By Sophie Broach
The town of Chuquicamata, once home to 20,000 people, is now an eerily modern ghost town. On our way to visit the largest open pit copper mine in the world last week, we drove past neat rows of abandoned houses where Codelco workers used to live. By the early 2000s, all had left to avoid toxic emissions from the adjacent mine. Nostalgic vandals have scrawled “Ciao Chuqui” and “La familia ______ vivió aqui” [the _____ family lived here] on several homes. Boarded up barbershops, clothes stores, and kiosks line the immaculate streets of the town center. Our driver pointed out his school and the plaza where he used to hang out as a teenager. He said wistfully that Chuqui had been a fun place to grow up.
Now most of Chuqui’s former residents have moved to the city of Calama 16 km away. Though no one lives in the town anymore, people work in the mine itself 24/7. Before setting out on a tour to learn about copper production at Chuqui, we put on neon orange vests and helmets, slipped on plastic glasses to protect our eyes, and hung gas masks around our necks. Inside a massive building with a forest of crisscrossing multicolored metal bars, we paused to watch a massive circular machine unloading perfect rectangular sheets of copper onto a conveyor belt. The heat and fumes prompted some of us to breathe casually through our gas masks.
On the way to the next room we passed a patch of turf marked with gravel diamonds that the workers had apparently requested to make the giant windowless space a bit more cheerful. Above it hung a sign with Codelco’s logo, which resembles a lidless eye. We watched several men hose down copper through metal grates as if they were watering plants in a garden. Situated in the Atacama—the driest desert on earth—Chuqui uses some 15 billion gallons of water each year (enough to fill over 20,000 Olympic swimming pools.) I asked in feeble Spanish where the water came from, and our guide replied simply “Las montañas.” Codelco, the state-owned copper mining company that owns Chuqui, has a large portion of the region’s water rights.
After eating lunch in the mess hall alongside some of Chuqui’s employees, we drove out to see the mine itself, an enormous oblong crater nearly 1 km deep and 4.5 km wide. We could barely make out the 50-foot high trucks on the opposite side through the hazy dust rising from the ridged edges of the mine. Our guide estimated they guzzle about a liter of gasoline per minute, and their enormous tires cost $40,000 each and get worn out every 8 months.