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Copper Mining in Chile

A reddish metal, Copper is malleable, ductile and an extremely good conductor of both heat as well as electricity. In the ancient world, Copper was widely used as bronze to make cutlery, coins and even tools. Chinese people used it to make bells. While it was easy to extract Copper from its ores, mineable deposits were relatively rare. This metal is found in the same group as Gold and Silver on the periodic table and it is softer than Zinc. It has low chemical reactivity, that is, it gradually forms a greenish surface film in moist air and this film protects the metal from further attack.

It is an expensive process to mine and refine Copper. It is for this reason that seven of the top ten mines are jointly owned by major mining corporations. Chile and Peru are the largest producers of Copper. Since Copper and Lithium are present in abundance in Chile, it is no surprise that mining is one of the country’s largest industries. To put it simply, the homestead of Copper production is located in Chile. The top producer of Copper in the world, Chile has some of the largest Copper mines like Escondida, Collahuasi, El Teniente, Los Bronces, Los Pelambres, Chuquicamata and Radomiro Tomic.

Historically, Copper was the first metal used by ancient people. This reddish metal is used for a variety of purposes. Copper is used in construction for roofing and plumbing work and it is also used to manufacture electrical equipment. The most prominent Copper alloys are Brass (a Copper-Zinc alloy), Bronze, Copper-Tin-Zinc and Cupronickel. While Copper-Tin-Zinc was strong enough to make guns and cannons, Cupronickel on the other hand was the preferred metal for low-denomination coins. Copper is perfect for electrical wiring because it has high electrical conductivity and it can be drawn into fine wire.

Copper occurs naturally in the environment and it is dispersed through natural phenomena. While excess Copper is toxic for the human body, an adult human requires around 1.2 milligrams of Copper per day so that enzymes can transfer energy in cells. The world’s copper production is naturally rising year after year. This basically means that more and more Copper ends up in the environment with each passing year. The world produces a whopping 12 million tons of Copper a year. Apart from Chile and Peru, Copper is mined as major deposits in Indonesia, USA, Australia as well as Canada.

Copper has been kind to Chile. The metal amounts to 60% of exports and 20% of GDP in this country. Thanks to Copper, Chile’s economy is expanding by nearly 6 percent annually, while inflation and unemployment are admirably low. However, the Copper mines are located far from the Capital. For instance, Escondida, the world’s largest Copper mine and the source of over 5 percent of global supplies, is in the middle of the Atacama Desert. Huge trucks work non-stop to haul 1.5m tonnes of rock out of Escondida every single day.

Copper demand has witnessed a sudden surge since China’s rural population has started migrating towards the cities. The migrants construct homes with Copper wires and pipes. Emerging markets all over the world are gobbling up Copper to use in cars, bridges, fridges and more or less anything that requires electricity. It is therefore no coincidence that poverty rates have tumbled in Chile owing to its mass production of Copper year after year. In the midst of rising Copper prices and predictions of Copper deficit in the coming future, Chile is considered a primary target for exploration as the country expects a staggering $65 million in mining-related investment over the course of the next decade.

However, Chile’s mines are gradually ageing. In 1991, when Escondida began producing, Chilean ore was on average 1.4 percent Copper. Today, it is a little more than 1 percent. It is estimated that by the year 2025, the average will have fallen to 0.7 percent. What’s more? Owing to decades and decades of digging, the rock is now much farther down. As a result of this, trucks are hauling ore from deeper pits, taking more time and using more fuel in the process. Miners therefore need to start adapting to poorer ores. Today, Chile’s miners desperately hope that better training will be provided to their workers so that they can become as productive as their counterparts who work in Australian and American mines.

Over the years, the country has amassed wealth thanks to Copper exportation so it is now rich enough to afford a muscular green movement. As of today, Chile is one of the world’s fastest growing green economies. To keep the environmentalists happy, BHP Billiton, the world’s biggest mining company, is switching to desalinated water pumped from Antofagasta, instead of draining the local water tables.

China is the biggest threat to Chile’s Copper boom. China’s slowdown in the year 2012-2013 caused Copper prices to slide 15 percent. If the country that is responsible for buying 40 percent of the world’s Copper slows further down, the price of this reddish metal will fall again and Chile can hardly afford to turn all its Copper output into trinkets for tourists.