Postcard from Copiapó

Under the Chilean desert, thousands of independent gold miners trade safety for the slim chance of hitting a mother lode. The risks and rewards of life as a pirquinero

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Tomas Munita

A pirquinero walks out of a small-scale mine near Copiapó, in northern Chile

Armed with only a lantern and basic tools, Aladino Olivares crawls down a crude mine shaft little more than 3 ft. (1 m) high inside a mountain near Copiapó in Chile's northern Atacama Desert. He does this so often that he doesn't wear a helmet anymore, only a stocking cap holding a pack of cigarettes and two lighters. "It's just a little bit farther," Olivares, 58, says about 200 ft. (60 m) down. At 300 ft. (91 m), he slides into a parallel shaft. The only ceiling supports are rocks that he's stacked over the years. "Right there, that's the vein," he says, pointing to a red strip along the cave's wall. "That's where we find gold."

After softening the rock by blasting two sticks of dynamite inside the wall, Olivares chips away and fills his bag with 90 lb. (40 kg) of material that will yield flecks of gold. He sells about 50 g (1.75 oz.) each month on the black market, earning some $1,200, more than three times Chile's monthly minimum wage. But when Olivares emerges on this day, he learns that another solo miner was recently found dead in a similar shaft nearby, buried under several tons of collapsed rock. Olivares shrugs off the news. "It's a sacrifice," he says of the dangers he faces every day. "But nobody tells me what to do in my mine."

That freedom is part of the allure of being a Chilean pirquinero, or small-time independent miner. It's also a big part of the problem. The miraculous rescue of 33 company-employed miners trapped far below the Atacama last year showcased the pride that Chile, the world's leading copper producer, takes in its mining industry. But long before that, the self-employed, self-reliant Chilean pirquineros held a special place in South American mining lore, ever since the most famous of them, Juan Godoy, discovered in 1832 the Chañarcillo silver mine. It became one of the largest in the Americas and helped make the Atacama region a mining powerhouse. "The pirquineros are like [something out of] the California gold rush," says Liver Rojas, a mineralogy professor at the University of Atacama.

Still, the drama of "Los 33" also sparked a call to fix Chile's shameful mine-safety record. President Sebastián Piñera has made a push for reforms in larger company operations, which employ some 140,000 miners. But many Chileans feel the 40,000 or so pirquinero ventures need just as much, if not more, regulatory scrutiny. Indeed, says Fernando Pinto, head of operations in northern Chile for the state-run mining firm Enami, "the percentage of fatalities in those smaller mines is higher."

Chilean authorities rarely if ever visit tiny mine camps like Olivares'. This is odd as well as tragic, since in many cases the government rents out the mine tracts in which pirquineros work. Olivares, for example, pays the Chilean government an annual license fee of 30,000 pesos (about $60). Most pirquineros work in groups of four or five, using beat-up air compressors to blast holes into the mountainsides and rudimentary winches to haul up buckets of rock. Usually, the amount of gold or copper they find isn't enough to be sold directly, so they sell it either on the black market or to Enami, which exports the pirquinero product in bulk.

Occasionally, hard work and a bit of luck pay off with a mother lode, and some prospectors can make a decent living. But more commonly, pirquineros languish in poverty, their fortunes inexorably tied to the vagaries of commodity prices. In addition, says Pinto, regular companies often find pirquineros unemployable because they are unpredictable or have poor health or legal troubles. Says Rojas: "The pirquinero doesn't have a plan other than extracting gold and selling it."

That's why even when a pirquinero does strike it rich, it doesn't always last. In that sense too, Godoy's story is sadly emblematic: apparently he cashed in his find and quickly squandered it, dying as destitute as he was before his magnificent discovery. Even so, pirquineros like Olivares make it clear what they think is most important. "After everything," he says, "I'm my own boss."