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History of mining in Chile

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Title: History of mining in Chile  
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Subject: History of Chile, Captaincy General of Chile, History of mining in Chile, Law on Mining Concessions, Conquest of Chile
Collection: History of Mining in Chile
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History of mining in Chile

During most of Chile's history, from 1500 to the present, mining has been an important economic activity. 16th century mining was oriented towards the exploitation of gold placer deposits using encomienda labour. After a period of decline in the 17th century mining resurged in the 18th and early 19th century this time revolving chiefly around silver. In the 1870s silver mining declined sharply. Chile took over the highly lucrative saltpetre mining districts of Peru and Bolivia in the War of the Pacific (1879–83). In the first half of the 20th century copper mining overshadowed the declining saltpetre mining.


  • Pre-Hispanic mining 1
  • Colonial mining (1541–1810) 2
  • Silver rushes (1810–1870) 3
  • Saltpetre Era (1870–1930) 4
  • Copper Era (1930–2010) 5
  • References 6
  • Bibliography 7

Pre-Hispanic mining

Incas exploited placer gold in the northern half of Chile prior to the arrival of the Spanish.[1] It has been claimed that the Inca Empire expanded into Diaguita lands because of its mineral wealth. This hypothesis was as of 1988 under dispute.[2] Further, an additional possibility is that the Incas invaded the relatively well-populated Eastern Diaguita valleys (present-day Argentina) to obtain labor to send to Chilean mining districts.[2]

Archaeologists Tom Dillehay and Américo Gordon claim Incan yanakuna extracted gold south of the Incan frontier in free Mapuche territory. Following this thought, the main motive for Incan expansion into Mapuche territory would have been to access gold mines.[3]

Besides gold indigenous people in Chile did also mined native copper and copper minerals producing copper bracelets, earrings and weapons. The use of copper in Chile can be traced to 500 BC.[1] While Pre-Hispanic Mapuche tools are known to have been relatively simple and made of wood and stone a few them were actually made of copper and bronze.[4][5]

Colonial mining (1541–1810)

Pedro de Valdivia the conquistador that bought much of Chile under Spanish rule and initiated mining on behalf of the Spanish. Pedro Mariño de Lobera records that a common story in Chile at the time of Valdivia's death was that Valdivia had been killed by Mapuches that forced him to drink molten gold.[6]

Early Spaniards extracted gold from placer deposits using indigenous labour,[1] deaths related to mining contributed to a population decline among native Mapuches.[7] Mining activity declined in the late 16th century as the richest part of placer deposits, which are usually the most shallow, became exhausted.[1]

Compared to the 16th and 18th centuries Chilean mining activity in the 17th century was very limited.[8] Gold production totaled as little as 350 kg over the whole century.[1] Chile exported minor amounts of copper to the rest of the Viceryoalty of Peru in the 17th century.[9] Chile saw an unprecedented revival of its mining activity in the 18th century with annual gold production rising from 400 to 1000 kg over the course of the century and the silver annual production rising from 1000 to 5000 kg in the same interval.[10] Chilean copper mining of high-grade oxidized copper minerals and melted with charcoal produced 80,000 to 85,000 tons of copper in the 1541–1810 period.[1]

Gold, silver and copper from Chilean mining begun to be exported directly to Spain via the Straits of Magellan and Buenos Aires first in the 18th century.[11]

Silver rushes (1810–1870)

Drawing of an early 19th-century Chilean miner.

Following the discovery of silver at Agua Amarga (1811) and Arqueros (1825) the Norte Chico mountains north of La Serena were exhaustively prospected.[12][13][14] In 1832 prospector Juan Godoy found a silver outcrop (reventón) 50 km south of Copiapó in Chañarcillo.[12] The finding attracted thousands of people to the place and generated significant wealth.[13] After the discovery of Chañarcillo, many other ores were discovered near Copiapó well into the 1840s.[12] Copiapó experienced a large demographic and urbanistic growth during the rush.[12] The town became a centre for trade and services of a large mining district.[13] The mining zone slowly grew northwards into the diffuse border with Bolivia.[14] At the end of the silver rush rich miners had diversified their assets into banking, agriculture, trade and commerce all over Chile.[12]

A last major discovery of silver occurred 1870 in Caracoles in Bolivian territory adjacent to Chile.[14] Apart from being discovered by Chileans, the ore was also extracted with Chilean capital and miners.[14][15]

In the 19th century Claudio Gay and Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna where among the first to raise the question of the deforestation of Norte Chico caused by the firewood demands of the mining activity. Despite the reality of the degradation caused by mining, and contrary to popular belief, the Norte Chico forests were not pristine either before the onset of mining in the 18th century.[16]

Saltpetre Era (1870–1930)

Starting in 1873, Chile's economy deteriorated.[17] Several of Chile's key exports were out-competed[18][19] and Chile's silver mining income dropped.[18] In the mid-1870s, Peru nationalized its nitrate industry, affecting both British and Chilean interests.[17] Contemporaries considered the crisis the worst ever of independent Chile.[17] Chilean newspaper El Ferrocarril predicted 1879 to be "a year of mass business liquidation".[17] In 1878, then-President Anibal Pinto expressed his concern through the following statement:[17][18]

View of Humberstone, a saltpetre work from the Saltpetre Republic epoch.

It was during this context of economic crisis that Chile became involved the costly Saltpetre War (1879–1883) wrestling control of mineral-rich provinces of Peru and Bolivia. The notion that Chile entered the war to obtain economical gains has been a topic of debate among historians.[18][20][21]

As the victor and possessor of a new coastal territory following the War of the Pacific, Chile benefited by gaining a lucrative territory with significant mineral income. The national treasury grew by 900 percent between 1879 and 1902, due to taxes coming from the newly acquired lands.[22] British involvement and control of the nitrate industry rose significantly,[23] but from 1901 to 1921 Chilean ownership increased from 15% to 51%.[24] The growth of Chilean economy sustained in its saltpetre monopoly[25] meant, compared to the previous growth cycle (1832–1873), that the economy became less diversified and overly dependent on a single natural resource.[18] In addition the Chilean nitrate, used world-wide as fertilizer, was sensitive to economic downturns as farmers made cuts on fertilizer use one of their earliest economic measures in the face of economic decline.[25] It has been questioned on whether the nitrate wealth conquered in the War of the Pacific was a resource curse or not.[26] During the Nitrate Epoch the government increased public spending but was however accused of squandering money.[18]

When conquering Peruvian territories in 1880 Chile imposed a 1.6 $ tax on each quintal exported. This tax made saltpetre more expensive at a global scale, in other words it was a "tax exportation". In the 1920s this tax begun to be considered obsolete by Chilean politicians.[27] A new mining code was enacted in 1888.[28]

From 1876 to 1891 Chilean copper mining declined,[1] being largely replaced in international markets by copper from the United States and Río Tinto in Spain.[18] This was in part due to the exhaustion of supergene (shallow) high-grade ores. The introduction of new extraction techniques and technology in the early 20th century contributed to a significant resurgence of copper mining. Technological innovation in drilling, blasting, loading and transport made it profitable to mine large low-grade porphyry copper deposits.[1]

Copper Era (1930–2010)

Chilean copper miners

In the 1910s the main copper mining countries were Chile, Spain and the United States. The tax payed by copper mining amounted to "little or nothing". In the 1950s the taxation on copper mining was reformed.[27] In 1932 a new mining code replaced the older code from 1888.[28]

The [29]

Investments in mineral exploration in Chile reached a maximum 1997 and declined from there on to 2003. As a consequence of this by 2004 there were relatively few active mining projects. From 1995 to 2004 the principal discoveries were the copper porphyries of Escondida and Toki. In addition these in the 1995–2004 period a larger group medium sized mineral deposists (with non-mineralized cover rocks) were discovered including Candelaria, El Peñón, Gaby Sur, Pascua Lama and Spence.[28]

Another tendency by 2004 was that the number of companies involved in exploration had diminished due to mergers.[28]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Maksaev, Víctor; Townley, Brian; Palacios, Carlos; Camus, Francisco (2006). "6. Metallic ore deposits". In Moreno, Teresa; Gibbons, Wes. Geology of Chile. Geological Society of London. pp. 179–180.  
  2. ^ a b Lorandi, A.M. (1988). "Los diaguitas y el tawantinsuyu: Una hipótesis de conflicto". In Dillehay, Tom; Netherly, Patricia. La frontera del estado Inca (in Spanish). pp. 197–214. 
  3. ^  
  4. ^ Villalobos et al. 1974, p. 50.
  5. ^ Bengoa 2003, pp. 190–191.
  6. ^  
  7. ^ Bengoa 2003, pp. 252–253.
  8. ^ Villalobos et al. 1974, p. 168.
  9. ^  
  10. ^ Villalobos et al. 1974, pp. 226–227.
  11. ^ Salazar & Pinto 2002, pp. 16–17.
  12. ^ a b c d e Villalobos et al. 1974, pp. 469–472.
  13. ^ a b c Los ciclos mineros del cobre y la plata. Memoria Chilena.
  14. ^ a b c d Bethell, Leslie. 1993. Chile Since Independence. Cambridge University Press. p. 13–14.
  15. ^ "Los Ciclos Mineros del Cobre y la Plata (1820-1880)" [Mining Cycles of Copper and Silver].  
  16. ^ Camus Gayan, Pablo (2004). "Los bosques y la minería del Norte Chico, S. XIX. Un mito en la representación del paísaje chileno" (PDF).  
  17. ^ a b c d e Palma, Gabriel. Trying to 'Tax and Spend' Oneself out of the 'Dutch Disease': The Chilean Economy from the War of the Pacific to the Great Depression. p. 217–240
  18. ^ a b c d e f g Salazar & Pinto 2002, pp. 25–29.
  19. ^ Villalobos et al. 1974, pp. 6003-605.
  20. ^ Ortega, Luis (1984). "Nitrates, Chilean Entrepreneurs and the Origins of the War of the Pacific".  
  21. ^ Sater, William F. (1973). "Chile During the First Months of the War of the Pacific" 5, 1 (pages 133-138 ed.). Cambridge at the University Press: Journal of Latin American Studies. p. 37. 
  22. ^ Crow, The Epic of Latin America, p. 180
  23. ^ Foster, John B. & Clark, Brett. (2003). "Ecological Imperialism: The Curse of Capitalism" (accessed September 2, 2005). The Socialist Register 2004, p190–192. Also available in print from Merlin Press.
  24. ^ Salazar & Pinto 2002, pp. 124-125.
  25. ^ a b Brown, J. R. (1963), "Nitrate Crises, Combinations, and the Chilean Government in the Nitrate Age.",  
  26. ^ Ducoing Ruiz, C. A.; Miró, M. B. (2012), Avoiding the Dutch disease? The Chilean industrial sector in the nitrate trade cycle. 1870–1938. (PDF) 
  27. ^ a b Wagner, Gert (2005). "Un siglo de tributación minera". In Lagos, Gustavo. Minería y desarrollo (in Spanish). Santiago, Chile:  
  28. ^ a b c d Camus, Francisco (2005). "La minería y la evolución de la exploración en Chile". In Lagos, Gustavo. Minería y desarrollo (in Spanish). Santiago, Chile:  
  29. ^ Ley Orgánica Constitucional sobre Concesiones Mineras (in Spanish), Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional de Chile, retrieved December 18, 2013 


  • Salazar, Gabriel; Pinto, Julio (2002). Historia contemporánea de Chile III. La economía: mercados empresarios y trabajadores. LOM Ediciones. ISBN 956-282-172-2.
  • Villalobos, Sergio; Silva, Osvaldo; Silva, Fernando; Estelle, Patricio (1974). Historia De Chile (14th ed.). Editorial Universitaria. ISBN 956-11-1163-2.
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