Monday, December 26, 2011

On top (and inside) of a mountain

Way up a winding road heading into the cordillera de los Andes from the town of Rancagua, south of Santiago, lies the town of Sewell.  Its setting on a steep mountain valley, the sheer and snowy slopes flanking it, the colorfully painted buildings that comprise it, its rich history as a copper mining town, all of this make it an attractive destination for tourists. But if you come, don't plan on spending the night.  Sewell is a ghost town.  Today, no one lives in any of its buildings, and the road that leads you here is closed to all traffic, save that going to and from the nearby El Teniente, the world's largest subterranean copper mine.  Save also tour vehicles like the one parked in the bottom left of the photo, full of tourists like us, seeking a day trip different than your typical wine tour or run for the beach. 

The road to Sewell led directly through the facilities of the mining operation.  I, probably like most people in the world, had never been on a tour that featured a copper mine before, so I took a lot of pictures along the way.  Some areas, with the blue, yellow and red theme, and unusual architecture, imparted a whimsical sort of Willy Wonka's copper factory impression. 

Then you round the bend and see something like this.  Toxic pools, grey concrete buildings under ominous cloud cover, with barren land all around.  That's what you expect massive mineral extraction to look like.  Our guide delivered an endless set of statistics and explanations surrounding Chile's copper industry, and told us that it would be impossible for a mining operation on this scale to not have an impact on the surrounding environment.  At the same time, while Chile has worked hard in recent years to diversify its economy, the exportation of copper remains its single largest source of revenue, and without it, the country would not enjoy its current level of development and prosperity.  So don't expect El Teniente to close any time soon.

In addition to selling copper, Codelco - the government-run mining company responsible for El Teniente's operations - also runs tours.  In fact, not only did our tour lead us around the facilities.  After passing for several kilometers through this kind of industrial landscape, we donned the hardhats and orange reflective gear required by law, and drove straight into the mine itself.

As I mentioned before, this is the biggest copper mine in the world, barring open pit mining.  Chuquicamata, an open pit mine in the north of Chile, is the 2nd largest such mine in the world, matched only by Bingham Canyon Mine, located in Utah.  To give some perspective, since Chuquicamata was opened over a century ago it has cranked out some 29 million tons of copper ore.  In its own right, El Teniente produced more than 418,000 tons of copper ore in 2006 alone.

I've been within the man-made bowels of the earth once before, when I walked with my family a hundred meters or so into an old gold mine in Zaruma.  This particular winter's day in Chile, we drove more than 6 kilometers into one of this mine's many tunnels.  We were merely scratching the surface, so to speak, of the vastness carved out beneath the ground.  Not a tour for the claustrophobic.  This particular leg of the tour can be bypassed for those who'd rather not go into the belly of a mountain.

As this hand-drawn diagram indicates, there are some 7 horizontal levels of tunnels dug into this mountain, each at a different depth, each counting on gravity to bring materials down first from their respective mines.  From there they are carted to the white apparatus indicated on the right, where they are ground up and dropped down to the level where they can be loaded and driven out from the valley below. 

It turned out that the white apparatus in question, known as a chancado, was part of the tour.  In layman's English, we might call it a crushing machine.  The room that houses it reminded me of the place where they filmed the final scenes of Terminator 2.  The crushing device itself looked like a big electric orange juicer, with ground up rocks rather than orange juice pouring down from the spinning blades into a long vertical shaft leading below.  You'll have to be satisfied with my description to conjure up an image in your mind, but I will include a photo of the cavernous and seemingly endless hole in the ground, leading down to the lowest depths of the mine.

In addition to demonstrating the many levels of the underground complex, this photo also reveals the horrid air quality to be found beneath the surface.  It took me a couple of takes to realize that the odd interference in each photo in this room was the result of infinite particulate matter reflecting the light from the flash.

Otherwise unseen, but definitely noticeable from the chalky taste in your mouth, this is the stuff that ultimately ends up clogging the lungs of many career miners, leaving them with a case of silicosis after years and years underground.  That mining is hard on your respiratory system is well known, but seeing and smelling it for myself gave me a more visceral appreciation for the hardship that miners must go through to make their living.  Unlike them, I could go home, rinse off the dust from my body and breathe easy the next day.

Besides the chancado, there is also an underground casino.  But before you start thinking that these miners can gamble away all their hard-earned income before they even see the light of day, I should mention that this term has a far different sense in Chilean Spanish than it does in English.  Gambling casinos are known in Chile, but the majority of the places you'll find bearing this name fall under the category of what we'd call a cafeteria.

After this picture was taken we saw the casino for ourselves, and had lunch there.  Besides the lack of windows, it was your typical working class mess hall.  Soup, rice, meat, sauce, salad, drink.  At least, that's what we saw people eating.  The lunch for tourists ran about $10 more than the regular cost of the tour, which seemed a little steep for what you get.  We brown bagged it.

After lunch we took off our dusty helmets and orange jackets and made our way up to the highlight of the tour, which was the abandoned mining town of Sewell.  The first stop on the guided tour was a museum housed in one of the most well-maintained buildings in town.  The top floor was certainly the best - if most unlikely - exhibit, housing a collection of copper items from around the world.  Copper sextants, copper helmets, copper weights and measures, all beautifully preserved.  And, this copper Ganesh.  It's interesting to note that while Chile is one of the world's major exporters of copper ore, little of it is refined here into pure copper, or manufactured goods.

So it is that the copper used here in Chile may have come from Chile, but chances are it then got shipped as ore and then sent to Asia.  From there it was refined, shaped, included into any number of electronics or other such product, and then shipped out around the world, including back here, to Chile.

This irony is not lost on those in the copper industry of Chile, but when the established infrastructure and cost of labor is such in Asia that finished products can be churned out for far cheaper than here in Chile, there is no economic incentive to do otherwise.  In that light this exhibit, with its collection of artistically crafted copper sculptures, antiquities and other bemusing curios, stands as a microcosm for the curious situation that many countries like Chile find themselves in.

Rich in resources but lacking a tradition of manufacture, we find an economy chugging along nicely on the export of raw materials, but all of the added value that comes later from the finished product earns profits abroad.  I don't know if it was Codelco, with profits from its copper business, or some other entity which bought the fine pieces we pored over that day.  And for a fine price I'm sure, judging from the condition of the pieces.  But whoever the owner may be, they're making some added profit from the trickle of tourism coming to Sewell and this museum, so we've got some locally added value after all.

The rest of our tour took us around the snowy, wind-blown streets of Sewell.  Our guide mentioned one story after another to reveal the curious lives of miners and their families, stranded so far from civilization up here in the middle of nowhere.  Founded in 1904, everything was brought in on a train, including the miners, and once here they couldn't expect to see anything else for months on end.  That set up the typical situation of the company town, where the mining company owned and operated everything.  Once the road to the mine was built, the mining company began phasing out life in Sewell in 1977, which means that there are plenty of people with memories of life in Sewell.

Indeed, since the tour, I've happened to mention to a few Santiaguinos that I was there.  Santiago is not so far from Sewell and El Teniente, and the mining industry is such a big part of the economy that a couple of the people I've told have mentioned that they remember their early childhoods in Sewell.

As you can see from the photos, the weather conditions at this altitude are extreme, and in the few decades since its abandonment and substantial dismantling, the elements have taken a major toll on the remaining buildings.  Now an UNESCO World Heritage site, efforts have begun to restore what's left of the town.  However, many of the structures which have been at least partially restored have already suffered a new round of damage from the long winters and the subsequent effects of significant snow accumulation.

Apparently, plans are in the works to bring some full time employees to the town in order to run an on-site hotel in one of the finer buildings, allowing tourists to spend the night in the ghost town of an old mining encampment.  Does that sound like fun to you?  There's even an old bowling alley...

Built on such a steep hill, Sewell was composed of many levels, both geographically and socially.  Here, on the concrete plateau between flights of concrete stairs, we can see an abandoned schoolyard where dozens of children of miners must have once played.  Further up the hill, and now mostly dismantled, were the well-appointed homes of the English-speaking managers and executives of the mining operation back when it was a foreign holding.

While these wealthy expats would have enjoyed as many amenities and comforts of home as money and the limitations of the time would have allowed, the miners themselves were housed with their families in small rooms stacked up in big apartment buildings like the ones seen here.  The difference in the quality of life of these distinct socioeconomic strata would have been very clear, according to our guide.

Nonetheless, the local miners were afforded a quality of life far greater than at other mines, with enviable salaries and benefits.  Today, the miners can still apparently expect a fair salary for the hard work they do, and most of them live with the modern comfort and nicer weather of the city of Rancagua in the open valley far below.

That leaves Sewell behind as a nearly lost relic of Chile's past, rescued from ruin and now enjoying what could be the beginnings of a nostalgic renaissance.  Standing in the icy air of a ghost town like this one, a colorful oddity amidst the grim machinery of a huge industrial project, puts you in the middle of several levels of contrast.  If you ever go, you could even try and count them, like counting the stairs on the way up the hill.