oal is on the way out in Europe, and it is dying a slow and ugly death. Its decline has been hastened by competition from the renewable-energy industry, cheaper imported coal from Russia and the United States and new air-quality regulations passed by the European Union. The death throes have been especially violent in Spain, where the national coal-mining industry was created by royal order in 1621 to exploit the coal basin at Villanueva del Rio y Minas in Seville.
In 1990, 167 coal mines employed about 40,000 workers. Today there are roughly 40 active mines, employing fewer than 4,000 miners. The struggling industry has long been supported by state subsidies, but under a recent E.U. agreement, all subsidies must expire by 2018.
When the government issued heavy reductions to the subsidies in 2012, miners responded by holding strikes and sit-ins and by blockading roads, highways and railroad lines. Thousands of them marched to Madrid, some walking 250 miles. When they arrived on the night of July 11, 2012, they were joined by more than 10,000 additional protesters, many of whom saw the miners’ fate as a symbol of economic parsimony taken too far.
They fired at the police with slingshots, catapults and rocket launchers. Clashes with the police followed, and the press carried images of women and children with bloodied heads. Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, declined to hold talks with the miners. The following day, he announced new austerity measures.
“I guess it’s turning into our version of the intifada,” a miner from the northern mining village of Ciñera told The New York Times that year. “When somebody is determined to take away your job and what has kept families living here for over a century, you fight to the end.” Another told The Guardian: “The future is as black as coal.”
Since 2009, the French photographer Pierre Gonnord has photographed miners in the northern Spanish mines of Carbonar, Monsacro, Pozo Santiago, Maria Luisa, Candin, Nicolasa, Tineo, Cerredo and Villablino. The miners work as deep as 2,300 feet underground in seven-hour shifts. Gonnord photographs them after they re-emerge onto the earth’s surface.
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