Next year, cinemas around the world will screen the Hollywood blockbuster “The 33” — the epic story of the miners trapped for nearly 70 days in the San José mine in northern Chile. But, four years since their dramatic rescue, most of the real Los 33 have precious little to celebrate.
Mario Sepúlveda, their charismatic spokesman, talks of returning underground, trading the glare of the spotlight for the solidarity he once found in the darkness of the mine. He had no plans to attend any commemoration of their escape from death earlier this month.
“The day that we get some good news, like a verdict in our favor, maybe then I’ll go there alone to thank God, and, I don’t know, kneel at the place where I was made to suffer so much,” he said.
“But for now — while there’s no justice — there’s no reason for me to go.”
Most of his colleagues have returned to work, but many still suffer from psychological trauma, and none have received substantive compensation — much less any reassurance that enough has been done to prevent a similar disaster from happening again.
Since 2000, more than 450 miners have died as a result of accidents in Chile alone. A bonanza in global copper prices — a commodity which makes up 60 percent of Chile’s exports, contributing to a doubling of the country’s GDP since 2004 — has led to a proliferation of ever-deepening fragile mines, with foreign companies encouraged by light-touch regulation.
Digging in the dark
Still, the position of Chile’s mining workers seems privileged when compared to their neighbors to the north. Since the privatization of Bolivia’s extractive industries in the 1980s, most metals in the landlocked nation are dug out of the earth by poorly-equipped and barely-regulated cooperatives, who make up 88 percent of the mining workforce.
The infamous Cerro Rico, looming above the southern town of Potosí, sees thousands of workers fill its tunnels every day. Some of those tunnels, which date back as much as 400 years, are supported only by crumbling colonial masonry and aging wooden props.
At least four miners die inside every month in cave-ins and accidents. Dozens more perish annually from silicosis — the terminal lung disease contracted from breathing in large quantities of crystalline silica dust over the course of decades. If you work in the mine long enough — 25 years at most — it’s inevitable, says Rolando, a former miner who now works as a guide in its claustrophobic tunnels.
Nor is protective gear an option in the stifling, suffocatingly-thin air of the high Andes, where miners work at 4,700 meters (over 15,400 feet) above sea level, he adds.
“If you wear a gas mask, you can’t breathe. If you wear goggles, you can’t see. If you wear ear defenders, you can’t listen out for danger.”
Double the wages, half the lifespan
Half a mile inside the rock, Policarpo packs small charges into eight hand-made boreholes, supplementing the precious TNT with ammonium nitrate; it comes in pink bags and looks like cheap candy. His 16-year-old son Carlos watches. He’s lucky enough to still be in school, but comes to help out after classes.
Policarpo lights the fuses and both scramble down the tunnel and stoop a few meters around a corner. After a minute, seven heavy thuds come, one after the other — the eighth doesn’t blow. They cautiously return to sift through the rubble for the most valuable rocks.
Further below, past 8-meter drops and down rickety ladders, another group from the Caracol cooperative chew fistfuls of coca leaves and smoke cigarettes in the gloom — their only sustenance during 12-hour shifts. They can’t eat down here, they explain, or they’d ingest even more poisonous dust.
All started working in Cerro Rico soon after finishing their education: in the mining town of Potosi, there are virtually no other jobs. At best, they can hope to earn US$1200 a month — twice the average national wage, but a poor compensation for the miner’s reduced life expectancy of 40.
A continental concern
It’s a similar story the length of the Andes.
The 12 victims of a flooding in a coal mine in Amagá, Colombia, on October 30 were only the latest casualties in a sector that has claimed more than 850 lives in the past decade. Miners — perhaps over half of them engaged in illicit, small-scale excavations — often work without any form of surveys or plans, meaning they effectively dig into the earth “blind.” In Peru, official statistics report 861 accidental deaths since 2000 — the real figure is likely much higher, considering the 40,000 miners still operating illegally in areas far beyond the effective reach of the state.
Governments of the region need to bring illicit mining operations under effective control before any changes can be made. But even then, they will be wary of allowing over-regulation to compromise the enormous wealth that metals and other extractive industries generate for national treasuries and development projects.
In the end, awareness among global consumers of the source and side effects of metal extraction may be key in prompting diversification of economies and improvements in the sector. As audiences worldwide witness Chile’s “Los 33” immortalized on the big screen, they might spare a thought for those, picking the insides of the earth clean for the copper in their smartphones, who never make it out alive.