A Legacy Of Shame
Last weekend we went on a tour around the Parque Minero de La Union. (La Union Mining Park)
La Union is a town just a few miles East of Cartagena, we’ve passed through it a few times on the bus out to the coast.
The place looks a little run down, but look closer and you’ll see some grand old buildings.
There’s a huge iron and glass covered market The Antiguo Mercado Público, completed in 1907, apparently one of the most outstanding works of Modernism in the Region of Murcia.
Then there’s the Nuestra Señora del Rosario Church with it’s imposing dome.
There are others, all dating back to the late 19th and early 20th century. Back then La Union was a bustling metropolis. Tens of thousands lived there and most of them worked in the mining industry.
Fifty years previously men had rushed to California seeking gold. La Union and the Sierra Minera was called by some the ‘New California’. But the men who came to this part of Spain weren’t prospectors and they weren’t going to make their fortune.
The Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans had been here thousands of years before digging for silver. They’d already taken most of the precious metal. Now mining had become an industry and it needed workers.
The Sierra Minera hills cover 16 miles (26 km) of coast from the city of Cartagena to Cabo de Palos. In the 1930’s there were something like 1200 working mines in the Sierras producing mainly zinc, lead and pyrite. La Union became the centre of all this activity.
Our visit started at the little exhibition centre just outside the town. After watching a short intro film we boarded the land train to be taken up to the Agrupa Vicenta mine where we’d be going underground.
We were driven up via the steep and winding El Camino del 33 (Route 33). Constructed in 1933 it’s a (5 miles) 7km long road connected La Union with Portman on the coast where ships were loaded.
The Agrupa Vicenta mine produced iron pyrite for making sulphur. It operated for 100 years from 1869 and is one of the largest mines open to the public in Europe.
Wearing hard hats we followed our guide down the narrow entrance tunnel for a short way. The air was dry and tinged with sulphur, the temperature not unpleasant.
Once clear of the entrance the mine opened out into huge galleries supported by pillars of rock and dropping down in terraces to the deepest point some 80m (260ft) below the surface. Here we saw an acidic lake, rusty red in colour from the pyrite.
We spent 40 minutes or so underground, it was peaceful and quiet. The rocks glittered with sparkling ‘fools gold’ and white gypsum crystals. Subtle lighting illuminated the farthest corners. We gazed around as visitors in another world.
But the world we saw was far removed from the one in which the miners worked. They spent eighteen hours a day living with ear splitting noise, choking dust, explosions and darkness. They worked seven days a week for vouchers they could only spend in the mine owners shop. They struggled to keep themselves and their families alive.
I was reminded of a song from my childhood called ‘Sixteen Tons’.
You load sixteen tons, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go. I owe my soul to the company store.
That was written about coal miners in Kentucky. It could have been written about miners anywhere.
The rich get richer, the poor get poorer.
Cartagena is famous for its Roman and Modernist architecture. Thousands of years separate these constructions but there’s a common thread. All of them were built on riches gained at the expense of others.
It’s the same story everywhere.
The Sierra Minera mines made a few men rich by destroying the lives of many others. The tourist guides would have you believe it all happened long ago, but I discovered that the biggest example of exploitation and destruction happened here much more recently.
I mentioned Portman earlier.
The Romans called it Portus Magnum. Its sheltered bay made it a natural harbour, ships had lain there for thousands of years.
Then in 1957 the mining company Peñarroya started pumping huge amounts of mineral debris from its processing plants directly into the bay.
The company had ties with the Franco regime, they knew the right people.
By the mid 1960’s the effects were becoming noticeable. Fishermen and locals protested and demanded action. The politicians were getting jittery.
So Peñarroya did a deal. They gave away land around Cabo Palos. The tourism industry in Spain was exploding. Cabo Palos was a perfect place to build. The La Manga holiday resort was born. It guaranteed riches for those who needed to be kept quiet.
In return for the land Peñarroya were given a virtual freehand. Portman was sacrificed. They increased the volumes of discharge. Millions of tons of heavy metals like cadmium and lead along with highly toxic material such as copper sulphate, sodium cyanide, zinc sulphate and sulphuric acid were pumped out.
By the mid 1980’s they’d caused the biggest ecological disaster ever to have happened in the Mediterranean. Greenpeace turned up and tried to block the pipe. It was too late. Portman Bay had been destroyed.
The mines were all but exhausted. Pressure was mounting to make good all the damage. Compensation claims were piling up. Peñarroya decided to make its last cynical, calculated play.
In 1988 it ceded all its mining rights and properties to a new company called Portman Golf, and disappeared from the scene. In the ultimate paradox Portman Golf then started pressuring the government for funds to recover the bay so that its new developments could better attract tourists.
The rich got richer the poor got screwed over, again.
La Union is proud of its mining heritage, it hosts one of the biggest Flamenco festivals in Spain, the Festival del Cante de las Minas (songs of the mines). They’re planning to open another mine to the public, they want more people to come visit. The scarred landscape of the surrounding Sierra Minera hills now attract hikers and mountain bikers keen to explore its unique terrain. Tourism has replaced mining.
But they don’t see many tourists in Portman, their beach lies buried under a carpet of toxic waste.
The derelict processing plant and its rusting outlet pipe still stand, monuments to greed and heartless disregard for others.
The people of Portman are still trying to get justice, a few hold onto hope that their bay may one day be restored.
Maybe it’ll happen, somehow I doubt it.
Only one thing is certain.
The rich get rich………..