Nitrate ruins: the photography of mining in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Louise Purbrick
2017 Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies  
Ruins The sites of many former nitrate oficinas, the abandoned mines of the Atacama Desert, are visible from inside a car travelling along the Pan Americana. The long views of cloudless sky and bare land, both empty expanses, are irregularly punctuated by long, low, flat, ochre mountains. The sand road that leads to the Oficina Alianza is indicated by a battered metal signpost (Figure 1 ). The flat mountains frame the former nitrate oficina site. Initially they appear as natural features gently
more » ... sloping down to form a valley within which an industrial town once nestled. But these mountains grew up around the oficina as cart load upon cart load of the residue of nitrate processing, ripio, was tipped out, dumped to each side of the processing plant. The mountains are slag heaps. They dominate nitrate oficina sites, nineteenth to the early twentieth century are held in both the photography and the landscape of the Atacama. Nitrate mining in Chile is a history of loss and its ruins lend themselves to an account of the ruin as a historical form. Loss in the remote mining satellites of a metropolitan industrial economy is ever present rather than buried in the past. My account of the fallen walls of Alianza, following in the well-worn footsteps of Walter Benjamin, considers the allegorical properties of ruins alongside the analogic ones of photographs. One ruin is not just like another; one bundle photographs is not only analogous; both are artefacts of particular past and present. Thus, this essay attends to the historical moment and specific forms of Alianza: a modern industrial ruin and its photographic documents. Nitrate was extensively and intensively mined in the Antofagasta and Tarapacá regions from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. The industry was driven by British capital and capitalists (Monteón, 1975) . Industrial efficiencies of the export trade in nitrate, and the architecture of oficinas, was built upon the Shanks system, an adaptation by the English engineer James Shanks of the French Leblanc process of manufacturing soda (Haber, 1958: 252-254). Shanks devised an arrangement of large tanks that allowed continuous gravitational cycles of lixiviation, the separation of soluble and insoluble chemicals, which was adapted by James Humberstone for nitrate production. Rocks called caliche were exploded from the desert surface, crushed, dissolved and heated to separate nitrate from ripio. The Atacama held only caliche in abundance and little more: everything else was supplied. Materials for the construction of the entire oficina were imported from Britain: boilers, tanks, tubes, pumps, machine-tools, steam engines, railways and rolling stock, coal and corrugated iron were sent over transnational trade routes, from Liverpool or London via Australian ports, to Iquique, Chile. Labouring men, Chilean, Bolivian and Peruvian, were brought and bound through an enganche system to live in the nitrate oficinas (Monteón, 1979) . Imported materials were continually supplied to sustain working lives in the desert, but at a profit. Nitrate workers, promised three pesos a day were paid in fichas, the company tokens that were only currency accepted for overpriced goods in the company stores. Correspondences: photographs and ruins At Alianza, the ruins of nitrate industry in the landscape corresponds to the series of images bound together in the album of photographs, Oficina Alianza and Port of
doi:10.1080/13569325.2017.1313205 fatcat:up7bta3ynzehlemm2qx2dvv3ma