Copiapó - the weeping mine

For four years I studied the history of the Chilean copper industry. It dominated 'world markets' in the 19th century, inheriting this status from Cornwall. Cornish copper ore went across the Bristol Channel to smelters in Swansea – thereby dissolving the local environment in sulphuric acid. Large fortunes were made, among others by the ancestors of William Morris.

When, by the 1830s, the copper veins were exhausted, some Cornish miners and engineers, along with Welsh smelters, made their way to Chile - and to Copiapó in particular, where the Edwards family controlled the smelting business and became immensely wealthy. Charles Darwin, in his Voyage of the Beagle, records visiting a mine in Chile where he was unable even to lift a sack of copper ore that had been heaved up makeshift ladders for hundreds of metres by a diminutive miner.

The San José copper mine in Copiapó must have been among the last to be sunk, in the 1880s, as the Chilean copper boom came to a temporary end. Further north in the Atacama Desert, natural nitrates were making bigger fortunes for the North and Gibbs families in Britain, and precipitated the War of the Pacific between Chile, Peru and Bolivia – Chile's victory severed Bolivian access to the sea.

Copper mines in the US were now supplanting Chilean ones. Then, with the growing demand for copper wire in the electrical industry, technology shifted towards the digging of gigantic holes for low-grade ore - of which Chuquicamata in Chile would prove to be the largest in the world. Here the Guggenheims made their fortune, too.

The large-scale Chilean copper industry, controlled by US corporations, was nationalized in 1971 - as it remains today - by the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende. Smaller-scale operations staggered on, subject to wild fluctuations in the price of copper. The Pinochet military coup in 1973 brought an end both to  my research, and to my love affair with a beguiling country.

So it was a surprise to discover the old 'corkscrew' vein mine at San José still in business and reaching huge depths, where the problems of extraction, and the dangers to miners, are immense. Particularly is this so in Chile, which is an earthquake zone, and in a 'weeping' mine like San José, which regularly bombards miners with rock falls that maim or kill, primarily in order to spare the owner's pocket.

What force can induce anyone to enter such a fearful place – let alone work there? For me, perhaps the most poignant of the emerging stories behind the trapped miners is that of Mario Gomez, at 63 - the same age as me - the oldest, and already something of a local legend. He began work as a miner at the age of 12 and has lost three fingers for his pains. During the Gulf War he attempted escape by stowing away aboard a ship – only to find himself trapped inside a container and eventually beat a retreat back down the mines.

What may seem like an unendurable ordeal to a global TV audience comes far too close to what is endured by miners in Chile and around the world every day.

The hope must be that the global TV audience for San José will help to put an end to disasters of this kind, precisely because they are so frequent - and so rarely end in triumph. The fear must be that the miners' lives will have been saved only to feed the deathly demand for celebrity. The weeping has to stop somewhere.

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