Columns - From the Sidelines

The Chilean rescue and lessons for Sri Lanka

By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

The region of the world that gave us such delights as the samba, the bossa nova and the margarita has been in the news a lot lately, what with Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa winning the Nobel prize for Literature, and the live telecast of a miraculus rescue of 33 miners trapped 622 metres underground for 70 days in a copper mine in Chile. People around the world who watched the latter story unfold on TV in real time were never certain as to whether the rescue team could actually pull it off, till the last man was hoisted out of the San Jose mine in Capiaco on Thursday. It was a rare feat of human endurance, moral courage and team spirit that will no doubt become the subject of movies, books and legend in time to come.

While the relief and euphoria in Chile was shared in other parts of the world, the happy ending to this story will also mark the beginning of some serious reassessment on the part of the Chilean government regarding safety in its mining industry. Chile is the world’s biggest producer of copper, and mining accounts for the largest segment of its GDP (around 16%), and nearly half its exports. But mining is also one of the world’s most hazardous industries, with frequent deaths and injuries caused by collapses and explosions. In China, where safety regulations are supposedly in place but largely ignored, hundreds are reported to die each year in coal mine accidents.

Chilean miner Ariel Ticona and his wife Elizabeth Segovia hold their baby girl Esperanza, who was born while Ticona was trapped in the San Jose mine, moments after he arrived home for the first time since being rescued in Copiapo October 15. REUTERS

Chilean president Sebastian Pinera who was at the San Jose rescue site throughout the 22-hour ordeal, pledged that things would be different from now on. He admitted to reporters that the small privately owned mine should never have been in operation, because the required safety precautions were not in place. Twenty seven relatives of the miners were already planning to sue the company, whose owners have been stopped from leaving the county.

Pinera looked a happy man when the rescued men came out one by one, and were hugged by anxiously waiting family members. The spirit of solidarity among the miners, as well as the disciplined manner in which the whole operation was managed by the Chilean authorities using local expertise, must have been noted by many.

The “Phoenix” capsules that lifted the men out of the shaft were reportedly built by Chilean Navy engineers. Telephone and video contact was set up inside the mine so that communication with the outside world was maintained. The large numbers of media personnel that had gathered were given access to family members of the miners who were camping out for weeks at the site, but were kept away from the rescued miners who were whisked away for medical check-ups when they reached the surface. But correspondents were kept more than happy with live footage made available to them that allowed their viewers to witness the entire drama as if at close quarters. The Chilean authorities demonstrated that they knew how to balance their priorities whilst staying in control and never losing sight of their objective.

Chile’s self-reliance even in times of emergency perhaps holds lessons for Sri Lanka. Chile was hit by a major earthquake of 8.8 magnitude at the end of February this year, followed by a tsunami that took over 700 lives and displaced 500,000. Within days, another three earthquakes of lesser magnitude struck. The situation was further complicated by the fact that an election had just resulted in a change in the presidency, which passed to the centre-right Pinera on March 11.

But it is unlikely that Chile witnessed scenes similar to those in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami, when this country was swamped by international NGOs competing to plant their banners and claim ownership of the relief project. The Chilean government requested assistance from the UN, not from international humanitarian groups. (That too consisted of “targeted requests” for “specific assistance” according to US Congressional research.) Many Chileans themselves volunteered and made donations, with one local organization alone raising $60 million initially. Also the damage was mitigated by the fact that strict building codes were in place in Santiago, where one third of the population lives.

The Chilean miners’ rescue story highlights labour issues that are relevant to Sri Lanka as well. As with the mining industry, some areas of Sri Lanka’s economy too depend on a ready supply of workers who are willing to take incredible risks simply in order to make a living, owing to the lack of other (safer) options. The abuse faced by mainly female migrant workers in West Asia is a case in point. It appears that the death or injury of these workers is not a matter of much concern to governments since there will always be others to take their place and rake in the foreign exchange. In the plantations and in garment factories too it appears that female labour is simply a “factor of production.” It is a cynical attitude indeed that allows a state to look upon its population as a source of “cheap labour” that can attract foreign investment, whilst making no attempt to create better opportunities for those trapped in a cycle of poverty.

The writer is a senior freelance journalist.

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