Countering a cold blast of wind from the devil

Blank two-storey, wood-frame row houses line the main street through Lota, Chile. The stark functionality of worker's housing in this former company town can't be escaped.

Blank two-storey, wood-frame row houses line the main street through Lota, Chile.

The stark functionality of worker’s housing in this former company town can’t be escaped. It has been a long time since I wandered those streets but I hear that the coal industry there has fallen on very hard times. Closed mines, people trapped in poverty and toxic slag heaps don’t leave much room for optimism.

Lota sits on the Pacific coast about 30 kilometres south of Chile’s second largest city, Concepcion. It was a year ago this coming Sunday that the 8.8-magnitude earthquake hit this region.

By GPS calculations, the powerful shaking displaced the whole city roughly three metres to the west. The quake left more than 520 dead, thousands injured and hundreds of billions of Chilean pesos in damage nationwide.

The quake did provide some relief for this region’s chronically unemployed miners and their families. Emergency government work programs, like the Military Work Corps, provided needed jobs. For several months thousands of men and women took on the tasks of cleaning up debris, installing emergency housing and other reconstruction work. These jobs didn’t last.

By fall, the government of Sebastian Pinera, a conservative multi-millionaire, had cut the emergency work programs. Once again, economic and concomitantly psychological depression faced the residents of Lota. In November, 33 local women inspired by the dramatic rescue last October of the 33 miners trapped further north in the San Jose mine on the edge of the Atacama desert, launched a hunger strike.

After unsuccessfully petitioning government officials and marching on their offices they took their protest nearly 1,000 metres below Lota into the former El Chiflon del Diablo, “the cold blast of wind from the devil,” coal mine. The Chiflon del Diablo mine had been a major employer in the area until supposed high production costs shut it down in the early 1990s.

The women protesters reasoned if the Pinera government could pledge to spare no resources in the rescue of the trapped “Atacama 33,” it could do the same to save the jobs their families depended on.

They wrote, “Today we want to ask the government and parliament officials to, with the same drive, use the country’s economic resources to keep these jobs.”

After a week, the hunger strikers were able to reach an agreement with regional governor, Jacqueline Van Rysselberghe. She announced her government would fund 2,000 new jobs in the area. The governor also pledged the workers would receive training offering hope for future permanent employment. The protester’s creative non-violent collective action succeeded in getting the powers that be to listen to them.

The World Day of Prayer this year has been written by a committee of women from Chile. The women describe devastating events in their land “when people chose to resist evil by forming community.”

They urge us to “consider times in your country or community when evil was overcome by people acting together for the common good.”

These Chilean women hope to inspire us in our dealings on today’s critical problems like homelessness locally and people elsewhere confronting challenges like systemic violence. They urge us all not to despair. Together we can in word and deed remake our world into a global community where the multitudes are fed and justice prevails.

The World Day of Prayer will be celebrated this year at the Whitehorse United Church at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 11th. For more information call 667-2989.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact pazypan@yukon.net.

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