Its almost impossible to imagine today, but hidden under the scorched, post-apocalyptic landscape of the Atacama Desert were deposits of nitrates so valuable for agricultural fertiliser and munitions that whole towns with factories, processing plants, hospitals, hotels, theatres and schools were be built in one of the planet’s most inhospitable environments.
From the mid-nineteenth century onwards the Atacama Desert was industrialised with Chilean manpower and European finance. Where there had been nothing but harsh desert, population centres sprung up and a huge network of railways linked the far flung nitrate oficinas with port cities on the coast from where Chilean nitrates were shipped around the world.
Working conditions were harsh and dangerous for the labourers. Try to imagine the most hellish working conditions imaginable and you may come close to visualising the conditions for many labouring in places like the Santa Laura and Humberstone nitrate processing factories, located in the middle of northern Chile’s Atacama Desert.
Of course, factory managers and nitrate magnets made fortunes from the industry, building grand mansions in the coastal cities and dining on imported delicacies. For a brief time the region became world famous and the nearby coastal city of Iquique grew rich from nitrates, it was famed for having the highest consumption of champagne per head of any city in the world. Such was the value of nitrates in the second half of the nineteenth-century that the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) was fought to control them.
Today Santa Laura and Humberstone are two haunting and atmospheric relics of the nitrate boom of the nineteenth-century. Ghost towns that are preserved in the arid climate of the Atacama Desert as if frozen in time. Both are now World Heritage sites. Walking around these man-made monstrosities in the desert is a fascinating and humbling experience, particularly at Humberstone where the artefacts of daily life are still on display in homes or scattered around the site.
Santa Laura was founded in 1858 while Humberstone was founded in 1872. Humberstone is a massive site that at its peak housed 3700 inhabitants. It changed hands several times during the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), but finally ended in the control of the London Nitrate Company between 1888 – 1921. British capital and engineers were central to the development of the industry and the evidence of their involvement is seen everywhere in northern Chile – including the name Humberstone, for the British chemical engineer who adapted the Shanks extraction process in 1870.
The end of the First World War, the development of synthetic nitrates and the Great Depression doomed the nitrate industry in Chile, tens-of-thousands of labourers were made redundant and Chile suffered a terrible economic crisis. Humberstone and Santa Laura continued to operate with vastly reduced profits until 1959 when they finally closed for good before becoming industrial heritage sites.
The Atacama Desert still hides huge deposits of valuable minerals and metals and dotted throughout this landscape are mines, big and small, where humans continue to work in one of the most difficult environments imaginable. Today ‘natural’ nitrates are still extracted in small amounts, but gold, silver, iron and, especially, copper are the mainstay of the Atacama’s mining industry these days.