Travelling through the vast swathes of desert in Chile, one thing becomes apparent. The rate at which the country is extracting resource from the Earth is an order of magnitude greater than its neighbours. Copper, Sulphur, Nitrates (and bird shit) the industrial mining capabilities of this long narrow and unlikely nation, it seems at first glance, is built on extraction in dizzying proportions. As an example of the industrial psyche of the nation, Chile went to war with Bolivia and Peru to successfully claim most of what is now northern Chile solely for the elements contained within it’s soils. You could say perhaps, it is the country that has most closely designed it’s foreign policy on it’s colonial forefathers, for better or for worse. With the Pacific war a distant memory now, the toils of the past have resulted in regional economic superiority for Chile. The grandest example of the Chilean industrial machine is Chuquicamata. The world’s largest open pit mine. Measuring 5km long, 3km wide and over a 1000m deep, this gargantuan void in the earths surface was first started in the early 20th century and digging has barely ceased since then. 24 hours a day seven days a week 365 days a year, the digging mercilessly continues. Only earthquakes slow down the rate of extraction.
The visit is all very organised, starting in the town of Calama CODELCO the nationalised chillean mining company who operate the mine (Petrol, Mining, Services, it’s all nationalised in Chile to good effect) organise a bus once a day to the mine where you are shown amongst other things the mine itself, the curious town, now deserted but once home to thousands of miners, and the various processing plants.
The ghost town of Chuquicamata was finally abandoned only ten years ago over health concerns surrounding the levels of toxicity in the air. However many of the towns buildings are stuck in a distinctly 20th century time warp.
The fickle nature of mining, with demand for materials suddenly stopping and deposits drying up, means Chile is dotted with decaying, deserted industrial relics of the past. And sprawling ghost towns once home to the miners and their families. Some are cared for and now welcome visitors to experience the eery silence and abandonment of these industrial cathedrals. While others are left to decay, slowly reclaimed by the dunes or buried under the surplus rock of an expanding mine.
I peered in through the glass doors of the towns theatre and mounted on the wall was a series of dated film posters which today I suppose would be considered rather desirable. One of them showed an enigmatic Fidel Castro, his finger raised in a typically rousing pose with the words “Bienvenidos Fidel Castro” emblazoned across the image. And I suddenly remember what had brought me here. Some years ago I had read the motorcycle diaries written by Ernesto Guevara and thoroughly enjoyed it, it formed part of the multitude of reasons I went to visit Cuba. During the book Che and Alberto come across a destitute Chillean couple and had spent the night sharing stories with them. The man and wife were travelling to the copper mine to try and find work. The Argentinian travellers had travelled to the mine to witness the dreadful conditions in which the workers were subjected to. At the time the mine was owned by a North American company, the Anaconda Mining Company. This subjugation of the local population for the wealth of the “imperial” United States had been a moment of clarity for the young Che. And he started to formalise his ideas on the unification of the peoples of the central and southern America’s under agregarían reform and socialist intervention. And ultimately began his search for what he believed was the only way to ignite such a unification, armed guerilla resistance giving way to political revolution. The episode had seemed so pivotal in the narrative of Ernesto’s development, which ultimately lead to his involvement in the Cuban revolution, that I had starred the mine on Google maps and here I was peering through the dusty glass of the towns abandoned theatre, the very doors perhaps that Ernesto had walked through some seventy years earlier.
One thing that would have changed in that time is the proportions of what I’m sure even then, was a flippin big hole. The optics of my camera were not up to the task of conveying the enormous proportions on show but for scale – the procession of tiny trucks you see snaking their way faithfully up and down the mine tracks are, without embellishment, the size of your average semi detached house. You can just about make out the silhouette of the driver controlling these mobile megaliths on the right hand side of one of the images. An amazing feat of engineering undoubtedly but equally the process, scale and amounts of energy being used across countless mines all over the world brings forth difficult questions. How long can we go on squeezing resource out of the ground at this rate. Should we be looking at less intensive means of producing the products on which our modern existence is built. And should the selection of natural materials more closely consider the impacts on the earth, alongside their usefulness and profitability. The mining processes of Chuquicamata alone produces enough toxicity to enforce the evacuation of an entire town.
So from Chuquicamata and Calama I travel further west towards the Pacific and further south into the Atacama for some sublime national parks and remote space observatories. Untill then, Hasta luego.
Chinese Man – Racing with the sun