Open Wounds

September 25, 2007

The steam railway I rode out of Lima, zig-zagged up the steep western slopes of the Andes and stopped at Casapalca, Morococha, and Yauli. These stations, like almost all the others on this line, mark the locations of mines. The railroad was built more than a century ago to carry the ore to port. As the old steam engine approached the continental divide, trees became sparse, then there were none at all. At almost 15,000 feet above sea level, where the train struggled to reach the desolate station at Ticlio, little was growing besides moss and lichen.

Descending the far side of the cordillera, the slopes once again became green. But when the train approached the town of La Oroya, the vegetation unexpectedly disappeared. At the heart of the valley, surrounded by ashen white cliffs and bleached soil, stands the refinery built in 1922 by the Cerro de Pasco Corporation. The stark landscape of La Oroya is unrelated to altitude. It is the legacy of 70 years of mining.

Mining has been a driving force in the conquest, colonization and domination of the peoples of Latin America. The literature that analyzes this tragic story is vast.[1] Less publicized is another related tragedy: the effect of mining on the ecosystems of the continent. The environmental impact of mining from 1492 to the present can be divided into three broad periods each marked by fundamentally different social and technological systems: roughly 1492-1900, 1900-1960, and 1960-present. Mining’s impact on the environment was markedly greater in each succeeding period, reaching a point today where the ecological devastation itself is transforming society and threatening the entire globe.

Because pre-Columbian societies deified nature and were organized to provide food security, their material and ideological structures generated a profound respect for the environment. Despite their significant differences, Maya, Aztec, Inca, and less numerous native peoples each shared key attributes: ruling classes appropriated surplus labor in the form of food (later distributed in times of scarcity), their cosmology was explicitly linked to the material order, and survival was precarious and highly dependent on preserving the ecosystem. Pre-conquest pantheons were drawn from the natural surroundings, and people worshiped all of the elements of the universe that conditioned their existence. Consequently, ritual life focused on appealing to and appeasing nature. From what little we know about their concept of the environment, it was thought to be inseparable from the social order.[2]

The moment Columbus set foot on Hispaniola, mining replaced food security as the organizing principle of society.[3] The Spaniards’ voracious appetite for gold and silver led them to enslave the Caribbean peoples and force them to pan rivers and streams for alluvial gold, exacerbating the unconscious germ warfare that in ten years would make the aboriginal population extinct. Subsequently, Cortés, Pizarro, and less successful conquerors led expeditions to the mainland in search of gold. The Spaniards’ obsession with precious metals so struck the Aztecs and Incas that popular myth held the conquerors ate gold.

In the mid-sixteenth century, the locus of New World mining changed from looting and panning gold to underground silver mining, producing a fundamental spatial and social reorganization of the continent. Land use and social structures were altered to supply the mines with laborers, food, animals, and timber to support the shafts and tunnels. Veins of silver were discovered at Guanajuato and Zacatecas in New Spain (Mexico), as well as at Potosí in Upper Peru (Bolivia). The finds were enormous, as were the logistical problems associated with extracting, processing, and transporting the ore. Cerro Rico at Potosí was particularly rich but frustratingly inaccessible at an altitude of 15,000 feet. To force the Indians to work in the mines, the Spanish Crown imposed tributes and taxes in silver and in labor on conquered indigenous communities. For the next two centuries silver was shipped on mules over treacherous mountain paths from Potosí to the Pacific port of Lima-Callao.

By the 1570s the richest and most accessible veins at Potosí had been emptied and shipped on to Europe. It was then that the major environmental damage began. To work lower grade mineral bodies, the Spaniards used mercury to separate silver from the crushed rock and silt extracted from the mines. Mercury was discovered at Huancavelica, high in the Peruvian central Andes, and was precariously transported to Potosí, as well as to Northern Mexico more than 1,000 miles away. That deadly metal caused a quantum leap in the industry’s environmental impact.

The technique was called the “patio” process: Mercury was amalgamated with silver ore in large tanks or patios where humans and animals crushed ore with their feet. The Indians and mules that labored in the patios soon became chronically ill and most died. Rivers in the mining regions became saturated with mercury, initiating a chain of ecological transformation, since the element accumulates in animal and plant tissue. Fish caught in waters laden with mercury were eaten by humans, animals and birds, spreading toxicity. Soils were so affected by contaminated river water even in areas far from mines that the plants they supported mutated over time.

For Europeans the very names Potosí, Guanajuato, and Huancavelica conjured up visions of wealth. For Indians, the names bespoke tales of horror: the Spaniards’ brutality, mercury poisoning, robbing the earth of its bounty, and desecrating indigenous gods. Native peoples abandoned their communities rather than perish in the mines, but this did little to stop the tide of death.

Because of mining, deforestation and erosion plagued vast areas of Peru and Mexico. Entire communities vanished, particularly in the mining regions, leaving behind abandoned irrigation networks and derelict terraced fields. The need to produce meat for the Spanish colonists and mules for the mines stimulated extensive deforestation for ranching. In addition, trees were cut to construct the shafts and tunnels. Even in the Caribbean, large areas were denuded of trees to build the galleons that carried the silver to Europe.

By the end of the sixteenth century Potosí was one of the world’s largest cities, with some 350,000 inhabitants. Cerro Rico alone supplied half of the world’s silver. Lima, Panama, Vera Cruz, and Havana all grew because they were on the officially sanctioned routes from the mines to Spain. Indeed, Buenos Aires first gained importance as the center of the contraband silver trade.

In Brazil mining was insignificant until gold was discovered at the end of the eighteenth century in Minas Gerais and Maranhao.[4] Slaves who had fled from the coastal cotton and sugar plantations to Maroon communities in the interior were the first to mine gold. Soon a massive migration of landholders and peasants flocked to the previously unpopulated interior. Wealthy prospectors brought their slaves with them; the poor bought slaves when and if they found gold.[5]

The lush forcst~of Minas Gerais were razed to pave the way for ranching to provide food and draft animals to the miners, as well as to the new cities that arose chaotically in the midst of the gold boom. Deforestation combined with panning and excavating in and around rivers in search of the precious metal caused extensive erosion. Rapid change in the ecology of the region was then intensified by widespread mercury pollution carried by the river systems spreading out from Minas Gerais. (Miners used mercury to separate gold from the silt and sand in which it was mixed.)

The fundamental changes in the natural environment wrought by the Conquest––much of which arose from mining––were facilitated by the ideology of the Catholic Church. Whereas in pre-Columbian belief systems gods were found in nature, the Christian god assumed the form of man. Christianity rejected a cosmology structured on a symbiotic relationship between the social and natural orders, and the spiritual links between humans and nature were severed. The Catholic Church denounced the deification of nature as a heresy that exemplified the primitivism of indigenous societies. In its place the Church struggled to impose a normative system that accepted the morality of people exploiting natural resources.

No doubt in the colonial period the alteration and contamination of the environment for mining seemed dramatic. However, compared to the twentieth century, it was relatively benign. In that epoch, mining was constrained as well as driven by the nature of merchant capital: Wealth was based on merchants organizing trade, not capitalists organizing production. The primary objective of the Crown and its merchant consorts was to enhance the colony’s ability to export precious metals; the only metals of value were silver and gold, and the technologies to extract them remained primitive. The devastation wrought by mining in colonial Latin America was social far more than it was ecological; native peoples––their lives, societies, and cultures––were the industry’s major victims.

With the advent of industrial capitalism it became less and less possible to separate the social from the ecological effects of the industry. The two always have been interdependent, but the environmental impact of mining in the twentieth century was on such a grand scale that it transformed class relations throughout large regions surrounding the mines.

The rise of industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century led to a mining boom and a corresponding environmental bust. The industrial revolutions in Western Europe and the United States created seemingly insatiable demands for previously worthless “base” or nonprecious minerals. Among these were nitrates for fertilizers and gunpowder, and copper to conduct electricity. Mass production of machines, armaments, automobiles, and railroads generated demand for iron, lead, zinc, and tin. And all of their engines were fired by oil or coal.

Latin America was rich in many of these newly valued resources. Among the first “new” minerals to emerge were nitrate and petroleum. In the 1860s Chilean entrepreneurs began mining the shallow nitrate seams that run just below the surface of the Atacama Desert, which straddles the Chilean-Peruvian border. Tens of thousands of people were lured or coerced to work in a region which previously had been considered uninhabitable.

From 1879 to 1883, Peru, Chile, and Bolivia fought the War of the Pacific over the deposits in the Atacama, the first of many bloody struggles over mineral resources (of which the 1991 Gulf War was a particularly brutal example). In fact, since the end of the nineteenth century, most of the border disputes in Latin America have involved contests over mineral rights.[6] In the war of the Pacific, Chile emerged victorious after its troops sacked vast areas of Peru and Bolivia, burning forests and fields in a war of attrition. The nitrate boom, however, proved short-lived, as petroleum-based fertilizers soon became more profitable. By the end of the century, the Atacama mines were abandoned along with the scattered towns they spawned. One hundred years later, at the close of the twentieth century, these long abandoned mines were proposed as a storage place for toxic waste.

In 1872 petroleum was discovered at Talara, on the seacoast of northern Peru. Here the Humboldt and EI Niño currents converge, creating one of the world’s richest areas of sea life. At Talara, the International Petroleum Corporation JPQ, a subsidiary of Standard Oil of New Jersey, began the first commercial oil production in Latin America. Then as now, the major threat to the environment posed by the petroleum industry was not drilling, but transport, refining, and exhaust from engines fueled by petroleum. Because Talara was in the vanguard of the industry, the technology employed by IPC was primitive and often faulty. In the early decades of the twentieth century repeated oil spills contaminated beaches and killed fish along the Pacific, forcing fishing communities to abandon the zone.

In 1901, soon after a new mining code allowed for private ownership of mineral deposits in Peru, a New York company purchased 80% of the mines in the Cerro de Pasco region of Peru’s Central Andes.[7] Many of the mines were isolated at altitudes between 9,000 and 12,000 feet above sea level, where temperatures often drop below freezing at night. Half the year, torrential rains cause constant flooding and mud slides which wash away roads, bridges, and buildings. During the dry months, the ground dries and cracks; vegetation is reduced mostly to scrub. Despite these obstacles, the Cerro de Pasco Corporation dominated the central highlands for the next half century, altering dramatically its fragile ecosystem.

Over a decade the company constructed networks of roads, railroads, smelters, mining camps, dams, hydroelectric plants, and haciendas to serve its chain of underground copper, lead, and zinc mines. To build its infrastructure the company purchased great quantities of timber, causing extensive deforestation and erosion. In addition, the company built dams throughout the region to generate electricity for its mines and smelters. The damage this caused was localized because the steep terrain limited the size of the dams, but farmland was flooded in peasant communities far from the mines. In addition, land bordering the company railroad suddenly became valuable, and subsistence farming in those areas was replaced by grazing and commercial agriculture to supply food to the mines and to Lima.

Changes to the environment loomed large even before the mining complex was opened, but far more drastic damage ensued. In 1922 the company opened a smelter-refinery at La Oroya which polluted the air and rivers with arsenic, sulfuric acid, and iron-zinc residues. Vegetation withered, animals and fish died, and people developed new diseases. Contamination was acute even 50 miles from La Oroya. Thirty peasant communities and 28 hacienda-owners filed legal claims against the Cerro de Pasco Corporation for damages. After years of litigation the people whose land and livelihood was destroyed won a pyrrhic victory: the courts forced the company to purchase their land. In one stroke the Cerro de Pasco Company became the largest landowner in Peru.

Once it owned the barren lands, reducing environmental damage became profitable. In the next decade the company installed flues to capture lead, zinc, and bismuth particles, as well as arsenic and sulfuric acid emissions, measures which actually increased the smelter’s productivity. The company sold the metals it recovered, and within a decade lead-zinc ores surpassed copper exports. In time, the soil of the puna recovered its fertility and the company set up Peru’s largest cattle ranch. La Croya valley, however, remains a lunar landscape today. There is no green; sulfuric acid bleached the soil and rocky cliffs. The rivers and underground water are toxic and lifeless.[8]

By the 1960s miners with their lanterns, picks and shovels, following rich mineral veins through underground shafts and tunnels deep in the earth, were a relic of the past. Technological innovations changed the focus of the industry from exploiting high-grade subterranean veins to extracting low-grade ores from vast disseminated mineral deposits in “open-cast” or “open-pit” mines. Open-cast techniques cut away the earth’s “overburden” or surface layer to reveal extensive low grade deposits. Modern excavation equipment, conveyor belts, and pipelines made it possible to remove large amounts of soil and rock. New mechanical and chemical techniques were capable of processing low-grade ores. Huge new port facilities and super-tankers facilitated transport. In particular, open-pit techniques revolutionized copper, iron, and bauxite mining.

This produced a great leap in the scale of production, but at tremendous environmental cost. Mountains were literally moved and valleys obliterated. Fertile soil that had supported plant and animal life became toxic tailings. Too often these were recklessly discarded, initiating a chain of soil, water, and air contamination that altered the ecosystem of large areas.

Chile, the world’s leading copper-producing country, was in the vanguard of open-pit mining. Chuquicamata, the largest open-pit copper mine in the world, was so rich that today, even after 80 years of mining, it still produces half of Chile’s copper. In Peru, the technological revolution rendered obsolete Cerro de Pasco’s empire of underground mines. As of the 1960s, the bulk of Peru’s mineral exports, predominantly copper and iron ore, came from open-pit mines in the south––an extension of the rich deposits in northern Chile. Mexico, Brazil, Jamaica, and Venezuela also developed large open-pit mines.

The mining revolution sounded the death knell for Bolivia’s tin, extracted from the abandoned silver mines at Potosí since the beginning of the century. (That base metal had been discarded throughout centuries of colonial mining.) Aluminum was substituted for tin in a multitude of industrial uses because open-pit techniques made it cheaper to mine bauxite—the basis of aluminum—from surface deposits, than to extract tin from underground veins. The mines may be closed, but Bolivia’s long history of mining remains permanently etched in the Andean landscape. Silver and tin are gone; in their place rise mountains of rock, slag, and tailings, accumulations from 500 years of mining. Saturated with mercury, arsenic, and sulfuric acid, the iridescence of these rubbish heaps provides a psychedelic reminder of the past.[9]

The production of aluminum required huge amounts of electricity. In fact, the most important input into the process of refining aluminum was electricity, not bauxite![10] Consequently, bauxite-aluminum production became associated with massive hydro-electric dams. To develop the bauxite mines in Jamaica companies built dams which flooded fertile valleys and evicted farmers from their land. An additional major risk to the environment was posed by the vast amount of “red mud” which was discarded by the processing plants. Red mud is a highly alkaline caustic waste that has contaminated ground water and soil in areas surrounding bauxite mines in Jamaica, Venezuela, and Brazil.

In and of itself, the open-pit revolution in the mining industry created serious environmental problems. But these were magnified by national development strategies that involved the construction of great industrial complexes as spin-offs from the mines. Petroleum and iron ore deposits in formerly inaccessible and relatively unspoiled regions frequently formed the hub around which politicians, bankers, and lending agencies established what they hoped would become dynamic centers of production, called “development poles.”[11]

This was the case of the massive oil deposits discovered in Tabasco and Chiapas in Mexico in the 1970s. In ten years Villahermosa, once a small river town, came to accommodate refineries, ports, pipelines, and almost a million people.[12] The government expropriated agricultural land for mining operations; air pollution combined with filtration of contaminated water reduced fertility of the remaining farmland. In a few years it became apparent that vegetation over a large region had been damaged by “nitric acid rain,” which originated in the sulfur and nitrate emissions from the refinery. Today, one of the only remnants of Villahermosa’s past is its ironic name (“beautiful town”). Its pollution is so extreme that residents of Mexico City derive bizarre consolation from comparing the environments of the two regions.[13]

The first development pole established in conjunction with metal mining in Latin America was in the Orinoquia region of Venezuela. In the 1960s the Venezuelan govemment nationalized U.S.-owned iron mines in the state of Bolivar and built a large iron-steel complex at Ciudad Guayana where the Orinoco and Caroní Rivers converge.[14] The massive infrastructure at Ciudad Guayana included large open-pit iron mines as well as aluminum and steel plants. The development of Ciudad Guayana involved careful economic planning but virtually ignored the project’s impact on the tropical rainforest. The entire river network was altered to meet the needs of the complex, The Guri Dam, one of the largest in the world, changed the flow of the rivers and flooded large areas of fragile tropical soil. The construction of super-ports on the Orinoco and widening of the river to accommodate ocean-going tankers aggravated the environmental effects of the transformation of the river system.

Years after Ciudad Guayana was established and the aluminum plant in operation, bauxite deposits were discovered at Los Pijiqüaos, about 800 kilometers from Ciudad Guayana. This discovery spread environmental dislocation into a new region inhabited by indigenous peoples and unique varieties of birds, animals, reptiles, and plants. The bauxite excavated at the giant open-cast mine at Los Pijiqüaos was transported on the Orinoco to the refinery at Ciudad Guayana. This initiated a chain of pollution which was carried by the rivers extending from the mining-industrial complex into the surrounding rainforest.

In addition, the entire mining-metallurgical complex generated a sociopathic process of urbanization that subsequently would characterize other development poles. As population growth at Ciudad Guayana outpaced the provision of basic urban services, the combination of human waste, the open-pit mine, tailings from mining, and chemical pollution from the metallurgical processing plants turned Ciudad Guayana and the surrounding zones into an environmental disaster area.

What gloriously used to be called “man’s conquest over nature” became a nightmare of vast proportions. Ciudad Guayana, Villahermosa, and other mining projects are dwarfed by Brazil’s Grande Carajás Project. Begun in the 1980s, Carajás is the largest mining project in the world. Everything about Carajás is mammoth, including its threat to the global ecosystem. The project converted one-quarter of the world’s largest tropical rainforest into the world’s largest industrial and agro-livestock center.[15] At the hub of the enterprise lies the world’s richest deposit of iron ore which reputedly enjoys the lowest production costs in the world. It was expected that Carajás alone would produce 10% of the world’s supply of iron ore.

The Carajás iron ore mine became the heart of a vast “integrated development project” that includes a string of open-cast mines producing bauxite, copper, chrome, nickel, tungsten, cassiterite, and gold. Radiating from the raines are processing plants, steel and aluminum factories, agro-livestock enterprises, hydro-electric dams, railroads, deep-water river ports, and more. Together these form an archipelago that covers an area of 900,000 square kilometers, the size of France and Britain combined. In addition, the project is like a giant magnet, drawing farmers, gold prospectors, and enterprises of all kinds into the Amazon.

The project has devastating ecological implications, which, by the middle of the 1980s, were already apparent. The project involves massive deforestation. Besides the mines, farms, and cattle ranches, 1.6 million acres of timber is cut annually to stoke the pig-iron smelters and provide lumber for construction. While some effort is made at reforestation, large areas of the tropical forest have been reduced to scrub land. Rapid deforestation has changed the climate. Less rainfall, combined with soil erosion, siltation and flooding of the region’s rivers, results in widespread desertification. Extinction of plant and animal species are signals of vast and irreversible changes in the ecosystem.

Large as they are, Carajás and other large ventures do not monopolize mining in the Amazon. After the rise in the price of gold in 1979, an estimated one million garimpeiros,or prospectors, invaded the rainforest in a gold rush of unprecedented proportions. In the 1980s garimpeiros panning in and around the rivers of Amazonia produced between 80% and 90% of Brazil’s annual gold output. The roads, railroads, and services installed for Carajás facilitated the gold rush. However, in contrast to the scale and technology of development poles, garimpeirosare the mining industry’s “informal sector.” Relying on simple machinery and artisans technologies, they work individually or for small-scale contractors. Their work turns clear rivers brown, and caused silt to overburden and choke trees and plants along river banks. Just as in the colonial period, mercury is causing the most serious environmental damage.

Sonic observers hold that the garimpeiros are even more destructive of the environment than large-scale mining because their activities are unregulated and unplanned. They argue that profligate use and careless disposal of mercury contaminates rivers and soil more than would large industrial mining companies. Also, that the sheer numbers of gold prospectors leave the rivers polluted with massive amounts of silt, sewage, and mercury. In addition, they argue that random logging causes more serious erosion than programmed deforestation/ reforestation.[16] Others argue that garimpeiros are the lesser of two evils. They believe that despite the damage they cause, garimpeiros together with small farmers help resist the advance of ranchers, speculators, and mining companies who seek relentlessly to take over the Amazon.[17]

During the last 500 years, mining, perhaps more than any other single human activity, transformed the ecosystems of Latin America. Of course ecological change is inevitable and can be positive. At least since the advent of agriculture some 6,000 years ago, people have transformed nature, producing deforestation, erosion, and other associated evils. The problem is not change per se, but whether the change threatens ecological sustainability. Until the industrial revolution the environmental impact of mining in Latin America was relatively modest and unquestionably sustainable. Under advanced capitalism (and what was Soviet socialism) mining became increasingly destructive. So much so that today mining in Latin America threatens not only regional ecosystems but the survival of our planet in its present form.

A significant geographic shift in the world mining industry has aggravated the potential for ecological disaster in Latin America and the rest of the Third World. Increasingly since the 1940s mining companies have relocated production operations from developed to developing countries.[18] While this shift is related to mobility of finance, quality of deposits, and transport and labor costs, environmental activism has accelerated the global restructuring. Even prior to the emergence of ecology movements in Canada, the United States, and Western Europe, wealthier people in advanced capitalist countries could afford to become less tolerant of pollution, particularly on the scale associated with mega-mining. Environmental legislation, passed in the 1970s, inadequate as it was, further constrained mining industries.

In the same period Latin American governments found themselves virtually compelled by banks and lending agencies to promote mega-mining.[19] The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank responded to the acute indebtedness of the Latin American countries in the 1980s by imposing a crash diet of export promotion billed as “structural adjustment.” To comply with these conditions, governments throughout the region implemented economic strategies driven by the need to increase exports. In this context, poverty and indebtedness seemed to preclude issues of ecological impact, which appeared to be luxuries only developed countries could enjoy.

Latin American governments ignored “natural” ecologists, such as forest dwellers, the poor for whom environmental protection was synonymous with survival.[20] When official political and economic strategies succeeded, natural ecologists tended to disappear. Their societies and cultures died off with little notice, as ecological change destroyed their livelihood. When their struggles could no longer be ignored they were violently suppressed, as symbolized by the murder of Amazonian rubber-tappers’ leader Chico Mendes. But the class politics of ecology has rarely been that clear. Just as often, impoverishment forces native peoples, peasants, garimpeiros,and others to overexploit all resources at hand, with little regard for long-term environmental costs.

Can we close the wounds? The destructive transformation of Latin America’s ecosystems by mining is probably far greater than we can appreciate, because historically it has been ignored. Mega projects like Grande Carajás seem to presage an environmental holocaust of gigantic proportions, a step in a horrifying but logical sequence by which technological advances wreak ever greater havoc. But ecological destruction is neither natural nor inevitable; and technology does not occur in a social vacuum. Technologies that reduce the negative ecological impact of mining are already available, others could be developed, if sufficient political will existed. Building that will is the challenge we all face.

Elizabeth Dore teaches Latin American history at the Portsmouth Polytechnic, U.K., and is a member of NACLA’s editorial board.

I thank María Pilar Garcia, Bun Fine, Julia Blauert, John Weeks, and Mark Fried for their valuable comments.

1. Some of the many books and articles in this extensive area are: Elizabeth Dore, The Peruvian Mining Industry; Peter Bakewell, “Mining in Colonial Spanish America,” and A.J. R. Russell-Wood, “Colonial Brazil: the gold cycle,” in Leslie Bethell, ed., The Cambridge History of Latin America: Colonial Latin America, Vol. II, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984); Karen Spalding, Huarochirí: An Andean Society Under Inca and Spanish Rule (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1984); Enrique Tandeter, “Forced and Free Labour in Late Colonial Patosí,” Past and Present, No. 93 (November 1981), pp. 98-136; Brooke Larson, Colonialism and Agrarian Transformation in Bolivia: Cochabamba, 1550-1900 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988); Steve Stern, Peru’s Indian People and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest (Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982); Adrian DeWind, Peasants Become Miners: the Evolution of Industrial Mining Systems in Peru, 1902-1974 (New York: Garland,

Tags: mining, conquest, exploitation, environmental destruction, colonialism

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