The copper mine in Erdenet, Mongolia, provides jobs, income, opportunities. It finances most of the city’s infrastructure. It funds a hospital. People are grateful for the mine, and proud. There’s copper everywhere in Erdenet.
When Carmen Ahumada first looked on the copper mining city of Calama, she wanted to die. It was 1958, long after Germany’s World War I-era invention of artificial saltpeter—the main ingredient in bombs—brought Chile’s glory days as a world supplier to an end and made obsolete the tiny, arduous saltpeter towns that had cropped up all over the Atacama Desert.
The miners take turns chopping the coalface. All around us a jury-rigged jumble of tree trunks is wedged against the tunnel’s ceiling, our only protection from being crushed by the five hundred meters of rock between here and the floor of the northern Afghan desert. My claustrophobia mounts with every chunk of coal that dings off my plastic helmet. One miner crouches in the access shaft and shovels coal into an iron railcar. My headlamp catches his face, and I see his teeth are flecked with black.