This article was written in October 2010 and published in 234NEXT.
The live coverage of the rescue of the 33 miners who were entombed in Chile’s copper and gold mine for 69 days captured a global audience. It was one of the few moments when good news eclipsed the bad. It was a celebration of human resilience and a picture of the efforts of humanity to search for resources at extreme locations. Spare a moment to ask how many miners would have emerged alive if such an accident had occurred in your country.
In all the celebrations that followed the rescue, few questions were asked about why the mine collapsed in the first place. Was this a rare occurrence here and elsewhere? It is reported that the San Jose mine was so unsafe in 2007 that it had to be closed down for a while. We note that on 30 July, six days before the mine accident, the Chilean labour department had warned again of ‘serious safety deficiencies.’ Until the 33 miners got sealed up in the mines, the government is not known to have taken any action.
Official data in Chile shows that 373 workers died in mining accidents in the last decade. In 2010 alone, 31 lives were lost.
The mining sector is Chile’s main economic powerhouse. The largely privatised mines reap huge profits. However, fatal mining accidents in this country are as high as 39 every year. As the miners emerged from the tomb, the government lapped up the limelight— who wouldn’t— and the applause that resounded across the globe. It was also interesting to see President Evo Morales of Bolivia visiting the mine to meet with the lone Bolivian miner who was among the rescued men. This miner had immigrated to Chile for lack of employment in his home country. President Morales offered the man a promise of a job as well as a house. Hopefully, it will not be a job in a Bolivian mine.
With regards to the San Jose mine, in 2007, there was a complaint filed at the Chilean appeals court and the National Geology and Mining Service by workers of the company together with unions of other companies following deaths in the mines. At that time, the workers demanded the closure of the mine due to poor mine ventilation and lack of proper escape routes. The mine was shut on 22 September 2007 and reopened in 2008, without any changes in the safety provisions.
Stories of industrial accidents emerge regularly around the oil industry. The oil spills of the Niger Delta are daily in occurrence. The massive sludge spill from an aluminium company in Hungary raised huge safety issues about industrial practices, but was almost eclipsed by the reports of the Chilean rescue efforts. As this piece is being written, reports are emerging of a collapsed mining tunnel in Ecuador where four miners are said to be trapped.
As pictures of the families of the Chilean miners camping at the site ran on television screens and websites, viewers could not pick out the fact that some key players were missing. We are talking about figures such as Alejandro Bohn and Marcelo Kemen, the businessmen owners of the San Esteban mines. They left the mine two days after information was obtained that the miners were alive. They did not return there for over two months.
Thousands of deaths are recorded annually in mining accidents around the world. Recorded figures run as high as 12,000 deaths of workers in the sector every year. In China alone, 2,631 miners died in 2009, while 200 perished in Sierra Leone. In the USA, 26 fatal accidents were recorded in 2007, and 23 in 2008.
Recent deaths from mine accidents in South Africa are 309 in 1999 while 220 died in 2007. In 2008, the deaths added up to 171, while 165 died in 2009. In the first half of this year, 67 deaths were recorded. A rockfall accident in the Marikana mine killed 6 mine workers.
It is shocking that only 24 countries have ratified the Safety and Health in Mines Convention of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) signed in 1995. Chile has not ratified this instrument.
Some analysts have argued that there is already no need for certain minerals to be mined anymore, as enough of the substance has already been brought out of the mines; an example is gold.
As for crude oil, there is an urgent need for the world to move away from fossil fuels and embrace renewable energy sources. The direct and indirect deaths resulting from mining and utilisation of these products should urge us to pause and think.
The resurrection of the Chilean miners, and their return from the bowels of the earth may receive our applause, but we cannot continue to push our luck with unsafe mines, reckless pursuit of capital, and cheap dispensation of human lives.
- No longer available online. It was written following the rescue of 33 Chilean miners who had been buried for 69 days ↵
- John Pilger: 14 October 2010. While the media watches the miners, Chile’s ghosts are not being rescued. New Statesman.http://www.newstatesman.com/south-america/2010/10/pilger-chile-pinochet-mapuche (accessed 31 May 2016) ↵
- See Chile rejoices over problem-free rescue of miners. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/chile-rejoices-over-problem-free-rescue-of-miners-2105593.html (accessed 31 May 2016) ↵
- See Death in the name of profit: South Africa’s mine safety scourge. http://m.polity.org.za/article/death-in-the-name-of-profit-south-africas-mine-safety-scourge-2010-08-16 (accessed 31 May 2016) ↵