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Aftershocks of the Chilean miners' rescue

Patricia d'Ardenne and James Thompson survey the many unresolved problems


n October 2010, 33 Chilean miners who had been trapped half a mile beneath the earth for 69 days, were rescued after an extraordinary and emotional rescue, watched by the international media and politicians, nearly all of whom have since left. There now remain doubts about the long term future of Chilean working conditions. Miners there and in many other countries have died since October 13th. In addition the forgotten 300 miners who were not trapped after the mine collapsed, have all lost their jobs without severance pay or hope of future employment. The San Jose mine has declared bankruptcy and there is no possibility of profit by Open Cast mining.

So what now for the famous 33, and their 300 comrades?

Trauma Psychologist Patricia d'Ardenne spoke with Dr James Thompson, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at University College London, about his extensive coverage of this world event and its psychological, social and political fall-out.

PdA: As an eminent psychologist what drew you to cover this story. I was profoundly moved by your daily coverage for the BBC in the weeks leading up to the rescue. Do you have any connections with Chile?

JT: I had been working with torture survivors of the Pinochet regime since the 70's, and my family and cultural roots are in Latin America, but not Chile. This story attracted us psychologically because we all have a primordial fear of being buried alive, because the numbers involved were small enough for us to imagine what was going on.

PdA; Since following your reportage I have found out that miners are trapped every day. So what were the other reasons that attracted so much of our attention?

JT: Well let's first get some background. Many countries (including China and Chile - the world's largest supplier of copper) whose miners are trapped underground, take a tough stance; they simply declare trapped miners as dead. End of story. Men who sign up for work in some of the most dangerous and unregulated mines in the world, and their families, understand this harsh economic reality- rescue is too expensive for the smaller, less profitable mines. Workers and the local unions in Chile had long accepted this because of the possibility of extra wages in the face of extensive unemployment after the earthquake in 2008.

PdA: Was the San Jose mine like this?

JT: Yes, in fact it was mined only when copper prices were high, and even then ran on very tight margins. The best Chilean mines are up to international standards of safety and profit. But San Jose was unable even to afford basic safety features such as ladders in the ventilation shafts. Indeed the existence of safety features might have prevented the miners being trapped below for so long.

PdA: So why were these 33 so different, and why would a small mine and the government spend 40 million dollars on rescuing them? Has Chile enjoyed a political sea change?

JT: These miners were exceptionally lucky. At an individual level, we know that in these circumstances they have immense resource, and face death daily. We know those who are trapped are no different and are as strong, both physically and psychologically, as those who return each day to the surface. The trapped worked as a team and drew very deeply on their comradeship, as well as forming (initially at least) a democratic pact of silence after rescue. The older men protected and supported the younger and more vulnerable. They kept clean; they kept busy; they kept organised. That is how they survived the first 17 days relatively unharmed, without any contact from the surface.

But there is more. The recently elected Chilean Rightist government is not the vicious military of the Pinochet years. Rather its ministers are American educated, technocratic, problem solvers. Its Mining Minister Laurence Golborne and President Sebastian Piñera, both Harvard educated, typify this new breed who began to visit the stricken mine from the start, to dramatic political effect. They stage managed a daring and spectacularly successful political coup de theatre throughout the actual rescue that was watched directly by one tenth of the population of the globe.

PdA: But why did they allow the world in at the start? Supposing it had all gone wrong?

JT: A blackout was originally planned. But they worked out that no cover up for this rescue would be possible. They were also aware that there was a distinct possibility of success (though we shall never know exactly how certain). What mattered was that the State would be seen to take every means possible to rescue the men and to share in the outcome. As recent election winners they could afford that risk.

Remember that Piñera used to run his own TV channel and opted for complete transparency. Even more daringly, they provided three live camera feeds to the media- completely uncensored, and amazingly at the tip of the Phoenix Capsule as it descended to the miners They saw a perfect opportunity to show its people what they could do. In the words of Piñera, 'Chile is with the miners now'.

PdA: Can the 30 rescue the 300 of the St Jose mine?

JT: As individuals, probably not. But as a team, showing solidarity with those left without work, perhaps it is possible. They have defeated the odds in so many ways. Sudden wealth and celebrity will bring many more problems. Individual buy offs will undermine the integrity and unique strength of the 33. Huge money to people who have only known poverty is stressful and potentially corrupting. They were very poor, living in shanties in the Atacama Desert with no running water or sanitation. Miners sometimes have chaotic lives that celebrity and cash will not address, and indeed might make worse.

PdA: So what is their best hope?

JT: If the 33 maintain their sense of solidarity, their voice will be stronger and will continue to seek safer and better paid working conditions for miners who bring us materials we use every day, and take so much for granted in terms of human cost.