Chile and its saltpetre industry
Mining, processing, export and monuments
Chile has the world's most productive saltpetre deposits, which are made even more attractive by nitrate, sulphate and iodine concentrations. These deposits are located on a 700 km strip of land in the Atacama Desert between Zapiga and Taltal in Northern Chile (Region II). Production of salts from the nitrate deposits (the caliche salitrero) already started in the early 19th century, flourishing in the mid to late 19th century and peaking between 1900 and the end of the First World War. The production of saltpetre, used as a raw material for fertilizers and explosives, played a key role in the political and economic development of Chile and in the country's wealth. The later decline in saltpetre production was the result of the development and use of synthetic nitrates, especially produced using the Haber-Bosch process.
The saltpetre mining sector, which was once so important, has been reduced to some relatively minor operations in the area of Iquique and Antofagasta. Production activities are grouped together under the umbrella of SOQUIMICH - Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile (the Chilean Chemical and Mining Company), which produces saltpetre from the deposits of Maria Elena and Pedro de Valdivia - about 200 km to the North-East of Antofagasta. The once flourishing saltpetre mining industry, which was instrumental in shaping the political history, development and existence of Chile, has left a large number of monuments, but most of these are not very spectacular. However, a few mineworkings with the settlements surrounding them are still relatively well preserved. These monuments are presented following an outline of key political, economic and historic events.