Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure, and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin's South America - Eric Simons (2009)


Chapter 15. ANDACOLLO

The Gold Mine

I was glad to take the opportunity of weighing one of the loads, which I picked out by chance. When standing straight over it, I could just lift it from the ground, the weight was 197 pounds. The Apire had carried this up 80 perpendicular yards, by a very steep road, & by climbing up a zigzag nearly vertical notched pole.


BY THE TIME DARWIN REACHED the Rio Claro in northern Chile, he had been away from home for more than three years. He had been living rough for those three years, sleeping half the time on a cramped ship, the other half on hard ground. Although his pronouncements about enjoying the freewheeling gaucho lifestyle and sleeping in random pastures continued, he was growing weary, and wrote in a letter home, “I am tired of this eternal rambling, without any rest.” He had dealt with traveling’s evil trifecta of food poisoning, insect bites, and theft. As much as he was tired of sleeping on the ground, it was impossible to sleep in houses because of the fleas, those “ravenous little wretches” who left his “whole shirt punctured with little spots of blood” and his skin “quite freckled with their bites.” He had logged thousands of miles on horseback and hundreds more on foot.

But Darwin’s curiosity persisted. Many Chileans seemed surprised at his geological explorations. “This was sometimes troublesome,” Darwin wrote. “I found the most ready way of explaining my employment, was to ask them how it was that they themselves were not curious concerning earthquakes and volcanos? Why some springs were hot and others cold? Why there were mountains in Chile, and not a hill in La Plata?” More than any single quote from his journal, more than any scientific discovery from the five-year voyage, this one paragraph is the reason Charles Darwin discovered what he did and is celebrated today. He loved studying the world around him and wanted to explain what he saw. He had the courage to ask.

Even Chileans who believed that geological study was useful had trouble believing Darwin’s motivations for sniffing about. He must be searching for mines, many concluded. That’s what nearly all of the other gringos in northern Chile were doing. A man out wandering the desert, looking at rocks—what could he be doing other than looking for silver and gold?

Darwin first noticed Chile’s craze for mining while climbing a mine-riddled mountain in central Chile. He also toured a copper mine at the base of the Andes in Jajuel. The mines were purely extractive, and the melting was done elsewhere. “Hence the mines have a singularly quiet aspect to those in England,” Darwin wrote. “Here there is no smoke or furnaces or great steam-engines to disturb the quiet of the surrounding mountains.” While Darwin spent several days “scrambling in all parts” of those mountains, the miners who lived there didn’t get to take advantage of the scenery. They worked dawn to dusk. Their food consisted of sixteen figs and two loaves of bread for breakfast, boiled beans for dinner, and roasted wheat grains for supper. “They scarcely ever taste meat,” Darwin wrote with apparent sympathy, “as with twelve pound per annum they have to clothe themselves & support their families.”

The story was much the same elsewhere. At a gold mine south of Santiago, owned by an American named Nixon (“to whose kindness,” Darwin wrote, “I was much indebted”), Darwin was “struck by the pale appearance of many of the men.” These men, he learned, worked deep in a shaft mine, carrying 200-pound loads of rock up a rickety wooden ladder. They were only allowed to see their families for two days once every three weeks and were fed only beans and bread. “They would prefer living entirely upon the latter,” Darwin wrote, “but with this they cannot work so hard, so that their masters, treating them like horses, make them eat the beans.”

Still the miners didn’t complain, Darwin noted. There was more money in mining than in farming, and with mining, there was the possibility of finding a new vein and striking it rich. Darwin told one story about a man who’d picked up a rock to throw at his donkey—and found the rock heavy with silver. He had discovered the most profitable mine in northern Chile. Men were so enthusiastic for mining that on Sundays they would head out into the desert with crowbars, looking for exposed veins.

Much of northern Chile still depends economically on mining. After deciding to keep the rental car for another day, Josh and I found a representative sample of the craze in the high hills outside Coquimbo, in a small, red-dust-covered town called Andacollo. The city limit sign welcomed us to town—popu lat ion 4 ,000—and po inted to an old mine where tourists could go to see demonstrations of old gold-mining techniques. I pulled off the highway into the dirt, and an old woman walking by the small wooden visitor’s center waved at me. “There aren’t any miners here today,” she said.

“Are there any real mines around?” I asked.

“Oh, yes, just up the road.”

We drove to the mine office, a portable building resting on stilts in the red dirt. Once we’d passed inspection at the gate and guard station, we were ushered inside. No window views reminded us of the desert, and the humming air conditioning, fluorescent lighting, gray carpet, and picture-lined cubicles could have been ripped from the twenty-second floor of a Manhattan office tower. A secretary told us to sit down, and a middle-aged man in a pink collared dress shirt came out to greet us a few minutes later. He introduced himself as Roberto Pardo, the mine’s finance director, and in fluent English asked what I was doing at the mine.

“I’m writing about Darwin—”

“I’m the missing link!” he said.

He beckoned us into his office, where he sat down behind a desk and pictures of his two sons in their ice hockey uniforms. “I lived twenty-five years in Canada,” he said. “The company used to have its head office in Vancouver. But after Pinochet’s dictatorship left Chile, I returned. I like it here now.”

I asked Pardo how things had changed since Darwin had described the conditions at Nixon’s mine.

“Quite a bit,” he said, smiling. “When we built this plant in 1995 it was technically one of the most advanced in the world. Our mine exploitation is done with a fleet of huge equipment. This last month, we moved 35,000 metric tons of rock per day.”

Josh and I sat back, awed. Not quite the same as miners hauling rock out on their backs.

“It should have been more,” he said, almost to himself. “But we had two days of rain. Still, that’s 15,000 tons of rock with mineral and 20,000 we call waste. We have to crush 15,000 tons a day, otherwise it’s not economical. It sounds exotic, but gold is very expensive to mine. You make more money in an iron mine.”

In Darwin’s time, the miners carried their gold-bearing rock to a mill, where it was ground into powder. Although the equipment was vastly different, the process remained the same—at Andacollo, the rocks were taken from the pit to a series of gigantic industrial crushing machines. In the 1800s, miners washed the crushed rock to leach out the gold.

“How is that done now?” I asked.

“Cyanide,” Pardo told me.

Cyanide use turns out to be industry standard for gold mining. You spray the rocks with cyanide solution, and the cyanide picks up the gold, grabbing it out of the rock, and then drains down into a big pool. Then you run some kind of reverse filter type thing on it, using something like carbon that will pick the gold out of the cyanide, and then you refine it a bit more and end up with solid gold. Future students of Josh: ask him about this.

“We use 180 tons of cyanide a month, highly diluted,” Pardo said. “It’s a one-percent cyanide-in-water solution. People hear cyanide and go ‘oooh,’ but really, if you drink this, it won’t kill you. Seriously. We had someone drink it a while ago by accident, and he was fine. It might kill a small bird, maybe. But not even a seagull.”

Pardo’s phone rang. “I’ve got a conference call with the American investors who own the mine,” he said. “But I’ll tell someone to give you a tour.”

A few minutes later, the mine’s Risk Prevention Supervisor, Oscar Urbina Valdes, came out and rescued us from the office-cubicle hell. (I kept thinking back to Jean, the Brazilian forest guide, telling me, “I could not work in some place with four walls.”) I took “risk prevention supervisor” to mean security guard, and that’s what Oscar looked like. Stocky, muscle-bound, neck-challenged, and sporting a shaved head and goatee, hardhat and sunglasses, the guy looked seriously intimidating. But Oscar was polite and pleasant. He found us hardhats and polarized safety glasses, and we climbed into his air conditioned, four-wheel-drive truck.

“Some people look as though they belong in a hardhat,” Josh said, after checking himself out in the car’s window. “I am not one of those people.” He climbed uncomplainingly into the back seat, allowing me to ride shotgun.

We never exceeded fifteen miles an hour, on a nice, flat road. “I’m driving slowly as one of our agreements with Andacollo,” Oscar explained. “To keep the dust down. We try very hard not to have an environmental impact. Of course we have one. It is a mine. But we have lots of agreements with the town to reduce our impact.”

Nearly seventy percent of the mine’s three hundred workers came from Andacollo, he told me, so I imagined that the mine would be popular in town regardless of its environmental condition. But Oscar seemed to be trying to head off any arguments we might make about the mine’s environmental, social, or health impact. Having never heard of the mine before we had arrived a few hours ago, I hadn’t come prepared to argue.

I vaguely understood that cyanide-leaching mines were not very popular around the world because in some places the waste cyanide—the stuff left over after the gold has been taken out—leaks into the ground and, despite what Pardo told us, at this point it gets quite dangerous. I knew that large-scale business operations run by American investors in relatively poor areas of South America were often rapacious, ruthless, and deceptive, and that they chose these places because they didn’t have the environmental regulations and wage laws that North American governments might impose. And I knew that corporate protestations of environmental right-doing were usually half-truths at best. But although Darwin’s was a curious spirit, it was not an activist one, and I often felt the same. I wanted to know how the mine worked and I wanted to see it for myself. But I didn’t feel like making a scene and was content to be impressed with high-tech machinery.

Josh and Oscar and I passed a quiet afternoon touring the mine. Oscar took us to the “pit,” a half-mile-wide terraced gash in the earth layered with red and white-streaked rocks. At the bottom, two massive dump trucks with fifteen-foot-tall tires waited for full loads of stone. In a few hours, Oscar said, they’d take several more trucks down, and each truck would haul one thousand tons of rock up to the masher. Swinging his arm around, he showed us the pulverizing machines, where men in reflective jumpsuits and respirators—looking like the kind of action-movie extras who die in scores at the point of James Bond’s stolen machine gun—monitored a series of conveyor belts. (Oscar, following this metaphor, would be the muscle-bound villain who gives Bond several tense moments over the crusher.) The rock entered three separate crushers until it had been mashed into pebbles three-eighths of an inch wide, then traveled along on another series of conveyor belts that dropped all of the pebbles into “the pile,” a mile-wide mound of crushed rock. Sprinklers sprayed the pile with cyanide solution, keeping the rock black and glistening in the sun. A gentle mist blew off the sprinklers and toward our viewpoint, but Oscar seemed unconcerned. He even took us up to a sector at the top of the pile where the sprinklers weren’t running for a better viewpoint. “Truck ascending the pile,” he called into his radio. “Repeat, truck ascending the pile.” It sounded very cool. A few minutes later we stood, surrounded by glittering black rock, eyeing the sprinkler hoses and looking down across the entire mine.

Oscar pointed out the second pit. “They’ll start laying the explosives after lunch,” he said. “Will you be here for four hours more? You can wait in the office.”

Josh and I exchanged a look, but this attempt at non-verbal communication failed because we were both still wearing our reflective safety sunglasses. But neither of us wanted to sit at someone’s cubicle for four more hours. We’d already had a fascinating day, and I now understood Darwin’s interest in touring the mines of Chile: There’s pleasure in seeing how things worked. By the day’s end, Josh was explaining its geological aspects to me in minute detail. (Excerpt from his journal from that day: “At a modern open-pit mine, cores are drilled from the earth every four meters in a grid pattern and sent off to geologists for analysis. The hole each core sample is pulled from is assigned a GPS address, and scientists come back with descriptions of the rock type and density at all different depths for each of the holes . . .”)

Even in the 1800s, mining incorporated a tremendous amount of knowledge. Human capital lay behind every advance, from the discovery of veins to the leaching of minerals. “The washing when described sounds a very simple process,” Darwin wrote after seeing Nixon’s gold mine, “but it is at the same time beautiful to see how the exact adaptation of the current of water to the specific gravity of the gold so easily separates the powdered matrix from the metal.” Not his punchiest quote ever, but it precisely conveys the fascination. It’s something akin to awe-inspiring, to get outside your own field and see other humans thinking cleverly and designing such complicated, useful machines. Walking back through the office, past desk-bound engineers analyzing rock data, I felt the same way: deeply impressed at the centuries of accumulated wisdom that allowed geologists with GPS and computers to pinpoint specific metals in the ground, remove specific chunks of rock with precise explosives, and then use a chemical cocktail to turn the rock into gold bars—all in a facility straight from the Bond set. Regardless of the environmental and economic politics of the mine’s investors, its nuts-and-bolts operation was pretty amazing.