This posting is prompted by things I have seen, heard, and thought on trips to remote mines in the Canadian Northwest Territories, Mexico, Guatemala, and the Atacama Desert of Northern Chile. Nothing I write is specific to only one mine or generally applicable to all mines. Each has it own characteristics and issues. But they are remarkable similar, so let me lump them in one posting.
You arrive and are passed through the security system: do not stray beyond the confines of the fence; do not eat too much at the canteen; stay inside if you hear gunshots.
Then to the safety system: do not trip or fall; wear gloves; listen to those in authority; wear seat belts; do not drink—this is a dry mine. Huh!
You spend two to four days in this isolated, insulated place. You work long hours, for there is nothing else to do. The internet connection is censored by the system–no porn sites today! You traipse to the food supply three times a day. It is all the same. Sure one features more beans that you thought existed; one features onions & tomatoes cut too small to be credible; one has refrozen ice cream and one has creamy stuff to indulge in. All have large, flat steaks of dubious origin; pork of every cut & pull; and scrambled eggs in great quantities at breakfast. But too little coffee to survive the morning’s meetings. Especially taken with those strange tasting juices of agave.
There are those special meals that all anticipate as a deviation from the normal. Pizza! Tacos! Roast Beef!
There are those post-dinner drinks. Copious quantities of the best rum, brandy, tequila, and scotch. Drunk from plastic cups, they taste alien and lousy. But it sets the tongues wagging. Mining gossip. Who is new? Who was let go? Who is incompetent? And who will achieve fame & success? Soon enough talk tends to politics.
Most of these mines are run by Canadians and Americans from remote and conservative places. In spite of the isolation in which they work, they are up-to-date with FOX News and its aberrant opinions. Down with Obama Care. Although they all have full medical benefits from their mining company, the idea that others should get medical benefits incenses them. Politicians of liberal bent will destroy the system, particularly its morals, although they know the brothels of Lima & Santiago intimately. Or they experts in Brandi’s in Vancouver. It is just over the road from our office!
You meet and work with the locals. Earnest young engineers and scientists from local communities. They are intelligent and committed. But so lacking in exposure to bigger things and so short on experience They know every rock joint and fault; where the groundwater is seeping or rushing into the underground mine workings. They know every slope crack and why it cracked. They ask why those foreign engineers put the tailings over future mine workings. The wisdom of the working class is extraordinary on remote mines. Yet we too often ignore it in our pride of coming from a great city.
They will not speak of the villages they come from. They have broken a mould. They have defied the elders. They have fled the gangsters who seek to rule the tribe. They shudder at going home, for their family is jealous of their incomes and disdainful of their future fortunes. They will never be able again to blend into the dull mass of their origins. But what do they do when the mine closes? Theirs is a career of fear and alienation.
If they are very talented they will be transferred to another country. But that only breaks the family and tribal bonds more dramatically. They know they will become sad ex-pats like those white men from Canada and America who have no roots, no fixed abode, and only a bitter opinion about politics in the places they came from but can never return to.
Their tribes are not really local. Nobody lives within many miles of the mine. They fly in from remote, distant places that the Vancouver liberals say is local, but is not really. They travel eight hours by bus from a place ruled by another gang. The conference queens say these places are “local,” but history and blood separate them from the very few disposed who may live near the mine.
Don’t get me wrong. I am an ex-pat, a non-local, a transient in search of fun & fortune. Just like all those on the remote mine. My intellect and ambition have propelled me from my homeland, from my tribe, from my village. I will never go back. I must find happiness in the transience of travel, the stimulation of the remote mine challenge, and the return to a place I have made home. So too must they.
This is sustainable only in the sense that that is what humans have always done: some stay; some move on to new places and establish new ways of living. But that is not the stuff of conference papers by academics and stay-at-home theoreticians. Too controversial.