In September this year, after 110 years of open cast mining, Chuquicamata, one of the world’s most famous copper mines, goes underground. New shafts from the present floor have been cut diagonally into the seam. Richer at Cu 0.7% (than the present Cu 0.2%-0.5%) the mine will instantly become more efficient. The old ore trucks, as large as buildings, 340mt empty and 570mt full, creeping up at a 12% gradient from the present floor, will soon rumble off to work elsewhere. The end of this era was the cause of recent strikes; not so much about pay but re-employment, re-training and redundancy terms. Today even mining, this most inefficient of industries, requires less brawn. The new tunnel, 7.5 km long, will be largely computerised, removing 140,000mt of ore per day via block-caving. So, the life of this venerable old lady will be extended by at least another 40 years. Perhaps one day we will do the same for humans.
Ironically it was Chester Beatty’s advice to the Guggenheims in regard to Bingham Canyon – that it would be possible to recover low grade copper ore efficiently by open cast mining – that led to the development of Chuquicamata in the first place. Originally owned by The Chile Exploration Company (Chilex), Chuqui has had many lovers. Taken over by Anaconda in 1923, then again by Kennecott, nationalised under Salvador Allende, today it remains at the heart of state-owned Codelco’s copper assets and part of the 9% of world copper production that Codelco is responsible for. It is thought that even the present President, Sebastián Piñera, a businessman who is thought by some to run the country like a company, would not last long were he to consider privatising Chuqui. As I have travelled around the world on metals business, the relationship between a nation state and its resources has been a perennial interest. I can only remark that the Chilean people appear to have got it right and Chile is today one of the few countries to retain such assets for the benefit of the many rather than the few.
Awesome as its history is, a place from which to contemplate it is the cemetery. Not far from the mine, in the frontier town of Calama, migrant mine-workers’ huts of the past lie empty, but preserved by the dry heat of the Atacama. The graveyard, on the other hand, is fully populated, mainly by men drawn to this place in the late 19th century from across South America – Bolivians, Brazilians, Argentinians among them. Many graves are simply marked with rough wooden crosses which would have rotted years ago in an English climate but here will remain intact for eternity. Others came from so much further. A stone, rather than wooden cross, marks the grave of ‘Ernest Alexander Smart. Born at Durham, England Sept 28th 1885. Died at Chuquicamata, Chile May 18th 1918’. A coal miner perhaps, who died mining copper. Here too are many children’s graves, reminding us of the cholera epidemics common in the 1920s. A small oasis of trees now shelters this community and its visitors from the desert heat.
For those who have not been to Chile before (and it took me forty years in the metal trade to get here) it is a landscape that challenges one’s powers of description. I had not anticipated the coffee brown colour of these mountains here in the north, that look like – and possibly are – recently deposited lava ash. Nor had I grasped the sheer absence of life. As my guide said, “Not even flies live here”. Without flies, so too neither birds nor birdsong. I did see one bird at the truck depot. A lone feral pigeon that looked as if it had just settled on the platform at Waterloo Station. Driving back in a descent from Chuqui to Antofagasta on the coast, the ancient folds of hills dissemble to appear as soft and tactile as the shapes made by sand sculptors on a summer beach, while other formations look like the footprints of giants from a primordial past. As I am in this reverie, not for the first time our van is overtaken by a UN 1830 sulphuric acid truck hurtling to the coast, certainly exceeding the British speed limit. It is a reminder that almost everything to sustain mining must either be flown, railed or trucked to this most remote of places.
I am guilty in these notes of slightly anthropomorphising Chuqui; even more specifically by describing her in the feminine. I tend to think of mines as female because it is they who give forth, while the digging, blasting and rock hauling is undoubtedly male. Perhaps I am not too far off the mark, as Chileans venerate their land, referring to her as ‘Pachamama’; the goddess of harvests, embodiment of mountains and bringer of earthquakes. It is customary for a man to spill part of his beer on the ground in respect to her before drinking. This reverence for the earth is linked to this frontiersman’s country, bounded by sea, mountains, desert and sky. Chileans know that without the bounty from this desert landscape they themselves would be much the poorer. If anyone seeks too much power, unlike you might say, other South American countries, Pachamama has a way of reminding Chileans of her dominance with an earth tremor. A nation that lives with earthquakes will never grow too self-satisfied. Visiting the home of an old friend, a mining engineer and trader who once trained in London, on the 17th floor of an apartment building in Santiago, he showed me some of his art. On one shelf was a Ming vase invisibly cocooned with nylon fishing line to prevent it from falling during an earthquake. “If there was an earthquake now”, he said, “I think you would see the difference between your and my reaction”. The Ming vase could so easily be protected in a box or safe, but those who inhabit one of the great fault lines of the earth understand what it is to live on the edge.
Published August 14th 2019 on www.lord-copper.com