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1 posts from April 2011

04/25/2011

Down the Rabbit Hole

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Larimar is only found in the Dominican Republic, only in the Southwest, and only in the Barahona mountain range. The discovery of Larimar is somewhat of a mythical tale, one that enhances the stone’s mysteriousness and exclusivity.  Originally discovered and used by the Taino Indians for hundreds of years before Columbus arrived, it wasn’t until a Catholic priest named Father Miguel Domingo Fuertes Loren found the blue rock that its name emerged in history. Unable to receive the necessary approval to search for the stone before he was shipped back to Spain, the stone was lost to myth and lore again.  Finally, in 1974, Miguel Méndez and a Peace Corps volunteer “rediscovered” the stone.  Méndez, believing the native legend that the rock came from the sea due to its ocean-blue-white-green colors, named the gem after his daughter (Larissa) and the Caribbean waters (mar). 

 The present day site of the Larimar stone is a bit less romantic.  Bouncing in the back of a truck while driving straight up a mountain for about 45 minutes, we arrive in a cloud of dust and noise, the sounds of a three-story machine whining and grinding as it churns out massive puffs of black smoke filling the air. They tell us that the machine is pumping oxygen into the earth to improve the air quality for the miners working 100, 200, 500 ft below the ground. Poor air is just one of a myriad of hazards miners face underground.  Dangerously high heat levels, toxic waste by-products called “tailings,” explosions and cave-ins are all risks miners have to face every day, not to mention the well-known associations of long-term respiratory and auditory issues due to dust, gases and noise produced while drilling. 

 Amazingly, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to descend one of their rabbit holes, to see exactly what the miners faced every day.  I was strapped into a muddy harness, attached to a cable wire, and lowered like a sack of flour 100 ft below the ground. When I got to the bottom, I was met by three men crouching in a room about the size of the interior of a Chevy Suburban with another 2x2 square hole at the opposite end of it. I asked the men how long they normally worked in the mines, and they reply simply, “Oh, all day. We start at 8 in the morning, come up for an hour for lunch, and then go back down until 6 or 7 at night.” 10 to 12 hour work days in tiny, 100°F tunnels – this is the life of a Larimar miner.   

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 Mining has been universally recognized as one of the most dangerous fields for its employees.  As stated by the International Labor Organization (ILO), the industry employs about 1% of the global workforce but is the cause of 8% of fatal accidents. Unsurprisingly, the rates of mining fatalities are significantly lower in more developed countries.  According to the State Administration of Work Safety, in 2009 there were only 18 deaths in the US mines; in China, it has been estimated that about 9 miners die every day. This discrepancy can be accredited to the lack of unions in developing countries, as explained by the International Federation of Miner’s Unions (ICEM). Without unions, the workers cannot fight for their rights to have safe work conditions, fair wages or influence within the industry. In the Dominican Republic, labor unions have only recently emerged since the fall of Trujillo. The subsequent instability and evolution of the country’s economy and political systems have made it difficult for unions to find their foothold, a concept that seems unthinkable coming from the US, where workers rights are constantly featured in senatorial campaigns and presidential debates, and labor unions can have as much political power as their lobbyist and multinational corporation counterparts. 

 Surprisingly though, reading about the union protests in Wisconsin right now has made me notice more similarities than differences between working in the US and the Dominican Republic. Tens of thousands of public labor supporters gathered in Madison, WI this February to voice their outrage with the proposed bill’s plan to strip the workers of their bargaining rights. Last year, 2,500 workers of the Barrick Gold Company site in Pueblo Viejo, DR protested the gold mining company’s refusal to pay its workers minimum wages, even temporarily suspended on-site operations. Both groups of protesting laborers had the full support of the local community and its organizations backing their right to power within the workforce. Despite the vast social, economical, and political contrasts between the US and the DR, basic rights can still transcend cultural differences. 

 As I tried bargaining with our director to let me climb down further via the PVC pipe telephone, the miners laughed and said, “¡Ayyy, pero tú eres guapa, muy muy guapa!” Guapa can be translated a variety of ways: attractive, angry, a bully - but in this case, it meant something else: “brave.” Some people might call my little adventure below brave, but in comparison to the work these miners do every day, knowingly going to work with no real security of pay or benefits in life-threatening conditions to support their families, I just see it as a mere blip of curiosity in the grand scheme of my life here. 

Kendra O'Connor

The George Washington University