In the Atacama desert in northern Chile -one of the harshest and most arid places in the world- people, animals, machines and an abundance of explosives took part in one of the biggest adventures of modern industry: the mining of saltpetre.
The Inca civilization knew of the efficient fertilizing properties of this chemical compound due to its abundance of nitrogen. For centuries, the deposits languished as the mining process remained undeveloped. However, around the 19th Century, worldwide demand grew, and foreign interests -rather than disagreements between opponents- led to a cruel war between neighbours in 1879-83 for control of the valuable saltpetre deposits that the rough and shallow crust of the Atacama zealously held. Chile, backed by British corporate interests, defeated Bolivia and Perú, and annexed Bolivia’s rich nitrate coastal region, also cutting away her access to the sea.
The saltpetre industry grew, and until 1915 frenetic work was done in hundreds of mines. At its peak, almost 300,000 laborers produced around 4 million tons of the chemical per year. The mines grew into fully equipped small towns, and their dwellers embraced and became hardened by the extremes of sun, salt, and wind. The inhabitants of this barren lands came from all over, and the tough experience that the desert delivered served as a powerful social cohesive for many.
But development never stops: chemists were able to artificially produce saltpetre during the First World War, and it became a serious competitor of the Chilean chemical. The money dried up, and a recession and other worldwide events brought an end of the 50-year White Gold adventure. The mines slowly closed one by one. The inhabitants had to leave, giving up the lives they had built in this harshest or regions, and returned the sweet-sounding mines with names like Chacabuco, Pampa Unión, María Elena, Soledad, and a multitude of others, back to the desert.