The limited colour spectrum of the Atacama Desert varies from reddish and yellow browns through dark greys. Scattered bits of scrub brush provide some green to nature’s palette arguably in what is one of the driest areas on the planet. Stretching from Peru down the northern third of the coast of Chile in South America, what the area lacks in moisture, it makes up for in mineral wealth.
In city of Antofagasta near the heart of the Atacama, I recall seeing the battered ruins of a nitrate works which had been fought over during the 1879 to 1884 War of the Pacific. In the end Peru and Bolivia lost much of their Atacama territories to Chile. Nitrates eventually gave way to copper as a source of wealth. Large open-pit copper mines like the famous Chuquicamata mine, which reputedly has produced more copper than any other single mine in the world, became the primary drivers of the Chilean economy. They were also a source of political and economic contention.
The gradual nationalization of Chuquicamata and other foreign held mines began in the 1950’s as an assertion of national sovereignty. Successive governments desired to redirect the profits from Chile’s mineral wealth from the coffers of multinational corporations to programs benefitting Chileans. The Allende government, elected in 1970, completed the process but in doing so incurred the wrath of the Nixon government in the United States.
Three years later, on September 11, 1973, the US-supported a military coup which brought a bloody end to democracy in Chile until 1990. Repression was harsh and swift. The military rounded up potential opponents such as mine union leaders. The junta leader, General Augusto Pinochet, appointed Brigadier General Sergio Arellano to a special task force which travelled from prison to prison torturing then murdering selected detainees in what notoriously became known as the Caravan of Death.
On October 18, 1973 Arellano’s men arrived in the Province of Antofagasta. There they hacked at 56 prisoners with machetes before gunning them down. This official death squad aimed at instilling terror not only in opponents hearts but also in those of soldiers whose loyalty needed to be insured.
Fear based impunity shielded the military from the judgment. It took decades to finally bring General Arellano to justice for his crimes. On October 15, 2008 he was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
On the southernmost fringe of the Atacama Desert the San Jose mine site near Copiapo, Chile, has held world media attention this week. This active copper-gold mine began operation 125 years ago, just a year after the end of the War of the Pacific. When on August 5, a rock burst sealed off the only route to the surface a gripping drama began for the 33 miners trapped nearly 700 metres below ground.
For 17 days no one else knew if they were alive or dead. The miners have told the world’s press how they survived on a disciplined ration drawn from their emergency shelter’s meagre supply. With adequate water, they had only two spoons of tuna fish and a half a cup of milk ever second day to sustain them as they continued to hope for rescue.
The Chilean government mounted a herculean relief effort. It drew on expertise and resources from Canada and other countries. Professor Vic Pakalnis from Queen’s University, former Ontario Director of Mining and a friend from my graduate school days at McGill University, has widely commented on the technical difficulty of this rescue operation with a layer rock 10 times harder than concrete to penetrate and the lessons to be learned by the global mining industry.
There are other lessons to be learned as well. Freed from ideological constraints can we similarly hope to use the world’s technical and material resources to rescue the billion and a half people on our planet trapped by hunger? By working together can we free the half of the world’s population whose precarious jobs and livelihoods condemn them to the poverty? We must hope as hard as those trapped miners did that a vision of a just, sustainable, global community will soon see the light of day.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org