This past week I took a trip up the coast of Chile with some friends to see the desierto florido or flowering desert. Every few years or so, depending on the rainfall, parts of the desert in Chile will spontaneously burst into bloom. It can happen in many different places, but usually centers around Vallenar and Copiapó. It’s impressive, considering this country is home to the Atacama desert which has the distinction of being the driest place on earth. This phenomenon is one of those natural wonders that so unpredictable that it can still easily be enjoyed without seeing a gift shop. The 6 day trip up was everything you could dream of as a gringo college student—our lives contained in our backpacks, every night clandestinely sleeping on beaches, surviving on deli meat, cheese, bread and avocado for every meal, never showering—I had a blast. I’ll put some more photos up on my tumblr, for all to see.
When we were driving through the desert, taking in the dusty hills that have been transformed by washes of fuchsia, yellow and baby blue, our driver told us that about 34 km away were the trapped miners. It was odd standing in the dry heat with the sun beating down on my already burnt face while that only X miles away there are men who hadn’t seen the sun for…how many days?
When the miners first sent up their letter with saying they were alive after XX days, I was in an underground museum in Santiago. As my friend and I entered an exhibit of staged photos of the who’s who of Chile committing unspeakable acts in the darkness of the Santiago nighttime, a security guard stopped us with the news. Los 33 todavía son vivo. When we got above ground the city was reverberating with the honking of cars. As we walked down an avenue cars went by with Chilean flags waving out windows and words painted on their hatchbacks? I tried to imagine that sort of spontaneous, public, communal celebration happening in the US. Chalk it up to culture, to a different brand of nationalism, to latin passion, that sort of thing doesn’t happen in the States unless there is a sports team involved.
Mining is integral not only Chile’s economy but also their national identity. We are a country of copper, a Chilean told me, which is Chile’s most exported natural resource. In fact, mining created Chile’s borders. The War of the Pacific (1879-1884), that Chile won quite handily against Peru and Bolivia, started with disputes over the mining region of Antofogasta. For a few decades Bolivia and Chile had shared the territory, giving free reign to their respective venture capitalists, obviously an arrangement meant to be broken. By the way, while Chilean entrepreneurs, engineers and miners were flocking to what is on the surface an arid wasteland, the fledgling Chilean state was paying Germans to populate the much greener and hospitable south. (More on Chilean Deutschophilia later).
In any case, secret treaties were made, there were arguments over taxes, so inevitably war broke out. Chile, much more unified than Peru or Bolivia, won and came away with some heroic stories to retell during national holidays and two more regions chocked full of mines (more on Arturo Pratt later). Bolivia, on the other hand lost its access to the sea, which they are still contesting to this day (current request: 10 km of coastline). Peru lost dignity and territory. This new acquisition was a very lucrative source of income for the Chilean state and much needed to solidify its hold on the area.
The mines, however, were not a continual blessing for the Chilean state, nor did they even stay in Chilean hands. The elite in Chile, since the beginning, have tended toward a mutually beneficial (for them) combination of a conservative politics with very liberal economics. Sounds familiar, right? As mercantilism faded into a more free market policy, the income from the mines stopped flowing back into Chile and instead was extracted (hah) out by multinationals.
There was a break in this process of extraction is when the mines were made state property during a process known as the Chileanization of Copper, starting in 1955 with the establishment of a government body to deal with the multinationals and then worked towards state ownership through “negotiated nationalization” in which the state bought shares to avoid conflict with businesses (and according the Wikipedia article, the US). Then, that dastardly or saintly—depends who you ask—President Salvador Allende took a drastic or much needed—again, depends…—step and got Congress to unanimously pass a constitutional amendment that nationalized all mines, present and future, which was celebrated with the Day of National Dignity. These fairly radical socialist policies were the catalyst for the coup that instated the military government or dictatorship—…who you ask—headed by the infamous General Augusto Pinochet. Under Pinochet the mines were made private once more, as they are to this day.
I could write about resource traps and what they mean for the development of a country, but this article summarizes much better.
If you don’t want to read it, heres the jist:
A problem facing Chile and other Latin American countries is “the inability to break free of the shackles of commodities exploitation, which provides their livelihoods but leaves them perennially vulnerable to boom-and-bust cycles and wild currency fluctuations. It also consumes capital that might be used to develop higher-revenue, and more stable sources of wealth, like manufacturing”…as well investment in science, technology and education.
Still,the inter/multi/transnational ownership of the Chile's natural resources is a common complaint, with the main culprits being Canada, the US and Spain (and globalization looming in the background). It seems the only mining money this country really sees is from the income of those who are employed in it, and I’ve met many of them. My friend’s host dad is gone every other two weeks to drive a truck at a mine near Iquiqui, I talked with a man who does surveying for a Canadian mining company and spends most of his weeks traveling and I met a 20 year old Rastafarian from Copiapó who has a son on the way who is studying to be a mechanic in the mines. What ties these people together is that while the mines are providing their employment, their jobs are inconvenient, to say the least, and mostly chosen out of necessity. And lets not forget that mining is so dangerous that when the mine first collapsed on los 33, they weren’t the least bit surprised, they had been expecting it.
So, as I was passing through the northern parts of this country, I was glad to see all the Chilean flags inscribed with messages such “Esperamos por los 33”, esperar being a verb that encompasses wishing, waiting, hoping and expecting. At the same time though, I wonder if this will be a moment when the country not only revises its safety policy for mines (which, of course, the government is promising) but also reexamines what mining means for this country now, and whether it should continue to define it.