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Polish farmers threaten uprising over opencast coal mine

Food manufacturer Heinz unites with farmers in rebellion against plan to build a vast lignite mine and power plant on farming land in western Poland

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Poland is the second largest coal producer in Europe after Germany (Image by Alamy

Farmers in western Poland are warning of civil unrest if a vast coalmine and power plant are given the go-ahead, with thousands of people at risk of being forcibly relocated. 
 
At risk are the food exports for which the Krobia and Miejska Górka region is known – including tomatoes, and sugar beet destined for Heinz Ketchup on UK supermarket shelves – and a windfarm which campaigners say would have to be demolished to make way for the brown lignite mine.

Experts say that 22 villages could be destroyed by the opencast mine proposed by Polish energy company PAK. The mine would cover 11,900 hectares of land (29,400 acres) and include a 1,000MW coal plant, leaving up to 5,800 people subject to compulsory purchase orders of their land.

Many farmers in the area have ties to the land stretching back several generations, and say they will not leave without a fight. Sitting in his farm with friends and family, Janusz Mackowiak, a moustachioed former MP for Poland’s Agricultural party, said that thousands of local people had already protested against the mining

“The people who live here are unpredictable and we can’t guess their reaction,” he said. “A number of Polish uprisings have failed in history but one that succeeded took place here, in the Wielkopolskie region.

“If we see the mining company actually arriving with equipment here, then we will do everything we can to get rid of them,” he said. “Some people are really desperate and police have already had to intervene several times. We tried to calm people but their desperation seems to be growing.”

Cars belonging to the PAK company were smashed and had their windows broken on one occasion in 2012, and borehole drills were vandalised. The police subsequently took the names of more than 500 local people who came to a protest with tractors, further inflaming tensions.

“This country faced more than 40 years of communism and the police were trying to use the same methods,” said Sylvia Mackowiak (no relation), the president of the 5,000-strong local farmers’ association.

Although the campaign has been a grassroots affairs, 18 local companies are also supporting it, fearing crop production shortfalls, rising air pollution levels, and a drastic depletion of local water tables over a 31-mile (50km) radius.

Heinz, the region’s biggest employer, has been at the forefront of the corporate objectors. The firm’s factory in the area depends on local farmers’ crops for its products, a quarter of which are exported to other countries. The UK is its biggest export destination. “The coalmine would negatively affect Heinz’s business activities as well as the entire economic ecosystem of the region,” said Leszek Wenderski, the factory’s quality manager.

Heinz bought the factory from the 100-year-old Polish household brand Pudliszki in 1997 and both firms use locally grown tomatoes, sweetcorn, green peas and sugar beet in tinned and bottled products, such as Heinz Ketchup.

Trade unions are also backing the campaign, as fears of redundancies mount. Companies involved in the campaign say that there is “a very big danger of job losses” if the mine goes ahead.

“We will have to buy produce from outside this region if the plant is built,” said Slawomir Paszkier, the Heinz/Pudliszki site manager. “For some crops that won’t be possible. Teaching new potential growers is also a long process, and not as profitable.”

Sales might also be affected because “we are thought of as a green region and a coalmine could impact on our brand image,” Paszkier said. More than anything though, the company fears water depletion, pollution and land degradation.

Around Poland’s Turek and Konin mines, groundwater levels have dropped by 50-80m because of mining activity, which involved the draining or diversion of rivers and tributaries, and a diminution in quality of that which remains.

The open circulation of cooling water caused thermal changes to groundwater reservoirs. These were also contaminated by chemicals because of the flushing and leaching of coal ash, a waste product of coal-burning during rainfalls. But the Krobia and Miejska Górka region holds an estimated billion tonnes of brown coal beneath its well-ploughed soil and digging it up could be a profitable, if dirty affair. When burned, this low-grade lignite emits more carbon dioxide than hard coal or crude oil, and twice as much as natural gas.

In health terms too, an estimated 450,000 people die prematurely in Europe each year because of air pollution from coal-fired emissions of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, as well as heavy metals like mercury, lead, nickel and cadmium.

One study of five lignite-fired coal plants on the German-Polish border estimated their yearly health and environmental cost at between €3-€5bn (£2.4-£4bn).
Benedykt Pepliński of Poznan University said that the lost agricultural production from the proposed new mine could reach €1.3-€2.4bn over a 50-year period.

“Experience from previous opencast pit mines proves that after mining operations have ended, the quality and quantity of agricultural production is much lower than before because of problems with the underground water system,” he said. “For sure, 60% of the agricultural land here would be lost forever.”

EU investments could also be harmed. The bloc has funnelled over €550m of subsidies to the region in the 2007-2020 period, for land reclamation, hiking trails, bicycle paths and, significantly, wind power.

Campaigners expect one wind farm and 11 wind turbines would have to be destroyed by the lignite mine. But Brussels has traditionally faced two ways on Polish fossil fuels projects, allowing big national firms to benefit from up to €1.7bn of funds in its current budget, according to CEE Bankwatch.

Poland is currently bidding for billions more euros to help fund coal projects such as a new opencast lignite mine and power plant in Gubin, as well as hard coal plants in Laziska, Czeczott and Kozienice, a Greenpeace analysis of commission documents says.

PAK, which is owned by the Polish TV-tycoon and plutocrat Zygmunt Solorz-Zak, may not yet have applied for EU funding. But it has already prevented an application for new wind turbines on land it plans to use for the pit.
 
The company could be granted permission to start work in Krobia and Miejska as early as 2016, following an environmental impact assessment decision next year. Jacek Kwasniewski, 51, a villager in nearby Przyborowo, is one of the local farmers who was forced to let PAK drill boreholes on his land, after a court order was obtained.
 
“I still can’t imagine an opencast pit mine being built here,” he said on the fringes of a local demonstration against the mine. “I support the idea of wind farms instead. If the pit is built, I will lose about 850 hectares of land that belonged to me and five generations of my family before me.”
 
If forced from his farm, Jacek said he did not know where he would go. “I’ve been a farmer my whole life,” he said. “I always wanted to be a farmer and its hard for me to think of doing something else. This land is everything for me. I cant imagine my future without it.”
 
The strength of local feeling helped re-elect Jacek Widynski, mayor of the region’s biggest town, Poniec, after he fought a campaign centred on conservation of the area’s forests and agriculture. Behind his desk in the local town hall, he punctuated an interview by opening a desk-side illustrated book and pointing out local fauna that could be threatened by the lignite pit – white-tailed eagles, foxes, boars, does and partridges.
 
“I can’t find words to describe the tragedy,” he said balefully. “It would be like an ecological bomb with shock waves rippling across the surrounding counties and area. The destruction of nature brought by the project and the impact on peoples’ lives would be much greater than any financial profits.”
 
“Why isn’t the EU putting pressure on the Polish government for a more environmentally friendly production of energy?” he asked. “And why isn’t the Polish government more interested in small investors who want to build windfarms? Why do they encounter so many obstacles?”
 
A pro-renewable energy sentiment is widely-shared among local people. “Wind farms are the ecological solution to the energy security problem, not only here but across Poland,” said Lucas Rojda, another farmer on the protest. “In comparison to opencast pits, those windfarms just look perfect. We should follow Germany’s example.”
 
Opinion polls say that 70% of local people are against the mine, although the issue ranks lower in importance than jobs and infrastructure – particularly roads.

Local folklore harks back to Polish patriots who built trailers on their land when refused permits by the Prussians in the 19th century, and outsiders who have moved into nearby villages are distrusted. Anecdotally, real estate prices in the region are among the highest in Poland, partly because people are so loathe to sell, and partly because the soil is among Poland’s most fertile.

Janusz Mackowiak said that he had refused an offer of 2m Polish Zlotys (€469,342) from PAK for his farmland. “The company is trying to buy famers and corrupt the people here but there is no money in the world that I would sell my farmland for,” he said. “An opencast pit here would be like stabbing our people in the heart.”

His son, Nikodem nodded vigorously. “This is our land. We have an attachment and ownership to it. Once you force people to leave the land they have lived on for generations, they become uprooted,” he added. Sylvia Mackowiak looked ashen-faced as he spoke. “It would be a nightmare for these people and a trauma for their children,” she said.

This article was republished as part of the Guardian environment network

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