Tuesday, May 7, 2013

It is a pit — literally

Calama, Chile is a mining town. It has no other claims to fame, at least until we arrived. The original town of Chuquicamata right next to it, was built to house the workers for what has become the world’s largest open pit mine. The entire town was abandoned in 2004 due to extreme pollution from the mine and all of the inhabitants moved to Calama.

We took a tour through the now abandoned Chuquicamata, with its beautiful Plaza de Armas, theatre, banks and schools. There was an eerie feeling driving through an empty, perfectly intact town. At first it was not clear to us why the town had been evacuated and left as a ghost town. Our tour was run by the national company that now owns the mine. Our guide waited until he had taken us through the whole town centre before explaining what had happened. Mining activities were simply getting too close to the town and it would no longer be safe for people to live there.

The huge copper mine is alive with activity 24 hours a day. Simply stated, the process is to blast holes in the pit and then big diggers arrive and are filled with rocks that are moved up to the top of the open pit on the roads built for that purpose. The rocks are broken down into smaller pieces to expose the copper and the waste rock is dumped all around the town creating artificial mountains. It is not clear what keeps the mountains from falling apart. I guess that is part of the worry about having a town too close.

Violet and I had many mining clients in our day and we saw a lot of photos of mining operations in South America and Africa. We learned a lot about the activities of mining companies in countries in far off lands and the reclamation process to return the landscape to its natural state. It was quite another experience to see this massive hole in the ground and all that was connected to it. The dimensions are so huge that even seeing it with my own eyes was hard to comprehend, especially seeing the man made mountains towering around us and knowing they were simply displaced waste rock from all of the digging in the pit.

We were told that there are at least 50 more years of life to this mine that they are sure of. It could be more.

The mine employs thousands of people. The jobs are well paid. And so it is not surprising you see all kinds of people in Calama from neighbouring countries that have made their way to Calama to get a piece of the action. The miners live in prefab houses and drive big SUVs. Big buses bring the workers to and from the mine site. It is an unreal kind of place. Coming from Bolivia, directly into this strange western environment took a bit of getting used to.

A visit to the mine was really all there was to see and do in Calama, so we decided right after our visit to head for the bus station to get a bus to San Pedro de Atacama, a quaint resort town just 2.5 hours away.

Looking back, there were other options that would have changed our fate that day. We could have taken a later bus, or even spent a second night there. Maybe we could have been better rested and more alert. Maybe the scam artist that targeted us would have been watching someone else. I think about that afternoon over and over again. Now more than a month later as I write this post it is clear to me that I will never forget those few minutes that changed our South American adventure. Although I have already written about the “calamity in Calama” and I have replaced the most important items stolen from us that fateful day, the experience has taken something much more valuable from me. From that day forward, I was less at ease and much more suspicious of the kindness of local people. Time, they say, heals all wounds and I hope I just need more of that.

For now we both refer to our visit here as the calamity in Calama!

(By the way, Calama is so non-descript and so unremarkable that I realized after leaving that I had not taken a single photo. I looked online today to see if I could fill in other peoples photos. The only photos I found were of the pit! Need I say more?)

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