal, culminating in 45 arrests and a forced eviction. With barely a blip in the national media, the Battle for Mainshill Wood is curiously underreported. It began in February 2008, when a proposal was put forward by Scottish Coal to establish an opencast coal site at Mainshill. Located just off the M74 and adjacent to the A70, the proposed development would extract 1.7 million tonnes of coal over a three and a half year period, making South Lanarkshire the most heavily mined area in the UK and centre 5.4 million tonnes of C02 over a three year period. Though the Douglas Valley has a rich history of mining, the prospect of mining Mainshill is highly contentious. In recent months, local GPs have openly voiced their anxieties about the scale of the mining in South Lanarkshire, citing concerns of the impact of the heavy presence of opencast coal on the respiratory health of residents. Additionally, locals have pointed out that Mainshill Wood is not made up merely of coniferous forest, as stated in the briefing by Scottish Coal, but also of ancient Caledonian forest.
The move questions the very viability of the Scottish Government’s ‘groundbreaking’ 2009 climate change mitigation policy, calling for a 42% emissions reduction by 2020 whilst continuing to open brand new coal operations. However, proponents argue that the mining of Mainshill Wood could benefit the local economy by bringing up to 93 new jobs to the area. And some maintain that the mining of indigenous coal promotes the interests of national energy security, by decreasing reliance on foreign fossil fuels. Opinions aside, the story for the Battle of Mainshill Wood is more of a struggle against the failures of local democracy, than a debate about coal.
In total, South Lanarkshire Council received 653 letters of objection to the proposal (amounting to 55% of the electorate of Douglas) versus 62 letters of support. The citizen pressure group MORAG (Mainshill OCCS Rejection Action Group) was formed and the Douglas Community Council filed an official objection to the South Lanarkshire Council on the grounds that “their community is being subjected to a disproportionate burden of negative environmental impacts perpetuating unacceptable disturbance to their quality of life.” Aileen Campbell, MSP for the South of Scotland, was driven to independently distribute a survey on the issue, concluding that “70 per cent of the 116 people who responded were against the opening of another opencast mine.” But despite unambiguous opposition, in April 2009 planning permission was granted by the Scottish Government and South Lanarkshire Council for Mainshill to be mined. The decision, in the words of Kenny Sludden, chairman of MORAG, was “extremely disappointing for local democracy.” Ross, a young local activist adds, “It makes you wonder what it is a community council would have to do to be heard. In a situation like this, can you really say that local people have control over their land and self- determination?” And so begins the next chapter in the Battle for Mainshill Wood. In May 2009, members of Scotland’s strong anti- coal campaign met with Douglas residents to discuss how they could be of service to the community. Over a series of conversations between the activists and local community, the Mainshill Solidarity Campaign was formed.
Their objective was to physically occupy the site, making it as difficult as possible for Scottish Coal to go about their business. An occupation of Mainshill Wood would be an example of non-violent direct action, bypassing the very processes of the system which had failed the Douglas community. In the oft quoted words of Martin Luther King Jr., “direct action doesn’t create tension, it brings to the surface that is already alive.” The occupation of Mainshill made physical a struggle that had long been raging in Douglas, resorting to physical means in order to reinvigorate a struggle that had been lost through conventional processes.
As Ross notes: “Faced with climate change, the rise in direct action is symptomatic of the wider environmental movement.” It is fuelled by a generation of citizens who can’t count on politicians to sort anything. In June 2009, the activists began to establish their presence in Mainshill Wood. They built a series of fortified bunkers, treehouses, a central fort and a giant lookout tripod mate out of scaffolding. An intricate network of underground tunnels was dug in anticipation of their eventual eviction. “The infrastructure was initially for defence,” says Ross, “we barricaded the main access routes to prevent our removal. But after a few months, we began to make ourselves comfortable. We built a proper kitchen, and made the area comfortable for community living.” For seven months, the activists in Mainshill Wood co- existed alongside Scottish Coal workers, who had begun logging and surveying the site in preparation for mining. They maintained a constant presence for the entire duration, braving the cold winter nights when it dropped below minus 20. During this time they focused their efforts on stopping Scottish Coal operations and slowing down their work. Periodically, they targeted the company’s machinery and infrastructure, at one point sabotaging a 6.5 km conveyor belt that transports 200 000 tonnes of coal a year from Glentaggart to Drax power station in North Yorkshire, causing thousands of pounds worth of disruption. “We hit them where it hurts. The idea is to make coal as economically unviable as possible,” says Ross.
The Mainshill Solidarity Campaign also paid their respects to the landowner, the Earl of Home Chairman of the private bank Coutts & Co and son of the former Tory Prime Minister Alex Douglas Home. Ross notes, “As one of the few people in the position to stop the development, his profit incentive outweighs any scrap of respect and responsibility he has towards the local community.” Throughout the duration of the occupation the activists were largely fed and cared for by Douglas residents, who visited the site regularly to drop off supplies and provide moral support. On Christmas day, members of the Douglas Community Council surprised the forest- dwellers with a multi- course supper. One activist commented: “The atmosphere in the woods was magical. One man came dressed up as Santa Claus and handed out gifts. It was the best Christmas I’ve ever had.”
The National Eviction Team made their first visit to Mainshill Wood in December 2009. Hired by Scottish Coal and the Earl of Home, the NET is a private Swansea- based squadron of evictions specialists. Using aerial photographs collected over the two- month period, a team of 30 tunnelers and climbers set to work on evicting the site on the morning of 25 January 2010. They worked in 24- hour shifts, handing the activists over to the Strathclyde police upon capture. The final arrest was made on the afternoon of 29th January, and the site was declared evicted the following day.
The privatisation of law enforcement is a development we’ve seen over the past decade and reinforces the notion that the force of law is something that can be bought by the powerful. Mainshill Wood represents a failure by the Scottish Govt to coherently implement its climate change legislation and an assault on local democracy. A total of 45 arrests were made throughout the occupation, and trial dates for the activists are set for between April and June. “The battle for Mainshill Wood isn’t over,” declares Ross.
To read Rebecca’s research into environmental justice click here.