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Let us now praise anonymous men

15 October 2010

“… it would be as well not to forget the lesson taught by the mines’ graveyards, which contain but a fraction of the enormous number of people devoured by cave-ins, silicosis and the mountain’s infernal climate”, wrote a young Argentine doctor touring the Chilean copper mines in 1952.

While industrial safety standards have improved with technology since that time, demands for improvement have largely come from mine workers themselves — the owners (and investors) being reluctant to consider safety as a legitimate cost of doing business, and assessing production solely on the amount of metal produced, without thought to the miners, their families or the environment.

Whether the extractive industries are based on our wants or our needs is another issue — the assumption always having been that outsiders have some inherent right to underground resources found south of the Rio Grande River. One might dismiss the Argentine’s observations as dated, but consider these random factoids from Daniel Hernandez (Los Angeles Times):

  • This month, five miners died in a collapse at a coal mine in northeast Colombia (link in Spanish).
  • In August, while the 33 Chile miners were trapped underground, an explosion at a wildcat gold mine in a remote jungle in Venezuela killed six miners. Miners in the area said that the actual toll was 14 or 15.
  • In June, an explosion at a coal mine in northwestern Colombia left 70 miners dead, one of the largest death tolls recorded in recent mining accidents worldwide.
  • In February, eight miners died after an explosion at a coal mine in northern Peru.
  • In 2006, 65 miners died after an explosion at a coal mine in northern Mexico (link in Spanish).

How much news coverage (even in investment and business publications) did the Colombian, Peruvian, Mexican and Venezuelan miners receive?  And how are those affected by investors likely to respond to the indifference?

Chilean miners, who earn up to 2,000 dollars a month, and miners in Peru and Mexico, whose paychecks may be no more than 60 dollars a week, are demanding their share in the bonanza.

In Chile, a three-week strike in August hit the world’s largest copper deposit, and in Peru, neighbourhood protests paralysed Latin America’s biggest gold mine for several days last month.

Meanwhile, in Mexico a labour dispute between miners and the government continues after five months, and in Central America activists and residents want to block mining sector development.

According to the International Labor Organisation (ILO), mining produces the most fatal accidents and illnesses among its labour force. Furthermore, millions of people work in mining informally, without employment or health protections.

Yes, things have changed since Che Guevara first visited the Chilean mines.  Still, without serious demands by the investors, don’t be surprised if it’s the Argentine doctor with an interest in industrial safety who is listened to by those upon whom the “first world lifestyle” depends.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. otto permalink
    15 October 2010 1:09 pm

    Forgive the “autobomba” (as they say round here when you link yourself), but i would like to give this story a little more airing:

    http://incakolanews.blogspot.com/2010/10/gold-fields-gfi-and-pan-american-silver.html

    Mining is a dangerous activity, nobody’s going to argue that point and people get killed doing it. But the least a major international mining company can do when a fatality occurs is to suspend production, investigate the causes and try to improve H&S due to information gathered. Pan American Silver (PAAS) (PAA.to) has, since 2006, seen 14 deaths in separate accidents at its two mines in Peru and hasn’t lifted a finger to do anything about them. Two more deaths this year (one Feb, one July) attest to this.

    The single, multiple death accidents make bigger headlines (though still puny next to the Chile miners saga…and I don’t begrudge them their airtime either). But I believe a company that is behind sequential deaths such as PAAS is guilty of something far more sinister…and gets away with its actions scot free.

    Mis 2 centavitos

  2. 18 October 2010 8:04 am

    Mining represents 1% of the world’s labor force but 8% of the fatalities. I grew up with smeltermen and miners in Montana – but usually never in as much danger as the cases you and Otto site.

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