Chile

A Story of Sewell & of Chile´s Mines

A mine like Chuquicamata is no ordinary thing – a colossal, gargantuan beast that offers no sense of scale when reduced to a single word. While backpacking around Chile in his early twenties, Ernesto´Che´ Guevara was captivated and shocked by what he saw in Chile´s arid north, a feeling which stayed with him for many years and shaped his future path. As he wrote in 1952:

¨It is a beauty without grace, imposing and glacial.  As you come close to any part of the mine, the whole landscape seems to concentrate, giving a feeling of suffocation across the plain […] Chuquicamata is essentially a great copper mountain with 20-meter-high terraces cut into its enormous sides […] it would do well not to forget the lesson taught by the graveyards of the mines, containing only a small share of the immense number of people devoured by cave-ins, the silica and the hellish climate of the mountain.¨

– The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) p. 79-81

Today, mining is the main economic activity in Chile and one which attracts considerable foreign investment. In terms of minerals, Chile is unrivaled, with more ´geological potential reserves´ than any other nation on Earth (29.2% compared to 11.4% in its closest rival, Peru). Despite falling commodity prices, copper is still Chile´s greatest export of which it has 38% of the world´s reserves.  According to the Ministry of Mining, Chile is also the leading provider of nitrate, iodine, lithium, and the third largest producer of molybdenum and the fourth largest producer of silver.

Gold in Chile

Let us pause for a minute to think about how incredible gold is. The gold that we use and wear today is not of this Earth. Gold is essentially a byproduct of neutron stars colliding to create a supernova nucleosynthesis explosion, something present in the universe when our very own solar system was formed. Gold was there when Earth began, but it melted down into the Earth´s core.  That would have been the end of our relationship with gold had it not been for a great wave of asteroids that pelted the planet about 4 billion years ago. These asteroids brought gold with them, which then became part of the crust and mantle.  This is what we mine today, and Chile is the world´s 15th biggest producer.

Gold has always been prized. The Incas in particular craved gold which they used for everything and anything – the Temple of the Sun in Cuzco was all gold, for example – and when the Incas expanded their empire into Chile one of the first things that they did was set up placer mines, looking for stream-bed (alluvial) deposits.

When the Spanish finally made their way from Peru to found Santiago in the 1500´s, they had their eyes peeled for gold.  Do you remember Pedro de Valdivia from my earlier blog? All he wanted to do was conquer the land until the Strait of Magellan, but he couldn´t do this without financing.  So he captured local Picunche cacique, Michimalonco, and demanded to know where they had been getting the gold to pay their tribute to the Incas.  He was lead to the Marga Marga river, where he found evidence of mining, and swiftly created the Spanish´s´first gold mine in Chile.  

Chilean Nitrate

The War of the Pacific, or Guerra del Pacifico, has only popped up briefly in my blogs, but I should really write about it a bit more because it was such a pivotal moment in Chile´s history.  It took place between 1879 and 1883 when Bolivia, Chile and Peru clashed over ownership of the nitrate (and other mineral) rich desert.  Chilean Nitrate is essentially a type of salt found only in the north of Chile that was in demand for a variety of purposes.  At the time of the war, the desert was technically part of Bolivia though the area was filled with numerous foreign mining companies and mainly Chilean workers.  Chile won, ushering in an era of wealth that President Jose Manuel Balmaceda was eager to use to improve the country´s public infrastructure.  However this made many people unhappy and prompted the 1891 Civil War, resulting in Balmaceda´s suicide and a time of oligarchy in Chile. After the first World War, the demand for nitrate fell dramatically when the Germans invented a form of synthetic nitrate.  Mines began closing left, right and center, leading to huge waves of migration across the nation as people began searching for new work.  Cities such as Santiago and Antofogasta swelled, people forced to lump together in shocking conditions, living on top of each other in the same property, known as  cités and conventillos. 

Sewell: A World UNESCO Site

Sewell is an abandoned mining town more than 2000m above sea level and 60km east of Rancagua. Gold and Chilean Nitrate do not factor in to its story; in fact, this tale revolves around copper.  Copper is one of those amazing metals that occur naturally in nature – you have a chance of chancing upon some if your lucky. The human body is even made of a teensy bit of copper, and it can be found in many of the things we eat.  The world´s largest underground copper mine is located near Rancagua, a labyrinth of underground tunnels inside an extinct volcano that spirals for 2300km; if laid out straight, it would reach from Arica to Chillan.  No-one knows for sure how El Teniente began but certainly the local Picunches knew a thing or two about copper, according to various sources. Back in 1905, Chile was saying yes to as much foreign investment as it could, so when the Braden Copper Company proposed the expansion of El Teniente, Chile leaped. The Company built roads, a railway and the company town of Sewell to house both the concentration plant and its workers, which at its peak in 1968 had 15,000 residents.

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Photo by Yorka Abarca

I turn now to my friend Yorka, the amateur photographer with the dizzying camera collection, to fill me in with some more information (all photos are hers).

¨These people lived comfortably in the middle of nowhere. It was a fun city to live in with a pool, social club, cinema, bowling – a bit like Valparaiso but in the Andes. The museum is impressive. Inside there´s an impressive collection of copper-made antiques, from Egypt to India – it’s like wow!¨

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Sewell is also known as the Ciudad de las Escaleras (City of Stairs) because, being carved into the side of the mountain, it has a unique pedestrian interior of paths and stairways that show great skill.  Life in Sewell was good, with all the facilities and infrastructure you would expect to find in a thriving town, however there were a few things that were not so great. In the early days, conditions were rough. Miners were always dying, especially children younger than 12 who were among the many workers. Many of them slept inside the tunnels or died in accidents that could have been avoided with better training (many were country folk who did things like defrost sticks of dynamite over open flame, according to Company accounts).  Initially, until 1920, people were paid with fichas, special chips that worked only in the company store. In 1919 the entire population of Sewell striked and refused to work until their needs were met, their working day was decreased to 8 hours and their unions recognized.

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A type of apartheid also existed in the town, with the wealthier expats from the United States (who had high ranking jobs and did not work as miners) living separated from the Chileans who they were told not to socialize with. The workers were also expected to be completely dry as all alcohol was strictly prohibited although this didn´t stop the ´guachucheros´ from piling their donkeys high with liquor and traversing to Sewell from the Cajon del Maipo. People were also unhappy about the fact that they could never buy their houses because they were always going to be owned by the Company.   Sadly, in 1945, El Teniente suffered the worst mining accident in Chile´s history, known as El Humo, when a fire trapped workers and killed 355 people, who died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

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Inside one of the houses.  Photo by Yorka Abarca.

Sewell was abandoned during the 1970´s when it became more efficient for people to live in Rancagua. Both Sewell and El Teniente passed to Chilean ownership in 1971. Sewell began to be demolished, taking the total buildings down from 100 to 38. until it was decided to preserve the site as a national monument.  It was declared a UNESCO spot in 2006.

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Los 33

It is worth closing this chapter on Chile´s mines and minerals with a brief look at an occasion that was broadcast around the world.  In 2010 Chile appeared on my local news in New Zealand when a cave in the San Jose gold-copper mine, near Copiapo (in Chile´s Norte Chico region), had collapsed, trapping 33 men a startling 700m underground.  Seventeen days later, a handwritten note saying ¨Estamos bien en el refugio, los 33¨ was pulled attached to a drill bit, sent down exploratory boreholes by Codelco, the state-owned mining company that took over rescue duty from the mine´s owner, San Esteban Mining Company. The latter had had issues before. Over a period of twelve years, the mine had received various fines for being geographically unstable, suffered various accidents and even 8 deaths in the lead up to the 2010 events.

The whole world – some one billion people in fact – watched a miracle unfold on their tv screens.  On 13 October 2010, 69 days after the collapse, each man was rescued from their dark vigil below, relieved from the depths thanks to a specially designed capsule.  It was a rescue that saw three drilling teams, NASA, the Chilean government and twelve corporations from around the world work together to a tune of US$20 million, money put forth by San Esteban, the Chilean government and private benefactors. Amazingly, all 33 men were alive and their tearful reunions with their family (and sunshine) was recorded for the whole world to see.

During their time in the belly of the Earth, the miners rationed the food and water that was stocked in the mine, fiercely.  One teaspoon of canned fish, two cookies and some water were all that they had to initially live on, dispensed by Mario Sepulveda, who became the group´s unofficial leader during confinement.  After their supplies ran out, they turned to the industrial water used for cleaning and scavenged through rubbish bins, all the while listening – and praying – for rescue.

Much has been made of the love triangle between miner Yonni Barrios, his wife Marta Salinas, and his mistress Susana Valenzuela.  While running a grocery store with his wife ten years before, Barrios had met Valenzuela and begun an affair. Salinas found out and swiftly kicked him out, though they never officially divorced (which seems to be common in Chile despite divorce now being legal).  Fast forward to the 2010 accident when Barrios told rescue staff to deal with his mistress rather than his wife. Huge drama ensued, and Valenzuela was banned from Camp Hope, the makeshift encampment where loved ones would communicate with the miners. When Barrios emerged from the capsule, he was embraced by Valenzuela despite asking for his wife to also be present (she refused).  The pair still live together today, in a poblacion in Copiapo.

If this sounds like it could make a good movie, you would be right.  Los 33 is a collaboration between Chile and the USA that premiered in 2015 and stars Antonio Banderas and Juliette Binoche (I´ve not seen it yet!).

Shockingly, no charges were laid against San Esteban Mining Company when investigation concluded in 2013.The miners have not received compensation and many of them suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome; Barrios in particular also suffers from a lung condition called silicosis.

The Nitty Gritty

The official page for Sewell is here.

Only select tour operators can visit Sewell. Here is the TripAdvisor link where you can make your own mind up.  Yorka visited the town with Circulo Patrimonial and had a great experience.

Read: Mira Tu published by Felicidad/Aplaplac/Heuders based on the TV series (available in all good bookstores as its a popular book).


If you liked this, have a look at:

The Stories Behind Santiago Place Names

5 More Names You´ll Recognize in Chile

The Original People of Cerro Blanco

20 Things You Didn´t Know About Chile

The Original People of Tierra del Fuego

 

 

 

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