Copper Geographies, 2010-2015
Copper is a miraculous and paradoxical metal characterised by high electrical and thermal conductivity. Hidden in plastic or behind walls, inside air conditioners, cars, computers, electronics, ‘green energy’ generators, airplanes, mobile phones, bound into cables, carried as loose change; copper is everywhere although we cannot see it.
Due to its unique geological and geographical configuration, as the U.S. Geological Survey notes, Chile is the source of 27.5 per cent of the global reserves of copper. Mainly located in the Atacama Desert, these contested extractive ecologies have come to be at the centre of a series of political and environmental disputes. Amongst the many conflicts that have arisen are long legal battles involving the big multinational corporations that control seventy per cent of the Chilean copper output and the agricultural communities, struggling with growing desertification, water contamination and land expropriation. In this scenario, Chile currently produces roughly 5.8 million tons of copper per year (around one third of global copper production). Mainly in its most basic form as ‘copper concentrate’, a 30 per cent copper powder resulting from the crushing, milling and concentrating of the primary material. Each ton of refined copper generates around one hundred tons of waste and two hundreds tons of what is known as overburden. These billions of tons of waste form artificial geographies of unwanted material, containing arsenic, lead and other heavy metals.
While these toxic residues remain in the landscape, the primary material is shipped to industrial centres in Asia and Europe where it is transformed into ‘blisters’. ‘Copper blisters’ are stored in warehouses around the world, such as this, Henry Bath in Liverpool, from where they can be exchanged up to forty times before final delivery. These intangible transactions take place through centres for metals trading, such as the London Metal Exchange, through ‘future contracts’, agreements made to buy or sell a fixed amount of metal on a fixed future date at a price agreed today. The ‘blisters’ are melted down and mixed with other sources of copper, including recycled materials, forming ‘anodes’ that are transformed into ‘cathodes’ and then into ‘rods’ – the basic component for the production of cables for the energy and telecommunications industries. Copper is transformed into a wide range of smelted commodities and becomes a fundamental aspect of our everyday life. Smelted copper returns to Chile hidden within manufactured goods, perpetuating a circle of mobility that began with the extraction of the ore.
While global demand for copper continues to grow, Chile’s local economy heavily relies on the revenues created by the copper industry to sustain growth. However, over-exploitation of mineral bodies has produced a sharp decline in the quality of the non-renewable mineral. Additionally, the costs of production, such as energy and labor are significantly increasing. As a result, Chile’s copper mining industry has becomes less competitive. The world’s largest producer of copper will invest 115bn dollars in mining projects in the next seven years.
IMAGES (from top)
Native copper. Mines ParisTech, Paris, France. (2014)
Landmark at the edge of tailings dump which currently holds more that 2,000 tons of toxic waste material. The damp is located directly on the tectonic fault in earthquake prone zone and above settlement, whose inhabitants have lost almost 85 per cent of their water resources. Los Vilos, Province of Coquimbo, Chile. (2010)
El Teniente, underground copper mine, Libertador General Bernardo O’Higgins Region, Chile. (2014)
Hoarding for global material goods for the mining industry. Calama, Province of Antofagasta, Chile. (2012)
Monoculture of Australian Eucalyptus planted to dispose of toxic water from a copper mining. Los Vilos, Province of Coquimbo, Chile. (2010)
Slag-heap of Chuquicamata open-pit copper mine covering the former worker’s settlement, which was designed as a model town in the offices of the Guggenheim bothers in New York in the early decades of the twentieth century. Province of Antofagasta, Chile. (2012)
Distressed land from a large-scale copper mining operation. Huara, Province of Tarapacá, Chile. (2010)
River Tawe estuary, Lower Swansea Valley, Wales, UK, South Wales, UK. (2012)
Leading manufacturer of telecom cables, South Wales, UK. (2015)
Bronze door, Martins Bank, Liverpool, UK. (2015)
Paranal. Calama. Province of Antofagasta, Atacama Desert, Chile. (2012)
Discarded copper wires for recycling. Leading manufacturer of telecom cables, South Wales, UK. (2015)