issue 174 - August 1987
Photo: Peter Stalker
The kitchen at Lota
The trade unions in Chile have been under siege. The law has
been transformed to give employers a free hand. Union leaders
have been sacked or imprisoned. In the coal-mining district of Lota
the majority of the workforce is now unemployed but they - and
particularly the women - refuse to be beaten.
The 'Coal Express' runs from the city of Concepción to the mining town of Lota some 50 miles down the coast. The forests that line much of the route are broken up here and there by logging camps. All that remains in some parts is a vista of tree stumps looking like the stubble on a hugely magnified face that has been attacked by a blunt razor.
Thousands of years ago the forests used to last rather longer - long enough to be petrified and transformed into coal seams. At Lota the remains of these forests are to be found not just under the ground, they have been pushed under the Pacific Ocean by subterranean forces. So Lota's miners actually work under the sea.
But as we get to the outskirts of the town the only work in evidence looks altogether more superficial. One group of people are sweeping up leaves from the roadside and while others are hosing down the grass in front of public buildings. I'd be more convinced of the value of this if it weren't raining. But these are the Government-financed work schemes which attempt to bring down the official unemployment figures. For the $23 or so a month that they are paid it doesn't seem to matter what's actually achieved
The 'Coal Express', I should explain, is not a train but a brilliant yellow minibus. Drawn up alongside its companions at the terminus it is one of the brightest sights on a grey day in a grey town.
I'm here to talk to the coal miners. Their union headquarters which faces onto the main square is a large building but also largely empty. Pools of water lie on the floor of the vast entrance hall and most of the windows over the first-floor balcony seem to have been shattered. Bold murals stride around the walls declaiming to an audience that seems to have left long ago. It has an eerie, gloom-laden air.
It also appears to be unoccupied. But at the end of a corridor I do find one office with furniture and even some people. They are unnerved by my arrival - and unwilling to talk. The Union President isn't here. Could I come back tomorrow? Maybe I could But isn't there someone else that I could meet?
There's always the Women's Section. They come Monday, Wednesday and Friday - and today is Wednesday.
I find the Women's Section in another corner of the building in a kitchen. Four women (and one man) are chopping vegetables. This looks to me like an olla commun. 'Community cooking pot' would be a literal translation. It's a distinctively Chilean solution to the pressures of poverty. A group of women get together to pool what food they have bought and scrounged. They then make one giant pot of soup and share it out I'd be tempted to call it a soup kitchen but that implies a handout this is something people are doing for themselves. I think I should avoid a translation and call it an olla.
Lunch today, to judge by all the peeling and chopping, is going to consist largely of garlic and carrots. It is being produced under the supervision of a small determined woman in large glasses.
Fresia Mellado worked at the mine until 18 months ago when, along with four other union leaders, she was sacked. There used to be 16,000 miners working at Lota. Now there are less than 6,000.
'I was fired,' she says, 'because I was pressing for maternity allowances, health care and milk for the children. I used to work in the engineering department where they made machine parts for the mine. I drove a small crane. Before that I worked in the office but they demoted me because I was a trade union leader.'
Belonging to a trade union in Chile is now a tricky business following a series of repressive labour laws which give most of the power to employers. Union membership is down to about 10 per cent of the country's workforce.
'We started the olla when I was fired. The workers gave food at first but the company threatened that they would lose their jobs. Now we get help from the stallholders at the market who give us what they can't sell, from other people in the community, and from the College of Lawyers in Concepción.
'But still the authorities are trying to stop us. This room was broken into again the other day and they stole cooking pots and oil. They say we don't have a right to belong to the Women's Section any more since we don't have jobs.'
The tiny room now seems to be full of people. One woman has walked three miles through the rain for her soup. A dozen or so children are running around between our legs, including Fresia's four-year-old daughter Waleska. Then a couple more men show up. Two ex-union leaders. There has been another round of sackings to remove people who were also politically active. That just leaves, they say, one leader on top who claims to be non-political and others who belong to more right-wing parties. I can see why the atmosphere was a bit tense when I showed up.
None of this seems to have deterred the women. Indeed last year when General Pinochet came to Concepción they went on a demonstration. 'He came to inaugurate 30 new houses in an area where there is a shortage of 3,000 houses. We went to protest about the unemployment and the malnutrition in our children. Four of us were arrested and I now have a four-month prison sentence coming up which I am appealing against'
Sergio Henriquez has now arrived with his two young daughters Claudia and Alejandra. He was a miner who went off to Santiago looking for work but has since returned to Lota. Not all the Government work schemes involve sweeping up leaves, he says.
'Some of them involve lifting 50-kilo paving stones all day. It's like slaves at the time of the Roman Empire. You have to work all day getting beaten or shouted at. But people round here are desperate for work,' says Sergio. 'There are children as young as 10 or 12 prostituting themselves for 100 pesos (50 cents).'
How I wondered did he make ends meet if it was difficult to get on the Government work programmes? He said he worked as a chinchero sifting out coal from the wastes of the mine. He'd take me along to see if I wanted.
Photo: Peter Stalker
So we left the warmth of the olla and headed for the waste tips. But with one diversion along the way - the Cousiño park. The Cousiño family were the original owners of the (now state-run) mines and as one of their more expansive gestures they had laid out a remarkable park on a promontory that juts out into the ocean. A series of paths wind their way through flower beds and grottos. At almost every turn there is a white Graeco-Roman statue of a nymph or a goddess or some other mythical creature. The park would normally have peacocks strutting about but they have more sense than to appear in this sort of weather. It is now bucketing down with rain. Sergio has a waterproof anorak on so doesn't seem to mind too much. I've got a denim jacket and am going to get seriously wet.
'A pity about the rain,' I venture to Sergio. 'They're not going to be scavenging for coal today.'
'Of course they are,' he replies. When it's cold like this they get a better price for the coal.' That makes sense - unfortunately - so on we squelch. First we pass the mine itself, which looks highly automated with criss-crossing networks of belts conveying coal to trucks which take it round to a pier on the other side of the park.
Then we slide down the hillside towards the beach. The rain is now coming down in sheets, blown by the wind and washing rivers of mud ahead of us. The only waterproof items I have got are my camera bag and my skin and I'm none too sure about them either. We pass some of the chincheros climbing in the other direction, each bent double with a sack of coal on their back.
The slag heap is actually a hillside of grey rocks which is growing out into the ocean as more debris from the mine is dumped over the edge. A dozen or so men and boys poke around searching for lumps of coal that have escaped the sorters. We start to climb up but with the driving rain and the loose rock it's almost impossible to keep a foothold and I find myself slithering around on all fours. Below us the ocean is frothing away - one false move and I could get even more wet, if that were possible.
'The problem here,' says Sergio, 'is to keep your footing so you don't fall into the sea and at the same time to dodge the falling rocks.'
'What falling rocks?'
'From up there.' I look up and sure enough there is a conveyor belt poised to send down a very heavy shower indeed.
'You mean that could start up at any minute and start dropping rocks on us?'
'Yes, that's what makes it so dangerous. A lot of people get badly hurt. Do you want to take a closer look?'
'Not really necessary. Maybe we should start to head back now.'
'Whatever you say. You should at least be able to dry your clothes on the stove at the olla.'
And so I might have done had there not been a strange manoeuvre back at the union. While we have been out the olla has been evicted.
'The union leaders said it was to give a place for the dentist to come and work,' says Fresia. 'But I think it's just that they don't want us here - or they have been told to get us out.'
But the women haven't left the building altogether. Now they have to make do with a smaller room where all their belongings are at present piled forlornly on top of each other - stove, cooking pot, and an oil painting of the miners at work. Everyone would normally have left by now. But I said I was coming back and here they are to meet me.
'Your clothes weren't that colour when you went out,' says Fresia. 'You look very cold to me. Here, Waleska, come and hold Peter's hand.'
The effect is extraordinary. This four-year-old's hands are hot, not warm and sweaty, but hot and dry. It should not be physiologically possible. But who am I to argue? She calmly holds my hands looking sweetly up at me like a miniature saint conveying a blessing on this large, unworthy and shivering foreigner.
'We call her the "little oven", says Fresia. 'Now you should sing him the miners' anthem.'
Waleska starts up a little nervously and all the other women and children join in.
'We all want to salute/ those whose work is as hard as could be/ Taking coal, coal, coal and more coal/ From under the depths of the sea...' The recital finishes up with the battle cry of the olla started up by the diminutive cheerleader.
of the coal miner's union!'
The shouts echo round the damp empty building and then they stop. To be honest I find it difficult to say anything.
Back to Concepción on the 'Coal Express'. I am soaked to the skin and the temperature is dropping. But I can still feel Waleska's hot little hands.