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Coal mining in India’s Jharkhand state threatens to destroy the forests that the Birhor, and other aboriginal groups, depend on. A detailed report in an Indian paper issued on February 23rd explains the background of the mining practices in this area and the ways they affect the tribal peoples.

Evidently the Jharia mining district in eastern Jharkhand has India’s richest deposits of coking coal, used for making steel. But parts of the vast coal fields are burning from what are called subterranean coal fires (SCFs), slow but steady underground fires that threaten forests and human communities alike.

Underground fires are burning in other parts of the world as well. Centralia, an anthracite coal town in Eastern Pennsylvania, has had an SCF beneath it for decades. According to the Indian publication, Centralia had 11,000 residents before it was evacuated. In comparison, the Jharia mining district has 400,000 people. India has not only the most extensive SCFs in the world, it also has the largest number of people affected by the problem.

The author of the article found Jharia to be “surreal” from all the smoke billowing into the sky and the sulfurous smell in the air. The scene was even more weird at night, with blue, flickering flames dancing across the landscape. The underground fires heat the soil, leaving it arid and sterile, which causes the vegetation to thin and die.

As a result of the fires, the tribal people, including the Birhor, are loosing their forests from the heat and aridity. Until recently, the entire subsistence economy of the Birhors has been based on access to forests.

But the mine fires are not the only problem affecting them. The mining companies move in and take over forested areas without providing any compensation to the aboriginal groups that live there. They begin removing the coal, often illegally, and destroy the forests with their open pit mining techniques. The coal companies ignore laws enacted to protect the tribal peoples and their access to their lands.

Some of the tribal peoples move into towns to seek employment, but many others simply remain and see if they can earn money by working for the mining companies or doing odd jobs. Some gather coal—illegally—with their bare hands, bag it, and transport it to markets on bicycles. They can make Rs. 60 or 70 (US$1.36 – 1.59) per day from the stolen coal.

The workers employed by the mines have little in the way of safety protections. When they are injured, the mine owners frequently do not provide medical treatment for them, since that might alert the authorities that illegal mining is being done. One former mine owner told the reporter that when the miners are injured, “they are simply left to fend for themselves or are buried there.” Their deaths are not reported, and their families receive no compensation.

Several photos accompany the article: the fires in the coal fields, men transporting coal sacks on their bicycles, and a man sitting forlornly of a pile of coal rubble.