We'd been driving for more than an hour before finally spotting the alternating colours of black, gray and white that makes up the mine entrances. This region is famous for its phosphate, with the state-owned Longmen Mountain producing one-tenth of China's phosphate rock. The mine also lies on a large fault line, and experts from the Sichuan Provincial Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources have stated this region's geological structure is particularly vulnerable to earthquakes and aftershocks. With aftershocks come heavy rain, and mudslides that fill the mine caves and endanger the lives of those living at the mountain's foothills, in a village called Hong Bai.
"Aftershocks? Yeah, we're still getting them," said one of the miners, using his chopsticks to pick at a piece of meat in his bowl. He ate his lunch as we chatted. "Everyone's terrified of them! Find me a person who says he isn't and you'll have found a liar. But what choice do we have? We have homes to pay off."
Miners are cooking in their sheds. Chengqiangyan Mining Area, Qingping Township, Mianzhu City, Sichuan Province. © Greenpeace / Ma Dong
Because it was January a blanket of snow covered Longmen Mountain. The temperature there are much cooler than in the basin, so all the workers were sporting bright red noses. We joined them for lunch, just some greens and simply cooked meat. "Aftershocks and lunch are no different – both come every day!" joked the chef Lao Wang, who wore glasses, with his hair neat. Cooking, in fact, is just one, small part of his work; he's mainly in charge of production records so I paid special attention to what he had to say.
I said to him, "the road is in such poor condition! Such a bumpy ride, it almost made me throw up. What about you guys? How does it feel having to travel on it every single day?"
Lao Wang replied that every July the rainy season comes and causes a large amount of damage to the road. So every year there's no access until September, while workers attend to repairs. A kind of annual, forced “vacation”.
Then he went to fetch a basin of water from the kitchen. I followed and had just stepped out into the freezing cold, when all of a sudden heard a burst of crackling overhead. I barely had time to register what was happening before Lao Wan had dropped the basin and pulled me to safety.
A huge stone came tumbling down the cliff. Lao Wang said I should watch out and mentioned last year falling stones had injured a few of the workers. Then he continued washing dishes, as if nothing had happened. Such a calm reaction to the obvious danger amazed me. I wanted to know more about his story.
"Lao Wang, were you here during the 2008 Wenzhou earthquakes? What happened exactly?" I asked.
He was about to reach for the tap but instead pushed his glasses up on his nose, and replied with little sign of emotion: "I was on the crest of the hill. I witnessed the earthquake and had to bury 60 people."
He turned on the faucet, and continued to wash dishes.
I was about to ask more questions when the worker who'd been complaining about his mortgage suddenly came over and invited me to sit down. He said, "You've come all the way from Beijing to visit us, so come, sit and eat. Don't let your food get cold!"
Lao Wang then mentioned that next year this man's daughter would sit for her university entrance exam, so he's working twice as hard as everyone else. In that instance I felt I should share with them what our investigations had turned up: that the Wenchuan earthquake has deeply affected this mountain full of phosphate. That the fragile geological structures are like crumbling buildings, and every drill is like destroying a critical building block. Wearing a helmet cannot guarantee safety.
But I realised these men know far better than I do of the dangers they are facing – they see it for themselves every day. Yet they rise early in the morning, get on the bus, and turn up to do this work, in the hope that their daughters and sons won't have to.
Image: A worker at the entrance of the phosphate mine. © Greenpeace / Yong Yang