Roundup: Documenting Spanish Miners

Picturing Spanish Miners • Minnesota bill could hurt broadband deployment •  Why farm size matters •  Women walk to protest fracking •  Polling results from rural Illinois •  Daily farm and government seizures •  Appalachian Regional Commission to hold listening sessions

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In Europe, as in America, one could argue, coal is in a slow and agonizing decline. The number of Spanish mines has fallen by three quarters in the past 25 years, 160 to 40 now, and the loss of workers is even worse. Now, due to a recent European Union agreement, mining subsidies, which used to support the industry, will end by 2018.

French photographer Pierre Gonnord has been documenting these miners for the past six years.

The men look as if they have been standing too close to a bomb detonation. Their faces are caked in toxic dust and dried sweat, the whiteness of their eyes accentuated by coal eyeliner. Their expressions combine pride, melancholy and bewilderment. In their poses and demeanors, taken together with Gonnord’s palette — dominated by olives, blacks and grays — the photographs recall Diego de Silva y Velázquez’s dreamy, disconcertingly lifelike oil portraits. But Velázquez painted members of Madrid’s royal court. The miners, upon reaching Madrid, were welcomed by riot police, rubber bullets and tear gas.

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A Minnesota House Energy and Economic Development bill aims to spur satellite and wireless Internet growth and claims that wiring small communities is too expensive. Critics say the bill could hurt rural broadband expansion in the state. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington), sees it as a way forward.

“The migration of technology is toward wireless and satellite deployments, and you can get far more coverage at a lower price by using wireless instead of fixed fiber,” Garofalo said. “We’ll see where the technology takes us, but it’s pretty clear that around the world even high density areas are using wireless because the infrastructure costs are so much cheaper.”

The governor’s office and rural advocates see it differently.

“In its first year alone, [the rural interest lobbying group Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities] has partnered with private providers and local governments to expand broadband access to thousands of households, 150 businesses, and 83 libraries, town halls, schools, and other community institutions in greater Minnesota,” Lt. Gov. Tina Smith said. “Access to high-speed, affordable broadband Internet is not just nice; it is necessary.”

Dayton and the DFL-controlled Legislature committed $20 million to rural broadband in the current budget cycle. A task force recommended $200 million to fund the initiative.

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Working from the thesis that mid-size farms allow small communities to thrive, raising incomes and lowering unemployment, Grist.com has started a series called Farm Size Matters that looks at farm sizes in America and why it’s important.

So, why does farm size matter? As the total number of farms goes down, the number of big farms is going up — and this shift hurts rural America. According to an analysis by Food and Water Watch: “Communities with more medium- and smaller-sized farms have more shared prosperity, including higher incomes, lower unemployment, and lower income inequality, than communities with larger farms tied to often-distant agribusinesses.”

In strictly economic terms, U.S. agriculture has followed a pretty unsurprising path. Better technology leads to greater crop yields, which in turn mean lower prices and larger farms. Our economic system distorts competition and fosters consolidation — and then we act surprised when farmers follow the rules of the game in order to survive.

Today, we have a ton of tiny farms — and yet when it comes to land, “the top 10 percent of farms in terms of size account for more than 70 percent of cropland in the United States; the top 2.2 percent alone takes up more than a third,” wrote Roberto A. Ferdman in The Washington Post.

Grist also delivered on their promise to interview Willie Nelson. Good guy Grist. Actually, I’ve got to leave you with this nugget from the Willie article, written by Darby Minow Smith, the brains and rural sensibility behind the Grist farm series:

In my small Montana town, Willie was a living Western movie. We’d beg our parents for quarters in dusty bars to play songs like “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.” It was just a little funny and a little sad when some of us babies went off to become doctors and lawyers and such.

— Shawn Poynter

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A group of around 70 Navajo women are protesting fracking in New Mexico by walking 1,000 miles across the Southwest. They are calling the walk, which will take a year to complete, their Journey for Existence.

The participants started with a crowdfunding campaign that raised almost $6,000 to support their year-long journey. Over the past few months, the Nihígáál Bee iina group has used digital media to share their spiritual traditions, connecting Navajo communities across the country.

They are chronicling their journey on a Facebook page: “Despite being at the forefront of energy extraction, our people do not see its benefits; approximately 25% of our people today live without electricity and running water on the Navajo Nation, while our economy functions at an unemployment rate of about 60%.”

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Rural Illinois is looking bleak these days, according to rural Illinoisans. A poll conducted by a rural sociologist found that almost 75% of rural residents in the state think economic prospects will drop in the next five years and about half said their quality of life has gotten worse over the past five years. It also suffers from population loss. From 2000 to 2010, rural Illinois lost 12% of its population ages zero to 44. Richard Longworth, writer of the book Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism, says there is hope, maybe.

"Focus on the community colleges," he says. "Do everything you can to attract smart local students to these colleges, many of whom want to stay in their communities.

"Offer them courses in entrepreneurialism. Help them start businesses.

"There are still local families with some serious money, from agriculture, banking or whatever. Encourage them to create family foundations that would invest in these young people.

"Seek out local lawyers and accountants to offer pro bono services on how to set up businesses."

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South Mountain Creamery is a Maryland dairy farm best known for its butter that “tastes like ice cream,” free range chicken, and being a poster child in the battle against government seizures of cash.

Under a federal law designed to target money laundering, [Owner Randy] Sowers and his Maryland dairy farm lost a big chunk of that income — $29,500 — to the government. Three years later, he hasn’t gotten any of it back and almost certainly never will. In the court of public opinion, however, South Mountain Creamery has become a potent symbol for the movement against civil asset forfeiture.

On Feb. 29, 2012, two special agents showed up at the farm and asked Sowers about the deposits. He told them, according to court filings, that he was trying not to “throw up red flags.” In other words, he admitted that he had intentionally avoided triggering the disclosure requirement.

“That’s about when they quit asking me questions,” Sowers said. The $63,000 in his account had already been seized.

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The Appalachian Regional Commission is planning to hold five “listening sessions” in five states over the course of a month starting in mid-May. The sessions will help guide the ARC as they develop a new five-year strategic plan. They hope to attract community members from a wide range of disciplines.

 

 

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