Close to a billion people watched on television earlier this month as the 33 Chilean miners trapped since early August were pulled to the surface. When the San José copper and goldmine near Copiapó, Chile first collapsed in early August, leaving the miners buried about half a mile underground, it was considered doubtful that the miners could be saved. Initial contact with the miners gave reason for hope, but it was not until the miners ascended to freedom that the drama finally came to a joyful conclusion.
So many aspects of this story have been transfixing: the courage of the miners, the patience of their families, and the ingenuity of the rescuers. But taking a step back, it is important to remember the reason the miners were trapped initially. This story, like many of the other stories we tell on this blog, is a story about irresponsible mining—and what people can do about it, once they come together.
As has been widely reported, the San José copper and gold mine, where the miners worked, has been cited for numerous safety violations in recent years. After being shut down in 2007, it was re-opened in 2008 despite failing to comply with Chilean safety regulations. Although not all the details have been released, it is already evident that the mining company—and, to a lesser extent, the Chilean government by failing to fund better oversight—placed monetary considerations ahead of the safety and welfare of the people who worked at the mine. Because of this, 33 miners were trapped and nearly lost their lives.
And yet, these 33 miners, people whom the world has gotten to know well, are not the only ones who have borne the brunt of irresponsible mining practices. In Chile alone, more than 30 miners die in mining accidents each year. Across the world, millions of miners work in dangerous conditions, many of them living in extreme poverty. In many countries, irresponsible gold mining causes harm to the environment, releasing toxic chemicals into the water supplies of nearby mining communities. What about these miners and their families? How will they improve their working conditions and escape from poverty, violence, and environmental degradation?
We believe that jewelry consumers around the world have a big role to play. By choosing ethical origin jewelry, consumers can pressure the gold and diamond mining industries, as well as the governments that regulate those industries, to improve working conditions, protect basic human rights, and stop degrading the environment. The results will rarely be as sudden and dramatic as the day the Chilean miners gained their freedom. But over time, if mining practices improve, more miners will gain a chance for a new beginning.