Remember the joy shared by millions around the world as we watched as the Chilean miners were rescued one by one? Celebrating their survival made me wish that the global mining industry could find itself in the spotlight too, with lights glaring at each aspect of its destructiveness and criminality.
Sure, it was wonderful for the world’s TV networks to bring this act of human prowess and heroism into our living rooms. But once the last of the 33 miners was catapulted to the surface, and Chilean President Sebastián Piñera declared the mine would be shut and the small San José mining company punished, the TV show came to an end.
The mining incident has exposed the precarious conditions that miners face each day, as well as the industry’s devastation of the environment and ecosystems, on which millions of livelihoods depend. But it doesn’t look like large transnational mining corporations and their vested interests will be pressed to change their ways.
But they should. Mining accidents have caused more than 200 deaths this year alone in Latin America. The vast majority died in Colombia, with 73 coal miners killed in a single disaster on June 16. In Chile, 32 miners have died already this year–eerily just about the same number as those who were rescued in October.
In Mexico, 65 miners lost their lives in the Northern state of Coahuila in 2006. Unlike in Chile, the Mexican government never tried to save them. Only two bodies have been recovered. Their widows and families are still fighting for the right to bury their loved ones.
Even more miners are dying in Africa and Asia. Although the number of South African mining fatalities is gradually decreasing, 96 miners have been killed in 2010 so far. And last year, more than 2,600 people were killed in mining accidents in China alone.
Hundreds of TV crews and media organizations were on hand covering the Chilean rescue. But where were the legions of international TV crews to report on all these other accidents?
In the United States, the media did pay some attention after 29 miners perished in West Virginia back in April. Reports following that accident, the worst of its kind in this country in 40 years, detailed how mining companies spend heavily on lobbyists and U.S. elections.Their lobbying efforts focus on undermining labor rights and safety regulations both inside the United States and in other, poorer countries.
Mining doesn’t just dramatically impact miners and their families. It provokes community conflict, devastates the environment, and violates human rights.
Consider the case of the U.S.- based Commerce Group mining company. It had its mining permits cancelled in El Salvador, in large part because of its poor environmental record. Yet Commerce Group, together with Pacific Rim (a Canadian company with a U.S. subsidiary), is suing El Salvador in an obscure tribunal in Washington. They’re asking for millions of dollars in compensation, basing their case on investment rules in an international trade pact. Free trade and investment protection agreements are a new way for companies to snatch profits they “expected to have” from other countries. In this case, companies are claiming damages because sovereign governments halted their operations to enforce laws and regulations to protect the environment and public safety.
Mining endangers communities everywhere with safety hazards and environmental destruction. It often creates rifts within communities and leads to the criminalization of legitimate protests. In extreme cases, such as in Africa’s Niger Delta, it can even unleash murder and terror. In many Latin American countries, such as El Salvador, community leaders that stand against destructive mining have been murdered. Communities everywhere are awakening to these problems, as well as the fact that mined resources bring very scant economic benefits to the locals.
When we know our history, we learn from it. Like Salvadorans, Mexicans, Chileans, and West Virginians, people all over the world are contending with destructive and criminal mining practices. But don’t count on seeing anything about that on TV.