Donna Branham, a few days after she had her head shaved at the West Virginia State Capitol to protest mountaintop-removal mining in Appalachia. | Ami Vitale/Panos Pictures Branham, on the steps of the West Virginia State Capitol, shortly before she had her head shaved to protest mountaintop-removal mining in Appalachia. | Ami Vitale/Panos Pictures Donna and Charlie Branham, a former coal miner, at their home in Lenore, West Virginia. | Ami Vitale/Panos Pictures The Branhams met in high school and married shortly thereafter. | Ami Vitale/Panos Pictures "People don't know how hard it is on the Appalachian people," Donna Branham said of mountaintop-removal mining. "They have no idea. And they don't want to know. As long as they don't have to look at it, they can ignore it." | Ami Vitale/Panos Pictures

Donna Branham
Lenore, West Virginia

It's a hard decision to take your hair off. It really is, but it's not as hard as watching them destroy my land, watching them destroy my children's future.

I grew up in a coal camp in Scarlet, West Virginia. The load-out for the tipple was like a mile and a half below my home. So I was used to the dust and the noise and the pollution.

My dad worked 39 years at that mine. When he retired, they shut the mine down, and him and my mother thought that they would have a really good life in that community. All of my dad's brothers and sisters--there were 11 of them--lived there. I had grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, you name it. We all lived there. It was a nice, peaceful way of living.

Well, the same company came back and started stripmining. They let off shots that tore the foundation of my parents' house apart. The chimney pulled away from the house. The roof leaked. Their life was just miserable. The breaking point came one evening when my dad was getting out of the bathtub. It was around 7 in the evening, and they weren't supposed to be blasting after 5 p.m. They let off a big blast and the house shook like there was an earthquake. My dad had a heart attack.

So they ended up selling, which I think was what the mining company wanted anyway. My mom and dad moved, along with my aunts and uncles and everybody. The family just got scattered. My mom made it one year after they moved from Scarlet. And the day she died, I held her head in my lap and she cried for home. She wanted to go home.

They always talk about the cost of coal. I can tell you the true cost of that lump of coal. It cost my family. The only people that get rich are the people that own the coal mines.

When I felt those first streaks of the razor in my hair today, I felt empowered. I felt liberated. It gave me strength. I want the world to know how much it hurts my people. If they would come and live where we live and see what we see, they'd be out there rallying with us. My hair will grow back, but the mountains will not. (Interviewed May 28, 2012)

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