The Transformative and Hungry Technologies of Copper Mining

A black and white photograph of the terraced sides of a vast copper mining pit

Witnessing the scale of operations at the largest open-pit copper mine in existence in 1952, Chuquicamata in Chile, made an enduring impression upon Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara. His travel memoirs, the famous Motorcycle Diaries, described the site of copper mining as “a scene from a modern drama. You cannot say that it’s lacking in beauty, but it is a beauty without grace, imposing and glacial. As you come close to any part of the mine, the whole landscape seems to concentrate.” In great detail, Che described the Chuquicamata Mine’s daily destruction of what used to be mountains of the Atacama Desert “where not a single blade of grass can grow in the nitrate soil, defenseless against attacks of winds and water,” into dizzyingly deep terraces, spiraling down in the earth’s crust. “Every morning” he wrote “the mountain is dynamited and huge mechanical shovels load the material to rail wagons”.

What impressed Che Guevara on his trip, the methodical and cold destruction of the natural landscape, was far from new. In fact, it was the routine use of a series of technologies in play since the early twentieth century—dynamite, shoveling, crushing, and metallurgical processing on site—that had drastically revolutionized copper mining over the prior 50 years and represented a fundamental development in the extractive industries. Environmental historian Timothy Le Cain called these developments in mining technology “mass destruction,” a revolution on the supply end of things indispensable to the more familiar notions of the twentieth century global economy: mass production and consumption. 

Black and white aerial photo of a copper mine with a railroad in the foreground
The Bingham Canyon copper mine in November, 1942. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection,  LC-DIG-fsa-8b08439.

The first time these destructive forces were applied on such a mass scale was in the early 1900s at Bingham Canyon in Utah, where the American mining engineer Daniel Jackling used  high-grade explosives to dislodge vast quantities of rock which could then be processed on a mass scale to extract the copper it contained. Lower and lower grades of copper ore could be mined using increasing economies of scale, with ever-greater quantities of ore being mined and crushed to extract the same amount of copper. These technologies allowed for a hockey stick-like hike in copper production that has continued into the present. In 2019, the open pit mine of Bingham, which has kept on expanding, produced more copper than was produced in the entire world in 1880.

Our own world is built from copper, and so too will future worlds be.

As Che Guevara saw with his own eyes in the Atacama Desert, this technology didn’t stay in Utah. This new kind of extraction was portable and scalable. In our edited book, Born with a Copper Spoon, we refer to this new kind of extraction—built on new technologies, new ways of labor control, and, importantly, exploitation of the environment—as the American world of copper. Through the late nineteenth and into the twentieth century these developments in copper extraction reshaped our world, a process that continues today. Demand for metals is once again poised to rise dramatically as the world faces another potential revolution in extraction to power the green transition.

Devouring the World

Dramatic expansion of copper production went hand-in-hand with the Second Industrial Revolution that began in the 1870s, as copper was required for generating and transmitting electricity. Historians of natural resources have increasingly emphasized the importance of what happens out of view in the frontiers (places in the global periphery where resources are abundant like the Atacama desert or African copperbelt) and countryside of the world economy rather than focus on the familiar technologies of consumer products. Industrial change does not simply have an impact upon frontiers in the sense that demand creates supply: rather the opposite. Bringing our perspective closer to the mining pit, the steam shovel and dynamite emerge as technologies at least equally as important as familiar ones like the lightbulb or combustion engine, which made possible the Second Industrial Revolution.

Photo of blue markings (copper ore) on a gray rock
Copper ore in Chile. Photo by S. Rae, 2019

This huge expansion of copper production was a global event. Only a few years after Bingham Canyon Mine began eating into Utah, open pits were established in the Chilean Andes, the Central African Copperbelt, Mexican deserts, and Japanese mountains. The spread continued over the twentieth century, and in the following decades these gaping holes appeared in Australia, Canada, Cyprus, Indonesia, Iran, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, and beyond.

Often, the dramatic impact of copper mining is presented—both in public media and academic historical works—as the transformation of a particular locality, a town swallowed by the mine, toxic residues leaching into water, a huge smokestack pouring out sulfur dioxide that strips away vegetation. Yet this was a global process, where the transformation of the commodity frontier occurred in multiple places, and often in similar ways.

Moreover, the environmental effects of copper mining went beyond transforming local environments. The new copper mining frontier involved a drastic new rearrangement of multiple and distant natures, as copper mining requires an enormous hinterland in order to sustain itself.

Sucking in Energy

Producing copper not only involves tearing it from the earth. It must be extracted further. Low-grade ores needs to be crushed, smelted and sometimes refined on site, which in turn requires huge volumes of water. Olympic Dam Mine in South Australia extracts 34 million liters of water a day from underground aquifers, far greater than the quantities of copper it extracts. Smelting and refining copper, with a melting point of nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, requires enormous quantities of energy to be sucked in from their surroundings. Then there are the people needed to do this work. Extraction and infrastructure on this scale can appear to be the work of vast industrial machines with no human contribution, but copper doesn’t mine itself. Some mines in the twentieth century employed tens of thousands of workers, with farms needed to produce food to feed them and building materials needed to house them in company towns, a form of social control.

A black and white aerial photograph of a copper mining smelter.
The Nkana smelter in Zambia, 1951.

In these destructive mining frontiers, securing adequate sources of energy is a perennial problem. In his book Gambling on Ore, Kent Curtis aptly described mining enterprises as vast industrial metabolisms with inputs and outputs encroaching upon various landscapes and ecosystems. Copper mining firms had lumber departments to clear forest, desperately explored the wide vicinity for coal and other fossil fuels, and seized property rights over water. In 1914, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company owned several coal mines in Wyoming and Montana, and the saw mills it purchased in surrounding villages in Montana cut down more than 84 million feet of wood in a single year. In the Central African Copperbelt in Zambia and Katanga (a province in the Democratic Republic of Congo), colonial mining companies denuded the landscape of trees for wood-fired power stations and smelters and sunk coal mines when this proved inadequate. 

In the interwar period, mining engineers believed they could solve the perennial energy problem through hydroelectricity. Dubbed as “the white gold,” the use of hydropower produced unintended side-effects, requiring even more geoengineering and environmental intervention. In Katanga, where the first dams were erected by the Belgian firm Union Minière du Haut Katanga in the 1920s, surrounding people and colonial missionaries complained about a mosquito plague and the loss of their lands through floods. Flooding reservoirs created an outlandish image of small drifting islands composed of soil and vegetation on the reservoir, sometimes producing new landscapes on the lake, but also causing clogged outflow pipes. Each year the company had to remove drifting islands. Artificial reservoir lakes formed an attractive residence for crocodiles, competing for fish with local residents. Just like the islands, thousands of crocodile eggs were destroyed as well.

Similar schemes were planned for Zambia’s copper mines, which also relied on an enormous ecological hinterland. The largest of these was the Kariba Dam, a towering 128-meter-high wall that dammed the Zambezi River and formed a lake stretching 280 kilometers. Filling the reservoirs took months, and in the process, some 6,000 animals were airlifted from newly formed islands amidst the biblical floods. The event captured the world’s imagination and the effort to save these animals from the new lake was nicknamed Operation Noah. The tens of thousands of people displaced by the dam attracted less attention.

The Kariba Dam, a large wall of concrete with a body of water below.
The Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River. Photo by Joe McKenna, 2010.

Environmental forces could not be so easily corralled, however. Drought and evaporation conspired to constrain the “white gold” of hydropower. Particularly in the early 1950s, a time when the world’s demand for copper rebounded, water shortages following poor rainfall threatened this water-intensive business model.  The Katanga mines constraint in hydropower capacities were restrained due to a poor rainy season between 1953-1954. Two years later, the U.S. firm Cerro de Pasco operating in Peru blamed production problems between 1955-1956 on the belated start of the rainy season in the Peruvian Sierra, which normally starts by the end of October, but came only in January. The weather often appeared as an enemy to corporate desire and dividends. During a stockholder meeting in 1956, Cerro de Pasco president Koenig noted “While waiting for the heavens to bless us with water, we were not idle…and a program of power conservation was introduced.”1 This restricted the power available to the smelters, which then had to operate at reduced capacity and Cerro de Pasco had to export its considerable quantities of copper in an unprocessed state.

Book cover of Born with a Copper Spoon
Born with A Copper Spoon (UBC Press, 2022)

Unlike Cerro de Pasco, Union Minière did not wait on the heavens, but decided to play god themselves. The company hired American engineers of the Water Resources Development Corporation based in Denver, Colorado. They worked out a solution: a network of geographically dispersed burners pouring silver-iodide into the sky to alter weather patterns, creating a mineral-rich sky above the mineral-rich ground in Katanga. Developed in the 1940s, climate engineering looked like the perfect solution for overcoming reluctant tropical climates.  

Instead, geoengineering laid bare the limits of colonial power. Despite operating more than 20 burners in a region the size of France, the plan failed to produce more rain. American consultants blamed the Union Minière company for being unable to operate and harmonize the burners—it was important that they seeded clouds all at the same time—or to provide reliable statistics. As colonial companies tend to do, Union Minière du Haut Katanga then turned the blame on the local population. Dispersed on a huge territory distant from the centers of colonial powers and thus with a small to non-existent European population, the operation of burners was outsourced to local chiefs, at whom Union Minière was quick to point the finger for improper burner management. 

Regardless of where blame was cast, the technical fixes clearly did not work. Union Minière sought to solve the problems of droughts and evaporation by building more dams, a location-bound colonial project that was easier to control.  More dams were indeed built. In 1956, 1,300 African laborers finished the new Le Marinel, an 80-meter-high dam. 

Seeking New Frontiers

Environmental transformations wrought by copper mining are not merely a historical question or a rueful look back at the way things were done before we knew better. The world is again scrambling for copper. The planned green transition required to avert climate change and limit rising global temperatures to below 2°C will require vast quantities of metals. Generating, storing, and transmitting renewable energy all require copper. So too do electric cars and buses.

This is not necessarily an argument against this transition. In quantity, the minerals we need for low-carbon energy (batteries, wind mills) are far less voluminous than the fossil fuels that are squeezed out of the soil to fuel combustion engines. Yet, the copper rush is going to have global environmental ramifications and the concentration of production as well as the sheer dependency produces environmental and political risks.  

The new copper mining frontier involved a drastic new rearrangement of multiple and distant natures, as copper mining requires an enormous hinterland in order to sustain itself.

Demand for copper is projected to soar in the coming decades. Where will it all come from? In the short term, the big pits in Chile, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Peru, and Zambia, some in operation now for over a century, will eat further into the earth. As in previous decades, the places that supply copper are geographically distant from the places that demand it. 

Commodity frontiers have already expanded to cover every continent (except Antarctica) during previous booms. Miners are now searching further afield to new frontiers, identifying copper deep in the ocean for extraction from the seabed or even looking into mining asteroids in space, with unknowable environmental consequences. 

Our own world is built from copper, and so too will future worlds be. By examining the explosive and destructive history of copper extraction, we may turn to those potential futures with eyes wide open.

Featured Image: The Bingham Canyon copper mine in Utah, 1942. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-DIG-fsa-8b08436.

Robrecht Declercq is a senior postdoctoral researcher (FWO) with the History Department of Ghent University, and a guest professor at the Université Saint Louis de Bruxelles where he teaches global economic history. His main research interests includes the history of natural resources from an economic, political and environmental perspective. Declercq co-published a global history of copper titled Born with a Copper Spoon (UBC Press 2022). Contact. Twitter.

Duncan Money is a freelance historian and has written extensively on histories of work, migration, race and mining. His first book White Mineworkers on Zambia’s Copperbelt: In a Class of Their Own was published in 2021 and he is a co-editor of Born with a Copper Spoon: A Global History of Copper. Website. Twitter. Contact.  

  1. Stockholders meeting Cerro de Pasco, 1956 (State Archives of Belgium, Umicore, nr. 1086)