INCA DE ORO, CHILE – Like his father before him, Alberto Carrizo has worked in Chile’s copper mines since he was a teenager, supporting his family as prices for the metal boomed in recent decades.
But as copper prices have slid to a more than six-year low, Carrizo and his colleagues laboring away at the countless smaller mines that pock mark the Atacama desert are finding the buckets of ore they spend all day digging from the ground are fetching less and less money.
Some are responding by turning to gold mining, others are finding work in growing industries like renewable energy, while a dwindling few are hanging on, hoping prices will yet recover.
They are at the sharp end of a commodities downturn that was triggered by slowing growth in China and which has led half of all the small mining operations in top copper exporter Chile to shut in the last eight years.
Although 93 percent of the country’s output comes from larger mines, a sharper drop in copper prices could send more small and medium-sized mines over the edge. Small mines generally employ up to 80 workers but are often much smaller, while medium-sized ones have a maximum of 400.
The mass closing of mines represents a potential social and political disaster for Michelle Bachelet, who has staked her center-left presidency on improving social equality while keeping the country’s famously successful economy ticking along. Copper makes up half of all of Chile’s exports.
Mines of all sizes shed some 23,000 jobs last year alone, around 10 percent of positions in the sector, making it by far the biggest loser in Chile’s economy, according to data from the government’s INE statistics agency.
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