Mel in Chile: The North

(Warning: the pictures for this blog post are awesome.)

I ended the last blog post with a picture of the Atacama Desert I took from the plane right before we landed in Antofagasta. During the next five days we (the 13 students in the SIT program) traveled through the driest desert in the world. The purpose of the trip was to bring life to the lectures about the Chilean economy. We were to do this in two ways: three days exploring the copper industry and two days in a small village which in the past two decades has become almost entirely economically dependent on tourism.

The itinerary included two classes at a university in Antofagasta- one explaining the importance of mineral mining that is done in the region for the Chilean economy, and the other one focused on the social and environmental implications of the industry. Other major experiential learning components of the trip involved a two-hour tour of one of the biggest copper mines in the world, and an informal lecture/discussion with an anthropologist in San Pedro de Atacama. The anthropologist is also from an Atacameño community, which is the indigenous group in San Pedro de Atacama.

First up, the two lectures at Universidad Catolica del Norte in Antofagasta and the visit to the Radomiro Tomic mine in Calama:

The lectures were widely different but also complimentary. The first one was on the regional economic development of Antofagasta and the second one was on the economy and human rights. Fear not, this blog will not be a drawn out summary of the lectures. I mention them because they add to the perspective I am gaining about Chile and help to shape my experience here.

The region of Atacama is rich in minerals. There is an immense area including the south of Peru and parts of Bolivia that are lucky enough to be on the fault line of Pacific and South American tectonic plates that endow the countries with a rich variety of minerals. Unfortunately, this also generates what I judge to be modern colonialism.  Foreign investment pours into mineral rich regions like Antofagasta, international companies begin to mine, make unbelievable profits while draining regional resource wealth, and at the same time secure support from the national government . Open and unregulated markets seem to be the unspoken rule for developing countries. Many economists say this generates jobs for the local communities but it hardly seems to be the case for such a highly technological industry like copper mining. I learned that for every million dollars of investment in the copper mining industry in Chile, only one direct job is created.

Another issue is the danger of an export-driven national economy based on natural resources. How far away are we from developing a sustainable substitute for copper? How much longer until the minerals run out? What if the costs associated with mining and refining copper become greater than the market value of this resource?  Who will suffer from these probable future events? Will it be the CEOs of international corporations or the national economy dependent on the mineral? What about the effects on communities who for 100 years have been dependent on jobs related to the mining?

That is for you to ponder (I like to imagine I have thousands of avid readers.)

After the lectures we traveled to Calama and had a free afternoon of shenanigans until the next day when we visited the Radomiro Tomic copper mine. According to the booklet (more like book) the communications department gave the group, “each day the mine extracts 600,000 metric tons of material.” In the Radomiro Tomic mine, and I think throughout the region of the Atacama where most mines operate, only 0.5% of the rock is copper. I will not continue listing facts about the mine because those can be accessed from anywhere. My personal experience in the tour was a very overwhelming one. The number 600,000 metric tons sounds ridiculous when you read it and I do not imagine it produces a specific image in anyone’s mind. After the rock is leached and the copper has been extracted, the rest of the rubble is simply taken to the dumping site. It was at this point that I understood the mountain-like formations a bit further away were rubble.  During the time that we were on the observation site at the mine, they had planned an explosion to the left of where we were standing. We heard the sound, the ground shook, and within minutes the sky was covered in dust. To stand on the edge of  one of the biggest mining sites in the world was nothing but extraordinary and to be honest I do not think my mind will ever fully psychologically process the sheer size of the mining pit. It is bizarre to “see” what it means to extract 600,000 metric tons of rock per day.


The mines

The next most significant part of the trip was our stay in San Pedro de Atacama and the anthropologist, Jimena, who spoke with us about the implications of the recent tourist boom for the indigenous community. A couple of comments about San Pedro de Atacama itself: it looks like a movie set. You walk around and see an “authentic” typical village in the dry highlands of Chile with its dirt roads, adobe walls, and low “houses”, but it’s as if the place is too manicured. The adobe walls and the dirt roads are perfectly rustic. Then you actually notice the people walking around and it is all western tourists. What looked like “houses” are actually hostels (very expensive,) touring agencies that will take you to do 136,455,478 activities you can do in the desert that include everything from sand surfing to star gazing.


San Pedro de Atacama

We met with Jimena in the afternoon. She started with telling the history of the Atacameño people and how things were when she arrived during the period in the 1990s when the tourism boom had just begun. The first comment she made about the change of lifestyle in the village was how tourism had brought some drugs to a place where they had never before been used. She also spoke extensively that national and international travel agencies harvest the profits from tourism. In her view, the normal lifestyle of her indigenous group is being “commoditized” and its “rustic” image sold to western tourists. At the same time, most of the locals have been pushed to the outskirts of the village to make room for the shops, agencies and hostels, which essentially sell their lifestyle.

I stayed half an hour after the discussion was over and everyone had left to talk more with her. Without a doubt, I can say this was one of the greatest conversations I have had.


I went on a hike with a friend through the mountains right outside of San Pedro (not with a touring company)


Later on that day, the entire group took a hike up a mountain in Valle de la Luna to watch the sunset. One of the most beautiful places on Earth

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