On our second full day in Chile, we had the opportunity to visit the largest and most well-preserved mining company. The town is built into the side of the Andes Mountains and it was occupied by the miners of the El Teniente copper mine. El Teniente is the largest copper mine in the world and is still in use today.
History of El Teniente Copper Mine
The entire town was company property, miners who lived there had access to the top medical care in all of South America, wages that were paid in either dollars or the Chilean currency at the time, and “free” food and housing while they worked at the mine. Of course, this was because they risked their lives every time they entered the mines and the two twelve-hour shifts that they worked seven days a week were so dangerous due to poor safety conditions and unsafe mining practices.
Today the town is a ghost town after having been abandoned by the residents in the 1980s. Since 2006 it has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site and is the focus of extensive preservation efforts. We toured the intact housing blocks of different types of workers, ate a miner’s lunch at the hospital-turned cafeteria, and walked up and down the stairs that are so central to the town’s infrastructure. Another name for the city is the City of Stairs, we quickly realized exactly how true that was.
Since we come from a state so defined by mining, it was incredibly interesting to see such an integral and foundational mining town in Chile, which still has a largely mining-based economy. Overall, it was a day of taking in the views of beautifully colored buildings and interesting architecture, all with the gorgeous backdrop of the sheer snow-covered cliffs of the Andes Mountains.
An Evolving Industry
Currently, Chile is reorganizing its government and trying to approve a new state constitution.
Although the last version was rejected by a vote of the people, it’s likely that the new constitution will address the mining industry especially as the world is now facing so many issues related to climate change. The safety regulations in the mining industry have also evolved to make working in the industry safer. There’s still a risk, but it’s much less dangerous than previously.
A Zero-Waste Business Model
On another day of the trip, we went to one of the best private universities in Chile and listened to a presentation from a small business owner who has created a sustainable zero-waste fashion
business from recycled plastic bags. It was fascinating to learn more about the sustainability
scene in Chile and how they are making efforts to cut down on their plastic waste. They are proud to be a zero-waste company and still manage to make affordable products. We were very grateful to meet with the owner and learn about how Chilean small businesses are looking toward a sustainable future.
The next writer is my friend and fellow GEE student, Emma Coleman, a biochemistry major and also a member of Cohort 12.