Mining has had a tremendous influence on our country’s development causing profound changes in the physical environment. Also, though perhaps less directly, mining has modified the urban landscape of the cities of northern Chile; there has been growth in the construction business, the real estate sector, and local commerce in urban areas of northern Chile. Antofagasta is an emblematic case of this dynamic.
Chile’s economic development has historically been closely linked to mining production and export, especially copper mining. Copper’s relevance has marked the speech of former Presidents including Eduardo Frei Montalva with the well-known phrase “copper, the main pillar of our economy” or Salvador Allende Gossens, who made reference to copper as “Chile’s salary.” The mineral’s export represents 53% of the total exports, contributing 17.5% of fiscal revenues in the period 2006 – 2015. Copper also represents about a third of the total investment in the last four decades (1). With this, Chile has been configured as a mining country where the development of this activity has been concentrated mainly in the northern zone, in the so-called “mining regions.” These regions in particular have undergone profound transformations in the natural physical landscape close to extraction sites. However, by changing the prism, it can be seen that the indirect effects of mining transcend these scales and end up affecting the nearby cities, materializing in local effects where mining activity acts as a driving force for transforming the urban landscape as well.
(1) Minería Chilena (Chilean Mining). Compendio de la Minería Chilena 2016.(Compendium of Chilean Mining 2016) (Santiago de Chile: Grupo Editec, 2016)
During much of the twentieth century, the operating logic of mining in Chile was characterized by the model of “productive enclaves” where the so-called company-towns were the most important settlements (2), for example with Chuquicamata and El Salvador as emblematic cases (3). At present, and as a result of this post-Fordist transformation of the economy and the new logic of organizing work (4) in the areas marked by the extraction of commodities (5), capital flows are generated that materialize within the cities (6) (7). These cities become nodes, where material flows, financial transactions, provision of services and people linked directly and indirectly to the extractive and export activity act as a hinge for the flow of commodities and financial capital, and where the real estate sector is a relevant actor in this dynamic. The specialized literature (8) has argued that during the last decade in cities such as Antofagasta, Calama, Copiapó, and La Serena-Coquimbo, mining has been the propelling force behind the growth of construction. This is shown in the strong boom in the real estate sector, investment in real estate, and also activities associated with commerce, either through the installation of large shopping centers or retail trade, invigorating the structure of local spaces and modifying local guidelines.
(2) Alvear, J. Chile: nuestro cobre (Chile: our copper) (Santiago de Chile: Editorial Lastra, 1875)
(3) Garcés, E. “Las ciudades del cobre: Del campamento de montaña al hotel minero como variaciones de la company-town” (The cities of copper: From the mountain camp to the mining hotel as variations of the company-town) EURE, 29(88) 2003, 131-148.
(4) Sennett, R. La corrosión del carácter: las consecuencias personales del trabajo en el nuevo capitalismo (The corrosion of character: personal consequences of work in the new capitalism) (Barcelona: Anagrama, 2009)
(5) This is a product or a good for which there is a market demand and which is traded without qualitative differentiation in purchase and sale operations.
(6) Fox Gotham, K. “Creating liquidity out of spatial fixity: The secondary circuit of capital and the subprime mortgage crisis” in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 33(2), 2009. 355-371.
(7) Harvey, D “Roepke Lecture in Economic Geography – Crises, geographic disruptions and the uneven development of political responses” Economic Geography, 87(1), 2011, 1-22.
(8) Rehner, J., Rodríguez, S. & Murray, W.. “Ciudades en auge en Chile: Rol de la actividad exportadora en la dinámica del empleo urbano” (Booming cities in Chile: Role of export activity in the dynamics of urban employment)EURE, 44 (131), 2018, 151 – 171.
The geographer Jean Nogué states that the concept of landscape is linked both to a physical reality and to the representation that we culturally make of it. Thus, the landscape is understood as a natural scenario mediated by culture, which is configured as the result of a collective transformation of nature and as a cultural projection of a society in a given space (9). This interaction can be seen clearly in the cities of the north of Chile, which are marked by the volatility of copper, affected by those phases of boom and crisis to show clear ruptures in the social fabric. Consistently though, the important flows of people associated with mining activities, such as long-distance commuters, cause imbalances in local communities, disrupting the daily activities of permanent residents.
(9) Nogué, J.Paisaje, Identidad y Globalización (Landscape, Identity, and Globalization), 2007. Retrieved on October 13, 2014 from: http://www.ehu.es/ojs/index.php/Fabrikart/article/view/2227/1843.
On the other hand, the transformations of the landscape associated with the modification of the tangible space and the physical and material reality present striking aspects in mining cities. A clear example is the city of Antofagasta, where construction has experienced notable growth in the last decade as a result of the economic boom phase of mining, and in particular of copper. A series of real estate projects have arisen, and there has been a consequent expansion of the city. This has transformed the urban morphology of the city giving rise to a landscape in constant change and increasing in height. In short, although the company-towns of the 19th century no longer exist, mining continues to act as a motor for transforming the landscape of the cities of northern Chile. Mining has not only altered the natural physical landscape, but also through indirect channels has acted to transform the material reality of the urban landscape as well.
Sebastián Rodríguez Leiva. Geographer, Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, with a Master’s degree in Risk Governance and Natural Resources, Ruprecht – Karls – Universität Heidelberg, Germany. Research assistant in the Center for Sustainable Urban Development. This article is part of the author’s Master’s thesis.