Posts tagged Atacama Desert

I quickly learn on arrival in Santiago, Chile, that my Spanish is rustier than I thought. The Castillian inflection in my voice that my old Madrileña teacher had drilled into me (with her arguably unethical approaches to teaching) has Chileans laughing. Pronouncing my v’s as b’s, is apparently inherently hysterical to them.

I’ve ended up in Domeyko somewhat by accident; a small village right in the heart of the Atacama Desert. It’s eery. A disused railway track runs through as far as the eye can see. Old water towers teeter over like rusty leaning towers of Pisa. The ratio of dogs to people is about 3:1. A veritable ghost town.

I wander around for a bit and can’t help but feel I’m in the middle of the Wes Craven horror film ‘The Hills Have Eyes’. And in those sorts of films it’s normally always the geeky kid with the camera that gets it first.

Determined not to turn into a horror film cliché, I continue the search for someone who might be able to help me. I’ve been in Chile for 2 weeks now documenting the plight of the ‘pirquineros’ (the Chilean phrase for traditional miners) of the Atacama and my Spanish has slowly trickled back to me, so I’m pretty confident when I eventually do find someone, I’ll be able to ask for more than directions to the nearest bathroom.

After a while of walking through the dusty streets; hoards of inquisitive children now following me, I find myself by the headquarters of the small local radio station, aptly named ‘Radio Domeyko’. I walk inside and my entourage of village children disperse.

Here I meet Ignacio, a man jolly not just by appearance but also demeanour. I begin to explain why I’m sitting in the desert here with him. He beams at me and brings out a photo album. And then another. And then another. Ignacio is a man who clearly is very proud of the township he has spent his entire life in. Before I know it, I’m whisked away to a town meeting where Ignacio introduces me to various local people. I am welcomed in with open arms.

The price of copper is rising exponentially. And with it, the face of the Chilean Mining Industry has irrevocably changed. As more and more Domestic and International investors amplify and shift their focus to Chile, armed with state of the art equipment, the life of the pirquenero is facing extinction; their whole livelihood has become mechanised.

The construction of high-tech mining facilities across Chile has turned mining villages such as Domeyko, once housing entire surrounding communities, into near ghost towns. The pirquenros are left with the choice: embrace the change and learn about their mechanised counterparts, or continue their trade, the only way they know how, with an almost certain clear end. Adapt or die.