Disgruntled coal miners march on Madrid | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 13.07.2012
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Disgruntled coal miners march on Madrid

Spending cuts have provoked an angry response all around Spain, often with street demonstrations. This week, coal miners concluded their own protest against the cuts with a mass march converging on Madrid.

For decades, miners have sung the song, "Santa Barbara la Bendita," in the heartlands of the Spanish coal industry in the mountainous northern regions. But it's rarely heard on the outskirts of the capital, Madrid, in central Spain.

But this is a very unusual occasion. About 200 miners have walked over 400 kilometers over the last two-and-a-half weeks, from their homes in the north, averaging over 30 kilometers each day. And they have brought a very clear message for the government: Don't cut spending on the mining sector.

Placido Alvarez, one of the miners along for the march, says mining is part of his family - it was the profession of his father, grandfather and uncles. Having walked from a village in the province of Leon, he has blisters on his feet and has been suffering from tendinitis for a week or so. But that's not going to stop him, he told DW.

Miners in Madrid

Nothing is going to stop the miners from finishing the march into Madrid

Keep on marching

However, the government insists all this effort is in vain. It says it will reduce subsidies for the coal industry by 200 million euros this year alone - a cut of over 60 percent. The reason for this, it argues, is that Spain's mines are not cost effective, and this is highlighted by the fact they need so much help in subsidies. Spanish coal is expensive, making it difficult for it to compete with the products of foreign mines.

Energy Minister Jose Manuel Soria has defended the cuts, explaining that they are necessary because of the size of the public deficit.

The Spanish economy has been under severe pressure lately, with its borrowing costs soaring on international markets. But despite the government's efforts to stop the market turbulence with reforms and cuts, Spain recently had to request a bailout from the European Union for its banking sector.

Coro Acarreta turned out to support the protesting miners as they marched into her town of Aravaca on the edge of Madrid. She says the problem isn't just a matter of money.

"What people are fighting for is to be listened to. Instead of that, we see our government paying attention to what's happening outside Spain - the markets."

Downhill battle

The miners themselves acknowledge that their sector is far from profitable. But they point to coal as a safe alternative to nuclear energy and one that is less prone to price fluctuations than oil. Their biggest argument of all, though, is that mining has been a crucial part of northern Spain's social fabric for decades. Despite its lack of economic efficiency, they say, it plays a key social role.

Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy

Rajoy's government has said it will go through with the cuts

Fabian Alvarez-Alvarez is a miner from Asturias who has helped organize the protest walk. He says while only around 9,000 miners are working in Spain, most of those will lose their jobs if these cuts are implemented and the industry itself will be effectively destroyed, leaving dozens of towns across northern Spain without economic activity.

"We have to fight for this sector, because it creates jobs and wealth and we should have a bit of historical memory and be grateful, by remembering how mining helped the country emerge from isolation and poverty in the years after the civil war of the 1930s. Without the coal industry, Spain wouldn't be the country it is today."

The miners have now finished their long march from the north - which they concluded with a late-night demonstration in the capital. The miners were wearing their helmets and head torches and they looked exhausted but also elated at having walked halfway across Spain.

The big question now is whether the government will listen to them and change its mind, or if it will push ahead with the controversial spending cuts that sparked this protest in the first place.

Author: Guy Hedgecoe, Madrid
Editor: Gabriel Borrud

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