Appalachia and the Basques

During a recent trip to Wise County, Virginia, located in the southwestern part of the state, I was moved by the deep injustice faced by people who live there. The mountains are being stripped away, one by one, through an awful-looking and destructive process called mountaintop removal, which has already claimed a quarter of the mountains in the county. I wrote a bit about the process and my impressions in my previous post.

As a guest of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, I got an introduction to the problems of mountaintop removal mining, as well as the economic struggles of their county – which are, to some extent, a reflection of broader problems in Appalachia as a region.

SAMS is up against a much more powerful opponent that controls the narrative, to the point that the coal companies can dramatically reduce employment by shifting to less labor-intensive mining methods while blaming Obama, the EPA and “tree huggers” for the resulting economic decline.

But even if there are contestable details about the economic impact, I don’t think there can be any debate that decision-making has been removed from the community. Yes, SAMS is able to occasionally stop or slow particularly offensive projects like the plan to remove Ison Rock Ridge, which looms over the town of Appalachia and has the potential to recreate an earlier tragedy in which a toddler was killed in his bed by a stray boulder knocked loose by blasting. Ison Rock Ridge was a defensive victory and there is certainly no effort made by those with power to sit down with the community and plan the best way to make use of the resources found in the surrounding mountains.

The extent to which decision-making has been removed from the local arena presents a challenging situation in which any economic solutions offered must work around the coal mines, however badly they might impact the community, while addressing the disempowerment that has allowed the coal mines to become such a destructive force.

The disempowerment of Appalachia takes two main forms: Most obviously, what used to be local mining companies have merged into much larger corporations that make decisions elsewhere. Any profits made go to investors who rarely face personal impacts from the decisions made on their behalf, and who rarely spend those profits in what is left of the local economy.

But more significantly, Appalachia is a marginal place. With the exception of West Virginia, this region exists on the margins of several states. Virginia, for example, has population and power centers near the coast and Washington, D.C. The land away from the coast is of secondary importance to the state, and Wise County – an hour from the Interstate – is an especially low priority. Just over a ridge from Wise County lies Kentucky, which is economically oriented toward its northwestern border including Louisville and the Cincinnati suburbs.

Appalachia’s geography resembles another mountainous border region between Spain and France: The Basques are a distinct cultural group with a language unrelated to their neighbors, and they experienced serious political and economic oppression during the 20th Century. Sixty years ago the Basque economy was a wreck, dominated by outsiders. The Basques were discouraged and divided, with a significant number taking up arms in a guerilla war that only recently ended. As is the case in modern Appalachia, people were divided about how to respond and many were resigned to taking what they could get from their conquerors.

However, today the Spanish portion of the Basque region has significant autonomy, and an unemployment rate that is the lowest of any region in Spain. I haven’t been able to find the raw statistics, but the rates appear to be as low as 7.4% (as of this past spring) – that is one-third the national average!

Some of this success can be attributed to the Basques’ ability to hold on to their heavy industry, which they have used to build a robust economy. But that doesn’t answer the question of how they have been able to maintain control, and raises questions about how a region that suffered devastation in the Spanish Civil War and World War II followed by decades of fascist oppression and guerilla warfare could develop the strongest economy in Spain.

Political autonomy is certainly part of the picture. Shortly after my trip to Appalachia, I got a chance to visit the other end of the Appalachian Mountains and was struck by how different it felt. Brattleboro, Vermont is a town of about 12,000 residents; it was roughly the same size as the town of Appalachia in the mid-20th Century (before Wise County’s decline). The two areas have roughly the same topography and distance from the urban markets. But Brattleboro has a starkly different political reality as one of the larger communities in a very small state – imagine if it were instead a protrusion on eastern border of New York. And Brattleboro is a town that works; there were few vacant storefronts in the bustling downtown and hardly a chain store to be seen. Wise County, on the other hand, is full of vacancies and shows little evidence of recent economic development other than strip malls and chain stores.

Brattleboro’s success compared to Wise County suggests that the political borders do make a difference, and smaller polities can be beneficial to people on the national margins. However, Catalonia is also a historic autonomous community within Spain, and its unemployment rate is upwards of 33%. Something else is going on among the Basques.

That something else includes the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation. This is one of Spain’s largest enterprises, with 32.5 billion euros in assets and 14 billion euros in sales. Mondragon includes a bank and grocery store chain that are both among Spain’s largest and have nationwide scope. Mondragon’s co-ops have their own social security and hospitals as well as an education system including a trade school and university. The co-ops also do their own economic development and training.

And the economic results have been stellar despite the ongoing crises in Europe and Spain. Mondragon businesses rarely fail, but when they do, the worker owners who make up more than 90% of the 83,569 employees do not have to worry about layoffs because they are transferred to other co-ops. And even non-member workers are relatively safe, with only 0.1% job losses in 2011.

Mondragon has contributed to an economy that is not only more affluent than the rest of Spain, but also more egalitarian. I had a chance to visit a few years ago, and witnessed a different way of living, without visible signs of extreme wealth or poverty. I did notice some substantial mining near population centers, however. So if anyone is looking for a mine-free utopia, this is not it.

How has Mondragon stayed under local control? The system is a multi-centered democracy in which the workers are owners. They avoid decisions like selling out to the highest bidder regardless of long-term economic impact. And they make proactive decisions like limiting top executive pay to only six times starting wages.

Mondragon is not perfect and it is not the only reason for the Basque success. But some sort of cooperative economic development would provide an essential alternative to the coal industry, and also help Appalachia move toward a new way of doing business. A holistic economic approach must recognize coal’s important place in the current economy as well as its inevitable decline as the remaining seams are played out.

We should not dismiss the need for struggle against the abuses of big coal, but it is incumbent on those who oppose mountaintop removal to present another vision of how things could be, in ways that realistically address facts on the ground.

I previously wrote about the prospects for launching local cooperative development through co-ops like the Hoedads of 1970s Oregon or more current Center for Cooperative Forest Enterprises, which keep control and profits in the communities most impacted. There are other nearby centers of organization against mountaintop removal, and at least one is already exploring cooperative models through a worker co-op called Fairtrade Appalachia.

Here are some questions that might contribute to the efforts to build a sustainable Appalachian economy.

What are the resources that Appalachian communities have to work with? What types of jobs do SAMS members want for their community? What might the first incarnation of a cooperative enterprise look like one year from now? What might a cooperatively-based economy look like in ten years? What sorts of businesses could be developed that would preserve land or restore degraded areas?

I’m honestly not sure if cooperatives can solve Appalachia’s economic problems. I’m not even sure if the problems are solvable anymore. But I hope that this food for thought can point in a direction that will help move beyond the current division and impasse in the community that is preventing a unified response to external threats.

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