What Lies Beneath

The mine is already shut down or else they’re planning to close it and there isn’t even a hope of a job. On the road again, following another tip, passing through ghost towns where with luck there are a few old folks, a few kids and dogs still around. Or you’re out of luck, because all the tin shacks are gone and there’s not even a watchman left to guard the place, because the plant has moved away, skin and bones and all, and thieves have taken even the rusty nails so all that’s left are graves. There’s just a cemetery like an island in the middle of the desert.  A cemetery with dry, cracked crosses, no hint of color. A dead cemetery, slapped down there by some mysterious hand, offering you no protection from the noonday sun or the nighttime cold. A cemetery where, if you took it into your head to dig, you’d find a corpse as intact as if they’d buried it last week, even though the funeral was twenty years ago.

—Luis Alberto Acuna, Walking the Atacama 

The San Jose mine is closed, perhaps forever, and Chile’s exuberant joy at the miners’ rescue seems to beam itself around the world.  President Sebastian Pinera, a conservative who became president in March after a second round vote, observed that the near-tragedy had changed the country. “I hope that from now on, when people around the world hear the word ‘Chile’ they will not remember the coup d’etat or the dictatorship,” he told the BBC.  “They will remember how all the Chileans were united for the rescue.”  Pinera also promised to review the country’s mine safety regulations and their enforcement.

According to Chile’s National Geological and Mining Service, 34 workers have been killed in mining accidents this year, 35 in 2009 and 43 in 2008.  The Centro de Investigacion e Informacion Periodistica (www.ciperchile.cl), an investigative journalism center in Santiago, produced a lengthy report on the case of Manuel Martinez Vega, a 59-year old miner employed at the small, illegally operating Juanita mine in a part of the Atacama desert known as the Distrito Desesperado.  Two years earlier Chilean authorities, citing various violations, had ordered the mine closed, but the owner continued to operate it, selling the extracted ore to the state mining agency via another small mine he owned.  When a tunnel collapsed the other workers managed to escape, but Martinez Vega was trapped 300 meters below.  After five days the rescue was called off and Martinez Vega pronounced dead, though it was far from clear that he was.  The miner’s long-time girlfriend told CIPER that he had talked to her about crawl spaces and furrows in the mine, where workers might seek refuge in case of an accident.  And a year after the accident the Juanita mine’s owner received permission to operate yet another mine.

Here’s a link to the story (in Spanish):http://ciperchile.cl/2010/09/23/el-drama-del-minero-sepultado-hace-dos-anos-en-un-pique/.

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