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October 20, 2010

Bad news hides behind Chile's good news

The Canadian Charger

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The rescue of 33 miners trapped for more than two months under Chile's Atacama Desert gave the world a rare uplifting news story. But the profit-driven corporate media was not interested in the real story.

The mobilization of an international effort to help people in dire circumstances made great copy, and helped everyone realize that human compassion is still alive.

Despite the cheering and congratulations, the rescue is not the real story; it’s really just a fortuitous ending to a near tragedy.

The mine that collapsed, the 125-year-old San José copper-gold mine, had been cited 42 times for safety violations since 2004, and at least three miners had been killed between 2003 and 2007.

Several of the rescued miners had even warned management of a collapse, but nothing was done. This is the real story.

Were it not for company greed and ineffective governmental oversight, this latest mining disaster would never have happened.

Chile’s industry regulatory agency Sernageomin reports that an average of 34 people a year were killed in mining accidents since 2000. That’s what happens when a country has more than 900 mines, but only 18 safety inspectors.

Chile, though, is not unique.

Wherever there are natural resources to be mined, foreign companies come in to make obscene profits because they pay little or nothing for the resources, and that for mine workers, who are treated little better than commodities.

In Ghana, Africa’s second-largest gold producer, host communities receive a paltry 9 per cent mineral royalty, a figure that is even more appalling given that gold has jumped from US$450 per ounce in 2002 to more than US$1300.

According to Professor Kofi Awoonor, who chairs the advisory Council of State, Ghana has nothing to show for generations of gold mining, and people in gold-mining communities continue to live in abject poverty.

The toll of international mining is hardest on the more than 1 million children forced by economic necessity to work in smaller mines without protective clothing, medical treatment or decent pay.

When locally owned mining companies in the Zimbabwean town of Shurugwi went bankrupt due to a prolonged recession, foreign owners stepped in, and created a mining boom that attracted scores of desperate workers under 18.

What is life like at the mines?

One 15-year-old boy works three days from sunrise to sundown alongside adults to mine one ton of chromium ore for which he is paid $10. Attempts to stop the exploitation of child labour have so far failed because Zimbabwe has no child labour laws.

Companies get away with such cruelty because the companies are de facto laws unto themselves, and the host governments are dependent on the annual revenue that mining generates—in the case of Chile, 40 per cent.

The near disaster at the San José mine will do some good, at least in the short term. Chile’s president Sebastian Pinera has promised that the mine will never reopen, but otherwise it is business as usual. He is cashing ion on the successful rescue to push for trade talks with Europe, especially the U.K.

How convenient that a preventable disaster should become such a useful event for the man that could have prevented it. Someone should ask Pinera why he allows mining companies to get away with murder.

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M. Elmasry

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