Valuable metals aren't the only thing to come out of northern Chile's barren ground. For a few short decades between the 1870s and the 1920s, this part of the world played a crucial role in world development as well as Chile's economic fortunes.
The reason? Plants need nitrogen to grow - but they can't extract it from air which is, in fact, full of it. Cultivating crops successfully requires the addition of nitrogen to the soil, and since the appearance of agriculture this has generally been achieved using manure or compost. As far as producing large yields, however, these methods aren't very efficient. Work by European chemists in the 18th and 19th centuries paved the way for the use of far more effective chemical fertilisers.
Inland Tarapacá, the region now surrounding Iquique, was quickly discovered to be a rich source of sodium and potassium nitrate salts - the latter more commonly known as saltpeter or salitre
in Spanish - contained within caliche
rock. In the latter half of the 19th century global population was on the up. There were ever more hungry mouths and feeding them all required more crops, bigger yields. Enter Chilean Nitrate
A number of
saltpeter mines popped up in what was, at the time, Bolivia. The private businesses which constructed and ran the mines were, by and large, Chilean. Disputes between Chile and Bolivia regarding the area's fabulously rich reserves of this nitrate gold led directly to the 1879 Pacific War - frequently referred to as the Guerra del Salitre
. Following the outcome of this Nitrate War, Tarapacá's saltpeter mines became part of Chile, and the mines' revenue lined government coffers in Santiago rather than La Paz. Bolivia still hasn't forgiven Chile.
Extraction of purified nitrate salts from the caliche
rock was a labour intensive process and the mines developed into miniature cities, called Oficinas Salitreras,
where large communities lived and worked in self-contained settlements. Railways were built to transport the nitrate to the coast for shipping, and towns like Iquique saw the cash flood in.
The party was not to last for very long, however. Shortly after the turn of the millennium, German chemist Fritz Haber developed a new process to manufacture nitrogen-containing ammonia (which can then easily be converted into usable fertiliser) from the nitrogen contained in air. Once the Haber Process - now all too well know to any
school chemistry student - was perfected, the saltpeter mines in Chile didn't stand a chance in the long term. Their product was simply not commercially viable any more. Modernisation of the production plants and aggressive advertising of "Chilean Saltpeter" as the original and best allowed some oficinas
to survive until well into the first half of the 20th century, but by 1950 the large scale production of saltpeter had ground to an absolute halt.
One such oficina
was the Oficina Santiago Humberstone
, founded in the early 1870s by the Peru Nitrate Company as the Oficina La Palma
. La Palma quickly turned into one of the largest producers of saltpeter in Tarapacá, burgeoning into a vibrant, cosmopolitan mini-city where miners and their families could work, rest and play without ever leaving the confines of the oficina. Following the rapid decline of the saltpeter industry in Chile, the oficina - which had by now changed name to Humberstone in honour of the British chemical engineer who developed a novel, efficient nitrate production system - was completely abandoned. Humberstone became a ghost town. Its historical importance was not, fortunately, forgotten or overlooked by the Chilean authorities and today the oficina, together with
another nearby, constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site easily visitable as a day trip from Iquique.
Visiting Humberstone is a bizarre experience. While a small part of the oficina has been restored - a few of the workers' houses, for example, are now used to display tools and mining equipment - the vast majority of the works look exactly as they did when they were abandoned. On the day we visited, the oficina was almost completely deserted, leaving us alone to wander along its streets in solitude. General stores, swimming pools, tennis courts, theatres - Humberstone had all the trappings of a buzzing, active town. All now crumbling in the heat of the desert. Surreal.
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