Viva comradeship

Here’s to ‘Los 33’ on their safe evacuation from the mine, and to all the hands, engineers, scientists, paramedics and officials involved in accomplishing the rescue so smoothly and with such excellent organisation.

The scenes over the last 24 hours at the mine have been intensely emotional and euphoric, and sharing in that joy has been a global experience – one of the wonders of the internet is its ability to bring everyone closer together and that has clearly been a major aspect to these amazing events. Congratulations to the BBC too, whose live reporting on the BBC website has been sensitively and engagingly handled (even if the demands of 24-hour live TV commentary have presented their own, er, challenges. Less is definitely more when it comes to commentators’ and interviewers’ verbose, repetitious and occasionally mystifying, western-oriented, inanities and concerns.)

And now, with everyone out, it’s time to look at the lessons. A number stand out:

– the miners have survived so long (including 17 days at the start when no-one knew if they were alive or not), and have emerged from the mine with such strength and assurance, and good health, because they have stood together. The BBC website carried the story of a journalist who has been working with miners and who had advised them to pick one word around which to make a speech. The word they chose: ‘comradeship‘ (linked to Google’s cached version as the BBC has overwritten updated the page). They have formed a society underground; under the command of the extraordinary figure of the shift foreman Luis Urzua, they have been disciplined and resourceful; they have been organised; they have shown an incredible amount of solidarity. They’ve had Elvis singalongs and religious services to strengthen morale; and secured water and delivered food and medical services to each other. They have had a daily routine of eight hours for work; eight hours for rest; and eight hours for their own instruction. All this has made them resilient enough to survive the ordeal. Mining is that sort of occupation: your own survival underground depends on those you work with and miners therefore tend naturally to recognise the values of solidarity better than others (though not all of ‘los 33’ are indeed actually miners). They don’t need to learn the lesson that people really are stronger together: but people in increasingly self-regarding, individualistic societies do need to learn (or re-learn) it.

– mining really does ‘have to modernise’ (in the words of Mario Gomes, the eldest of the rescued miners). Stories abound of the desperation of the miners at that mine, willing to accept a higher wage premium to compensate for its poor safety record so as to improve prospects for their families (including Franklin Lobos) or else, in the case of Victor Zamora and Raul Bustos, to start again following the Chilean earthquake earlier this year. And it does indeed make no sense that the safety record of Chilean mines fluctuates inversely to the price of copper: it gets better when the price falls, since only the large, more or less multinationals are left in the marketplace. (That’s not intended to be an argument that working conditions are good in multinationals, or that the Chilean mining industry now needs to be handed over to the multinationals, though I fear that some softening up in this direction is already happening).

Firstly, this is a case for better regulation – a case which Chile’s mining minister and President both appeared to accept yesterday – but it’s remarkable that we appear to need this sort of event to remind us of the value of regulation. It’s also a case that we need to place better value on the minerals that people risk their lives to mine. Human life is cheap: and it’s cheapened still further by an economic approach whose only interest is driving prices downwards in the search for greater profits. As consumers, we have an immense role to play in acquainting ourselves better with the components of the things we buy, and the human cost that goes with our desire to buy them ever more cheaply. And a responsibility to do so, too, which we need to remember once the media circus has all packed up and gone home from Campo Esperanza.

¡Chi-chi-chi-le-le-le, los mineros de Chile! ¡Viva los mineros!

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