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Full Circle

Day 176: Calama

Michael Palin - Full CircleAfter being owned and run by the American Anaconda Mining Company for most of its life, the mine was nationalized by President Allende in 1971 and is now run by the Chileans. They have kindly, many would say foolishly, allowed me to count down their weekly controlled explosion. In the operations cabin high above the amphitheatre of heavily-mined terraces I sit surrounded by football posters and pin-ups, aware that any flinching in my Spanish could jeopardize days of preparatory work. And I have to count backwards. I lean into the microphone. 'Cinco... Quatro... Tres... Dos... Uno... Fuego!'

Before any sound reaches me, I see black plumes squirt out of the ground, almost a mile away, and several acres of hard grey rock buck and rear up in slow motion before crashing back onto the ground in fragments. These then tumble down the hill until obscured by a swelling cloud of dust that columns into the sky and obscures the fading sunlight. I'm glad they didn't tell me before the countdown that the total cost of preparing an explosion of this size is about six hundred thousand dollars.

Despite the running costs of this enormously wasteful operation, world demand for copper is so high that the Chuquicamata mine made a billion dollars profit on last year's production. By order of the Chilean government ten per cent of this goes straight to the military.

It may be a blot on the strikingly beautiful landscape of the Atacama Desert, but in two years' time it will not be the only one. A new mine is due to open nearby, jointly financed by companies from Britain and two Pacific Rim countries - Australia and Japan.

It will be even bigger than Chuquicamata.
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  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 176
  • Country/sea: Chile
  • Place: Calama
  • Book page no: 234

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