The global economy digs into the driest places in the world
text and photograph by Peter McBride
ON THE EDGE OF THE ALTIPLANO in northern Chile, steel crosses and iron wreaths cluster together, interrupting a vast, bleak landscape of dirt. Beside a two-lane highway cutting toward the cordillera, this rarely visited graveyard is the only sign of life—or rather, death—for miles. The Atacama Desert, the driest in the world, often is a heartless killer, but it also offers a certain immortality. Many graves here are looted, and the bodies, blackened and shriveled by the sun, lie uncovered and almost perfectly preserved. Nearly a century after they were first buried, the boots still laced to these sulfite miners’ feet look quite usable. The dessicated remains of the miners will last for centuries, much like the hundreds of recently discovered Atacama mummies that baked for thousands of years under the same sun.
The whole altiplano landscape looks naked. This volcanic land, stretching from northern Chile to southern Bolivia and northwestern Argentina, has proven to be the capital of Andean hard-rock mining, luring everyone from multinational companies to stubborn entrepreneurs. The region has been inhabited for more than two thousand years, predominantly by farmers relying on what little water they could coax from aquifers. Yet the Andes continue to grow atop a churning geologic fault line. Rising over twenty thousand feet, they seem to brew minerals; copper, gold, silver, salt, sulfur, zinc, tin, and borax are almost common in this ground.
A hundred miles east of the decrepit miners’ cemetery, the Chuquicamata copper operation exemplifies the enormity of modern resource extraction. Copper is king in Chile, the staple of South America’s most robust economy. Jobs at Chuquicamata are well paid; to keep workers in this barren landscape, salaries are often three times that of similar jobs elsewhere. One of the largest open-pit copper mines in the world—stretching three miles across and a half-mile deep—the “Chuqui” produces approximately 18 percent of the world’s copper; as a whole, the altiplano generates 40 percent. Fifty-foot-high dump trucks carrying 360 tons of ore crawl like ants from the depths of the pit. But the key to keeping this mine running is not trucks; it’s water. Chuquicamata sucks up 15 billion gallons of water a year (eight times the consumption of the capital city of Santiago), often drying nearby aquifers. Given the international value of Chuqui’s copper output, water shortages in the historic villages scattered higher in the Andes to the east are not a serious concern for the national government. At least, not yet. Environmentalists and many locals question how long this kind of resource extraction in the altiplano can last. As water supplies dwindle, so, eventually, will the mines.
Across the border in Bolivia, a few hundred miles east of Chuquicamata, silver reigns—or, more accurately, it did. Potosi is famous both for being the highest city in the world—at almost fourteen thousand feet—and for Cerro Rico (Rich Hill), the reddish mountain looming above it. Like Chuquicamata, Cerro Rico is one of the world’s largest mines. But unlike its Chilean neighbor, its prime has past.
“You could build a bridge from Potosi to Madrid with the silver that came from its tunnels,” say Potosinos. “But you could construct a road there and back with the bones of the slaves who died mining it.” Since the Spanish first opened tunnels here in 1545, an estimated 9 million people have perished inside Cerro Rico. Rich Hill notwithstanding, Bolivia is now the poorest country in South America.
Today, despite its dark past, roughly three hundred indigenous Aymara miners in thirty-three cooperatives continue to probe the depths of Cerro Rico, praying to local gods that they will find residual caches of silver ore. While they now labor for themselves instead of Spaniards, the miners’ working conditions remain medieval. Miners work with no maps and few lights in low tunnels, and they explode dynamite charges at will. Since lung disease and accidents weed out older miners, children, some barely ten or twelve, carry the picks and push the wheelbarrows. They are motivated by poverty and by chewing enormous wads of coca leaves. Many families live in the tailings piles and sell dynamite, coca, and grain alcohol—staples of the miners—on the streets of Potosi.
Five bone-jarring hours by four-wheel-drive to the northwest, another glimmer of entrepreneurialism shimmers in the desert. In the Bolivian hamlet of Colchani, population one hundred, a handful of families mine salt on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni. Measuring 40 by 120 miles, it is the largest salt lake in the world. The pay is low, but families are self-employed.
Nilda and Celso Lopez work twelve-hour days raking ten square meters of salt into piles and initialing them for credit with the truck drivers who will pick them up. The sunlight here, at an elevation of twelve thousand feet, glares off the white Salar with blinding intensity. Sharing one bike and one set of tools (a pick and a rake), Nilda and Celso wrap their faces in scarves or ski masks, protect their eyes behind mountaineering glasses, and brave the Andean sun every day. On a good day they make seven dollars each. Celso admits the work is hard, with little reward, but he and Nilda value the mining conditions. “No tunnels, no lung disease,” Celso says. “I am my own boss, but I do this job every day so my children won’t have to.” He has raked salt for thirty-four years, since he was ten.
In similar fashion throughout the altiplano, hundreds of miners handle shovels and picks to scratch out tiny incomes from small patches of minerals. To the south of the Salar de Uyuni, across the border in Argentina, children mine borax, a white powder used for cleaning products. Few of them have any idea where their commodity goes or what it is used for. But it gives them a job in a desolate, harsh, and largely jobless region.