The 10-week-long captivity-turned-spectacle of 33 Chilean miners has seized the attention of audiences from Asia, to Latin America, to the United States. “It was reality TV at its best,” proclaimed one CNN reporter. Another observed that, “overall, people feel really connected to this story.”
As caring cosmopolitans, we ought to feel connected. Global media outlets have promoted this feeling by offering narratives of cosmopolitan solidarity and hope. You’ve likely been moved by the “perseverance” and “courage” of the miners and their families as well as the “heroism” and “determination” of the international team of rescuers. If you are American, Swiss, or German, you might have taken pride in knowing that many of the rescuers and rescue technologies came from your country.
If you read these stories carefully, however, you will find hints of a darker reality that remains, literally and figuratively, buried underground.
For instance, you will find statements expressing ongoing frustration about working and safety conditions, including at least one miner’s observation, now corroborated, that San Jose’s owner consistently violated national and international safety codes. Other statements, along with moving stories about the miners’ lives, reveal more general hardships and dangers associated with the low-cost extraction and worldwide distribution of valuable raw materials from the bowels of the earth.
Excavating a Systemic Problem
Empresa Minera San Esteban, the owner of San Jose, is not an outlying offender. Nor are the “small mining companies” that Pinera, the Chilean President, cited as culpable parties. Labor organizations have highlighted the extent to which unsafe conditions in mines are an industry-wide effect of intense competition. As the global market price of raw materials decreases, the quest for cheaper labor and lower production costs intensifies. In deference to mining companies’ profit-seeing prerogatives, governments cripple labor union organization and neglect regulatory responsibilities.
It is worth mentioning that the feel-good connections marketed by reality-TV depend upon an utterly fortuitous circumstance: the San Jose mine collapsed in a way that allowed the miners to survive for weeks until the rescue drill arrived. Since coal mining emerged as the engine of industrialization centuries ago, most miners in similar situations have not been so lucky. Recent fatal disasters from China to Appalachia should remind us of mining’s mortal dangers. Twenty-nine miners were buried in West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch coal mine collapse earlier this April. Just two days after the heroic rescue in Chile, a gold mine in Ecuador collapsed, trapping four miners.
Repeated fatal mine disasters indicate an international-historical context of less-than-human connections: profit-seeking superexploitation, patterns of life-threatening working conditions, and uneven exchanges.
The San Jose mine is one example, one site, among countless others. Highly profitable, cost-reducing neglect and labor union subordination functions as a powerful market force. It draws extractors of raw materials to sites like San Jose all over the world.
Like its competitors, Empresa Minera San Esteban lowers production costs by taking advantage this neglect: they build structurally unsound shafts without escape routes and hire older miners whom larger companies have refused to employ and who are willing to risk their lives in exchange for the opportunity to work. Driven in part by the global demand for cheaper minerals and fuels, including our own need for drinking water (copper pipes) and heat (coal), mining companies seek ways to extract raw materials more and more cheaply.
The profitable precariousness built into San Jose recalls a largely abandoned narrative of global connections developed by theorists of underdevelopment and “dependency.” According to this narrative, imperialist expansion produced a division of labor in which elites could systematically exploit the inhabitants of peripheral spaces in order to extract raw materials for sale to manufacturers in the world’s industrial “core.” Coffee, sugar, minerals, and fossil fuels connect producers and consumers not as free-traders, but as hierarchically organized subjects.
Blood for Coal and Copper: The Darker Side of the Neoliberal Revolution
Stories of historical dependency unsettle the narratives of high-tech heroism at San Jose. Take, for instance, the roles of Layne Christensen Company and its affiliate, Geotec Boyles Brothers, the U.S.-based companies praised for the successful made-for-TV “Plan B” rescue operation. These international heroes were drawn to Chile by the very same profitable neglect of workers’ well being that led to the collapse of the San Jose mine.
Christensen and Boyles Brothers expanded their operations in Mexico and South America in the 1970s to take advantage of Latin America’s emerging mining “boom.” In Chile, democratically elected President Salvador Allende attempted to regulate this explosion by nationalizing the mining industry in 1970, protecting his country’s workforce from the worst forms of corporate exploitation. The move forced Boyles Brothers to leave the country. When Allende died in the CIA-sponsored military coup of 1973, however, his authoritarian successor, General Augusto Pinochet, re-privatized the industry and successfully encouraged companies like Christensen and Boyles to re-invest.
Envisioning opportunity in authoritarian Chile, Christensen bought a majority share in Boyles Brothers in 1975. As the company put it, the merge was “a perfect marriage between the manufacturer and the contractor.” The relationship solidified connections between the manufacturing core (Christensen) and peripheral practices of “testing” and deregulated exploitation of people and resources (Boyles and Latin American mining companies). Specializing in sophisticated mining equipment for the extraction of minerals, Layne Christiansen has now expanded its lucrative connections with affiliates all over Latin American and Africa.
As in most other countries during the neoliberal revolution, privatization and deregulation became standard practice in post-coup Chile. In addition to the weakening of labor union power and the correlative neglect of safety standards, the privatization of social security in 1980 prevented Chilean workers from retiring. The aging workforce at San Jose is in many ways a legacy of the dictator’s adherence to global, neoliberal principles.
We are all connected to Chile as subjects of this neoliberal order. The copper in your drinking-water pipes is a product of the deregulated extraction of raw materials. Pinochet’s violent seizure of power and the deregulation that followed facilitated these profitably unsafe practices. For much of Chile’s history, the country depended on cheap copper exports to fuel its economy. Thus, our connection to Chilean miners, like our connection to coal miners in Appalachia, is one of dependence. Historical neglect of miners’ safety helps companies produce the cheap goods that we enjoy. From pipes to energy, the disastrous events in Chile and West Virginia are closer to home than reality-TV would make us believe.
Anthony Pahnke is an affiliated researcher with UNESP (Universidade Estadual Paulista/Brazil) currently residing in Brazil and completing his doctoral research on agrarian politics.