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Coquimbo & Swansea (2014)

The copper ore extracted in the remote geographies of Coquimbo, Chile, were shipped mainly to Wales and smelted in the Lower Swansea Valley between 1840 and 1880.

One of the most important industrial capitalists of the time was Charles Lambert (1793–1876), an Anglo-French man who travelled to Chile to work for a British company before developing his own mining enterprises with remarkable success, in particular his refining and export enterprises, and most importantly Las Compañias. The copper ore was extracted from the extraction sites Brillador, Panucillo, Huamalata and Totoralillo. Some were controlled by Lambert himself, with the copper brought by mule to Las Compañias where it was crushed and smelted at around seventy per cent purity. However, Las Compañias did not last long, as the over-exploitation of trees in its surroundings produced a drop in the supply of fuel for the smelting processes.

The copper was taken by clippers around Cape Horn to Swansea and refined at around ninety nine per cent. Merchants, such as Henry Bath and Sons, the Pacific Steam Navigation Company and Balfour, Williamson and Co. were actively engaged in the transport and trade of copper during the nineteenth century. As a result of copper the industry, the Lower Swansea Valley was heavily contaminated for more than two centuries. It was described as one of the most polluted landscapes in the world until the 1960s and 1970s, when the Lower Swansea Valley Project was established as a revolutionary scheme of conservation work to reclaim toxic land from the pollution caused by the smelting industries.

Today, in Coquimbo, the symbols of marginality such as discarded vehicles, abandoned lorries, trucks, buses and cars, as well prefabricated housing structures and improvised workshops, form part of the landscape. Additionally, the site is populated with symbols of British economic imperialism from the nineteenth century, such as bricks and corrugated iron cladding panels. In contrast to the dry and neglected landscape of Coquimbo, in Swansea, as result of the process of de-contamination, housing developments, shopping centres and stadiums have replaced the industrial facilities of the past.

Filed under: Copper Geographies

About the Author

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Im a Chilean born, London based visual artist and researcher. My practice explores and reflects on the geo-political power dynamics in mineral industries, geographies and historical narratives. My interconnected research projects involve extensive historical research, fieldwork, the collection of archival materials, new photographic documentation with large format cameras and diverse forms of mapping. My work develops using site-specific working methodologies.

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