Popular Science Monthly/Volume 83/September 1913/The Nitrate Fields of Chile
|THE NITRATE FIELDS OF CHILE|
DEPARTMENT OF GEOGRAPHY, UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO
THE importance of Chilean nitrate depends on a curious whim of nature. Nitrogen is needed by all plants and animals, and though the atmosphere is nearly four-fifths nitrogen, few plants and no animals can draw directly on that universal supply. Animals secure their nitrogen through the medium of plants, and most plants must get it from the soil. Some cultivated crops rapidly use up the soil nitrogen and in such cases the easiest way to maintain productivity is by applying fertilizers. Nitrogenous fertilizers once were made largely from guano, fish scrap, slaughter-house refuse, etc., but their manufacture now depends mainly on natural nitrates. These occur in many parts of the world, but they have been found in large amounts only in the northern provinces of Chile.
For Chile itself no other thing has been more important than nitrate in affecting national progress. By some, nitrate has been regarded as a curse; by others, as a national blessing; and spirited arguments over its political aspects may be heard in-all parts of Chile, for the question is one of those which time does not settle. Nitrate has led to costly wars which established the prestige of Chile as the leading nation on the west coast of South America. It has lured tens of thousands of people into dreary deserts, and caused busy ports to develop where harbors are such only in name. It has created a great commerce for the country, made fortunes for the people, and provided great revenues for the nation to spend for army, navy and the general welfare. But along with these things, it has turned men and money from more stable forms of industry, and laid the country open to criticism, perhaps unjustly, for its extravagance.Chile saltpeter, nitrate, or salitre as it is called, is when pure a glistening
Sketch map of northern Chile, showing approximate location of nitrate lands (black areas). Cross-lined area on small map of South America shows location of nitrates province.
white compound, salty and bitter to the taste, like some sea plants, and capable of absorbing a great amount of moisture. Chemically the substance is sodium nitrate . Pure nitrate is found only in small quantities or "pockets." Commonly it is mixed with earthy materials and various saline compounds, as common salt, Glauber's salt and borax. A small amount of iodine compounds also are present in most cases. This impure raw material is known as caliche to the nitrate miner.
Caliche, unlike many raw forms of minerals, is easy to get at, for it lies on or near the surface. In some places, the caliche is covered with 25 or 30 feet of fine dust (chuca) and coarser rock waste (costra) which must be thrown aside by the minor. In such places, an area which has been worked looks as though it had been badly furrowed by gigantic ploughshares. In other places, there is almost no overlying material to remove. The layer of caliche may be as much as six feet thick, but for the most part it varies between one and three feet. The beds in some sections are fairly continuous over large areas; in others they are of very limited extent. Some caliche contains more than 70 per cent, of nitrate, but 50 to 60 per cent, is considered high; the average is nearer 20 to 30 per cent., and even as low as 15 per cent. is. worked profitably. Hence the conditions of production, costs of operation and profits to be made vary widely from place to place. With few exceptions, however, it is true that the costs of operation are low as compared with many other mining industries, while the profits are large.
The main nitrate fields lie in two provinces, Tarapaca and Antofagasta, between latitudes 19° S. and 27° S. Other deposits doubtless will be found farther south in Atacama, and there are said to be small nitrate areas in Tacna, the most northerly province of Chile. The total area of these four provinces (105,000 square miles) is about equal to that of Colorado and its population (316,000) gives about two per square mile. Most of the people depend directly or indirectly on the nitrate industry. Chileans are the most numerous, but there are also many Bolivians and Peruvians, with smaller numbers of people from half the nations of the world. Only small parts, probably much less than 10 per cent., of the provinces named are workable nitrate lands. These limited areas, together with the seaport cities, contain the mass of the population, while many thousands of square miles contain not a living soul nor any other living thing.
The nitrate beds lie in a belt, commonly less than ten miles wide, about 500 miles long north and south, and 15 to 100 or more miles back from the coast. This short distance from the coast is important in making shipment cheap. Along the coast there is a range of low mountains through which a few ravines offer routes for railroads into the interior. Between the Coast Mountains and the base of the towering Andes lies lower land, known as the pampa, which slopes westward from the Andes to the Coast Ranges. The nitrate deposits lie along the western side of the pampa, its lowest part, associated with what were once the bottoms of water-filled basins, either lakes or arms of the sea. Lines of flats, covered with dazzling white salt beds, or salares, extend over many square miles. Thus one salt field in Tarapacá covers an area of more than 100 square miles, and salt of remarkable purity (over 99 per cent, pure) is said to extend to depths of scores of feet. Round about these salares are the nitrate lands or salitreras. In many parts of the region there is a saying: "Where there is salt there is no caliche." Though this saying holds true generally, there are some places where the two deposits occur together. The presence of nitrate, however, is easily determined. In a manner much like that of using flint and steel
on tinder, particles of any supposed caliche are brought in contact with a strip of burning cotton wicking. or mecha. If nitrate is present, the particles ignite sharply, and with no further test an expert can tell approximately the percentage of nitrate present.
The nitrate is so readily soluble that the deposits could not exist even in a moderately rainy region, but there is little trouble on that score in northern Chile. The high Andes on one side and the cold Humboldt or Peruvian current on the other make Chile north of the 30th parallel one of the driest regions in the world. Some places have passed more than a decade without a drop of rain. Other places have a few minutes of scattering sprinkles almost every year. This is said to have been the case in parts of Antofagasta for many years prior to 1910, when there was a heavy shower, followed in 1911 by two days of steady downpour. These occurrences, with rain again in 191?. and, more wonderful still, snow where people living in the region for a generation never had seen snow, have led many residents to believe that "the climate is changing since Halley's comet went past." That water has flowed here at times in the past is shown by the dry gullies and channels. Numerous snow-fed rivers descend the western slopes of the Andes, but their waters soon are evaporated or lost in the dry sands of the pampa. For hundreds of miles along this coast not a perennial stream enters the ocean. If absolute desert exists in the world, it lies in the nitrate pampa.
In crossing this region one can not help feeling the utter helplessness of man in the face of such great expanses of waterless and lifeless wastes. All directions lead to sand, more sand, even to the border of the ocean itself. One fails at first to understand how men are willing to live there year after year: why those who 2:0 away generally come back again
to tins apparently limitless desolation. But almost the first day's stay reveals part of the reason. The day is not unpleasant despite the heat and the intensity of the sunlight, for the extreme dryness makes temperatures of 90° or more quite comfortable, and the colors—the grays, yellows, violet—playing over the sands, help make up for the lack of living green. The nights are wonderful—cool, crisp, refreshing, with the brilliancy of sky that only deserts can have; while the moonlight gleaming from millions of salt crystals lights up the land with an effect of half day and renders into attractive forms the most prosaic objects.
Presumably dryness also was a factor in the formation of the nitrate beds. It seems certain from the kinds of rocks found there that the area between the Coast Ranges and the Andes once was occupied by a bay or long arm of the sea. Then the land began to rise, cutting off the bay and converting it into a lagoon, entered perhaps by every high tide. About its borders great flocks of birds congregated—as they do now along the neighboring ocean—to feed on the prolific life in the shallow, warm waters. Enormous deposits of bird guano accumulated about its shores as the years went on. Meanwhile, however, the land was rising higher and higher, water came into the lagoon only from the land, bringing with it soluble nitrates from the guano. But this supply of water was too small to keep up the level; and as the region became drier and drier, evaporation reduced the original sea to a string of lakes occupying isolated basins in the lower parts of the pampa. As evaporation went on, these waters became too salty for life to endure. With their food supply gone, the birds were forced to seek other haunts and the accumulation of guano stopped. Streams and occasional rains, perhaps more frequent then than now, washing away the guano, brought together in the lakes compounds of nitrogen and soda, and the formation of nitrate of soda was the result. Eventually these waters became saturated with the different
salty compounds, and as evaporation still continued, the different salts began to deposit on the pampa. in the salitreras and salares, much as they are to-day. Then as a final step sand and rock fragments from neighboring hills covered the beds with their present capping of loose waste.
Other explanations of the origin of the nitrate have been advanced. One ascribes it to natural chemical processes accompanying decomposition of different minerals. Another suggests that the wonderful electrical discharges in the Andes are responsible, for the odor of nitric acid in the air is not uncommon after severe electrical storms, and electricity even now is being used to extract nitrogen from the air. But the enormous amounts of nitrate in Chile and the geological conditions of its occurrence fit in best with the idea of origin from guano, as stated above.
The fertilizing value of these nitrates is supposed to have been known to the Peruvian Incas, but not generally to have been taken advantage of by them. Tradition also says that Bolivian Indians at an early date came down from the plateau after nitrate to use on their crops, and it credits them, rather doubtfully, with having developed a primitive form of refining. Rich pieces of caliche, so the story runs, were boiled with water in great earthen pots, called cachuchos, after which the solution was allowed to cool and evaporate until crystallization of nitrate resulted. Fairly pure nitrate can be secured in this way. Some of the earliest manufacturers for commercial purposes are said to have followed almost the same method, and the principle is exactly like that of the modern process. Even the name "cachuchos" still persists, though the great steel or iron boiling tanks of to-day scarcely suggest "earthen pots."
Prior to the nineteenth century the outside world knew little or nothing
of these nitrates. Fertilizers were then quite unheard of in most places; industrial uses of nitric acid and its compounds were few; and for making explosives—then gunpowder was the only one—small, scattered deposits of true saltpeter provided the raw material.
Nearly a hundred years ago, it is said, a Scotchman living near Iquique spread over part of his garden some soil containing white crystals. That part of his garden flourished much more than the rest. Thereupon samples of the soil were sent to Scotland for experiments which revealed the nature of the substance and its fertilizing value; and thus, so the story goes, the foundation was laid for the great nitrate industry. A decade later, or about 1826, a Frenchman is credited with having established the first real nitrate works in the pampa back of Iquique. Soon after that an Englishman, a German and a Chilean are supposed to have followed suit, and the business began to grow slowly. A little more than 8,300 tons of nitrate are said to have been exported in 1830.
The nitrate fields then were divided among three countries. Peru owned Tacna and Tarapacá. Bolivia owned most of what is now Antofagasta, while Chile owned from Atacama southward. This last region was then not known to contain nitrate, and still is the least important part of the fields. Peruvians and Chileans became most active in the industry, perhaps because the fields were more easily reached from Peru and Chile than from the highlands of Bolivia. The Chileans turned their attention largely to the Bolivian province of Antofagasta, where their influence became so marked that it is said not more than one person in twenty was a Bolivian, and that one probably an officer in the army. Important concessions were granted by Bolivia to Chilean interests,
and in 1874, in return for the cancellation of a debt owed Chile, Bolivia agreed not to impose any export tax on nitrate for twenty-five years. Four years later, however, attempts were made to levy a tax of ten cents per 100 pounds on all nitrate exported. When the Chilean companies refused to pay the tax, the Bolivian authorities seized their property and declared that it would be sold. Chile was forced to step in to protect the interests of her citizens. Since Bolivia had entered some years earlier into a treaty with Peru against Chile, Peru also was dragged into the quarrel, the result of which was the beginning of war by Chile against both Peru and Bolivia in 1879.
It was an epoch-making conflict in which Chilean naval successes against Peru were largely responsible for the outcome. The treaty of peace, signed in 1883 found Bolivia driven out of her seacoast province, Peru deprived of her nitrate lands, and the Chilean boundary pushed more than four hundred miles northward. In some quarters the impression is common that the treaty provided for a return of the nitrate areas to Peru, if after ten years the people of the region should so vote. Such a provision was applied to the province of Tacna, and has been ignored by Chile, but Tarapacá, with its great nitrate resources, was handed over "forever and unconditionally" (perpetua é incondicionalmente). It was predicted then that possession of the nitrate lands would ruin Chile, as guano and nitrate were believed to have ruined Peru, but this gloomy forecast has not been verified.Since the war, and especially in the last fifteen years, a number of things have led to great progress in the nitrate industry. Foreign capital, English, German, Belgian, French, Austrian, and some from this country', has been added to the large investments made by Chileans. Thus more than £20,000,000 of English capital alone is tied up in
this business. Methods of manufacture have been improved, and the scale of operations has been increased greatly. New railroads have been built and old ones extended, until now there are about 2,000 miles of railroads, most of which have no other use than to serve the nitrate trade. But perhaps most important of all has been the vigorous campaign to advertise the merits of nitrate as a fertilizer. Tests have proved that nitrates are about the most effective fertilizer known for such crops as vegetables, sugar beets, and some of the cereals. To help increase the demand for this use particularly, representatives are maintained in every important agricultural region by the Chilean Nitrate Committee, and advertisements which are a part of this propaganda appear in agricultural journals in all parts of the world. Importations by the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States have been and still are increasing rapidly, while smaller amounts go to widely scattered markets.The exports of nitrates in 1830 are said to have been about 8,300 tons. At the time of the Peruvian War, fifty years later, the amount had increased to 226,000 tons yearly—or less than the amount that two establishments might turn out now. Since 1880 the exports have reached enormous proportions. The million-ton mark was passed in 1890; almost a million and a half tons were shipped in 1900; and in 1911 the exports were but little short of two and a half million tons. To take care of this greatly increased demand, plant after plant has been built, until now more than 100 are in operation, several of which can produce in a month more than the whole exportation amounted to in 1830. Lands which were offered for sale a dozen years ago could not now be bought for ten times the figure quoted then. Shares of stock
of a par value of 25 pesos not infrequently have paid annual dividends of 20 pesos, and stock dividends of 100 to 200 per cent, are not unknown. Under such conditions it is not strange that plants costing 5,000,000 pesos or more have paid for themselves in two or three years, and that nitrate shares are quoted at many times the amounts of paid-in capital which they represent. Thus in May, 1912, some quotations in Valparaiso were as follows:
|Name of Company||Capital Paid in Per Share||Sales at|
into smaller pieces with a heavy hammer. This is the process of nitrate mining. No operation could be simpler.
If the miner works by the day, he is known as a barretero literally a "crowbar man." If he is paid according to the amount of caliche mined, as the most energetic prefer to do, he is a particular, or private worker. The former earns about 6 pesos to 7 pesos a day, while the latter, under favorable conditions, often makes 9 pesos to 12 pesos a day. A group of particulares, working early and late, quickly dispels any idea that no people of that part of the world will work hard.
Carts or trains of small dumping cars carry the caliche to the maquina, as the refining plant is called. Here it is first crushed into pieces no larger than a man's fist. From the crushers it goes up inclined planes to the boiling tanks, or cachuchos as they are still known, though earthen pots have been replaced by great iron affairs 33 feet long, 9 feet wide and 8 feet deep, capable of holding 70 tons. The newest maquinas have twenty to thirty of these tanks. When the charge of caliche is in, water is added, steam is turned into a coil of pipes which runs around inside the tanks, and the boiling process begins to dissolve out the soluble nitrates from the insoluble and worthless earthy substances. Thus the industry, which in one respect owes its existence to absence of water, must have water in order to operate, for nowhere are there large amounts of caliche rich enough to ship without refining, and the process of leaching is the only economical method of refining.Much Australian and English coal, costing 35 pesos to 50 pesos or more per ton, is used to generate the steam. About half a million tons of coal have been imported for this purpose in recent years; but the
possibility of substituting California petroleum, already used to some extent, is being considered seriously by many operators.
To get water for the maquinas is not everywhere easy, for the water supply always has been the chief problem in this region. Seacoast towns for a long time depended on supplies brought by vessels from four or five hundred miles farther south. It is interesting to note here that one of the prominent figures in the development of the industry after 1880 was an English iron worker, who is said to have come out to Chile to work on the tanks or boilers of some of these water-carrying vessels, and who later went home a "nitrate millionaire." The first railroads had trouble getting water for their engines, some resorting to the distillation of salt water, but now, for the railroads and the chief cities and towns, piping of water 100 to 200 miles from the Andine streams has relieved the situation greatly. Water, however, still must be used sparingly and almost everywhere the poorer people buy it by the pailful, a discarded kerosene tin generally serving as a pail. A common price is 10 centavos (= 3 cents) for five gallons. In the pampa, wells yield a good deal of water, commonly more or less salty, but this source can not be counted on everywhere. Thus in central Antofagasta one plant secures more than 35,000 gallons of water daily from three wells, the deepest of which is less than 100 feet, but another plant, less than a mile away, found no underground water after spending 250,000 pesos in the attempt.After the water in the cachuchos has boiled for several hours, it is passed to another tank where it encounters fresh caliche, and so on, until a saturated solution known as caldo, or broth, eventually is secured. When this point is reached the water is run off to a series of
The crystallizing tanks. Refined nitrate in the tanks in the foreground; tanks recently filled with caldo in the background.
tanks, known as chullladores, where the use of wheat flour, stable manure, or other substances, causes the precipitation of the miscellaneous soluble impurities, except ordinary salt, which have been dissolved out with the nitrate. From this purification process the solution goes to the crystallizing tanks, or bateas, which are placed ten or twelve feet above the ground to permit free circulation of air and promote cooling and evaporation. Thus dryness which figures in the origin and preservation of the caliche also has an equally great value in the process of manufacture. As the solution cools and the water evaporates, the nitrate begins to crystallize on the surface, so a "stirring boy," or rayandero, is employed to break up the film and make it settle. Five or six days are necessary to complete the crystallizing process. A large plant may have 300 or more bateas, capable of holding more than 1,000,000 gallons of caldo, and yielding at each full charge as much as 2,500 tons of nitrate.When crystallization has gone as far as it will, a valve in the bottom of the batea is opened and the liquid is drawn off, leaving behind a thick layer of glistening white crystals. This is the nitrate or salitre of commerce, being 95 per cent, or more of pure nitrate of soda; the remainder is largely water and salt. The liquid which is drawn off, known as agua vieja, or mother liquor, still contains a large amount of nitrate in solution, and is used over and over again in the boiling tanks. In fact, no water is ever thrown away, the only loss being that which passes into steam from the boiling tanks and evaporates from the crystallizing
pans. The finished nitrate is shoveled from the bateas into cars, drawn to the deposit, or cancha, and there after drying for several days is bagged ready for shipment. Shipment in bulk is impracticable because the nitrate so readily absorbs water. Even when shipped in sacks it sometimes becomes caked in the holds of ships and has to be taken out with picks.
From the agua vieja, iodine is extracted by a simple process of precipitation with chemicals (mainly sodium sulphites). It figures only as an important by-product of the industry, for the "iodine trust" makes an annual allotment to each establishment, commonly less than what could be made in a month, if there were no restrictions on production.The only other important step in the refining of nitrate is the clearing and recharging of the boiling tanks. First, fresh water is run through to take out what it will of the remaining nitrate, this water being used subsequently, with aqua vieja, in the boiling process, for the more nitrate in solution at the outset the easier it is to get a saturated caldo. After the washing is over, a trap in the bottom of the tank is opened and the waste, or ripio, is removed. This process is the most bothersome in the industry, because for each charge of 70 tons of caliche, 50 tons or more of ripio must be removed. It is very hard on the men who work in the steaming hot tanks, and the disposal of the waste after it is removed, not uncommonly 1,000 to 3.000 tons a day, soon comes to be a problem. None of the operators succeed in getting much more than 75 per cent, of the nitrate originally in the caliche, hence ripio commonly contains 4 to 10 per cent, of nitrate, and the great piles containing
millions of tons of waste some time may be reworked if conditions in the industry should make economies necessary.
A good deal of capital is needed now to start the nitrate business on a large scale. Many of the older oficinas, as the establishments are called, are small, representing an investment of not more than 25,000 pesos to 50,000 pesos. But a large modern plant may cost 6,000,000 pesos or more. For this reason the industry tends to remain in the hands of companies, about 80 in number, of which a few large ones really dominate the industry. In all there are about 160 oficinas in existence, English, Chilean, Austrian, German, etc., but for one reason or another not all of them are being operated. Exhaustion of the supply of caliche is the most common reason, for as a general rule an oficina is built for a given tract of nitrate land, with the idea of abandoning the oficina when that supply is exhausted. It does not pay to haul caliche any considerable distance, for a ton of average caliche will yield only about 30 pesos' worth of nitrate, on which the profits may be 10 pesos. There are only one or two "Yanqui" oficinas, the "powder trust" being interested in at least one of these. United States capital invested in western South America seems to have been attracted more strongly by other kinds of mining.A modern oficina, like the Aníbal Pinto, in central Antofagasta, running twenty-four hours at full capacity, may have a daily output of 5,000 Spanish quintals (quintal = 101 pounds) of nitrate. The cost of production in May, 1912, at this plant, was stated to be about 2.50 pesos per quintal, covering everything up to the time of shipment. To this figure must be added the transportation charges to the vessel in Antofagasta harbor, about 1 peso per quintal, and the export duty of 2.50 pesos per quintal, making total costs on board vessel 6 pesos per
quintal. At that time the selling price, on hoard ship, was 7.50 pesos to 8 pesos per quintal. Under favorable conditions, therefore, this oficina could market about 2,000,000 quintals a year, with profits amounting to 4,000,000 pesos. This particular oficina cost more than 6,000,000 pesos, but with the trade good, it would pay for itself in two years and give annual dividends of. 10 per cent, at the same time. About five and a half square miles of nitrate lands have been set aside for the Pinto, a supply calculated to keep it going for twenty years, in most of which time the plant has nothing to do except pay dividends. The making of nitrate millionaires, therefore, is easy to understand.
The construction of a modern oficina uses supplies from widely separated places. Most of the buildings are of corrugated iron, for it withstands the intense darkness better than wood does. It commonly comes from Europe. The timber which is used is likely to be Oregon pine, for it is strong, durable and about as cheap as the Chilean product. German steel for tanks, cement from the United States, boilers from England, Belgian locomotives to haul the tiny cars and United States electrical equipment are found at one oficina.Most of the laborers are Chileans, Peruvians and Bolivians, attracted there by the higher wages than are to be had elsewhere in most other pursuits. In fact, the complaint is often made that the nitrate industry has retarded development of other activities in Chile, especially greater agricultural progress in the south. by absorbing not only the capital, but the labor as well. About 40,000 persons are said to be employed directly in the oficinas, some of the larger of which have more than 1,000 hands each. Wages run from about 3 pesos to 4 pesos per day for boys and 6 pesos per day for the poorest paid men. up to as high as 15 pesos for some of the men working in the maquina. Perhaps
10 pesos is a fair average for the majority. Houses are provided by the company, but heat, light and water must be paid for by all except salaried. This latter class, including the manager, or administrador, and his subordinates, the engineer, bookkeeper, chemist, electrical expert, etc., are given their quarters, heat, light and water, in addition to salaries that range from 1,000 pesos up to 4,000 pesos a month.
Though wages and salaries appear high in units of currency, the prices of food stuffs also are necessarily high, since next to nothing can be raised anywhere in the nitrate region. Some prices charged in company stores are as follows: flour, 20 pesos per quintal; beans, 30 pesos per sack of about one bushel; eggs, 6 pesos a dozen; coal, G pesos for about 100 pounds. Only canned milk can be had, for there is no way of keeping cattle in this barren land. All cuts of meat are 50 cents per pound, and the rule of "first come, first choice" results in the formation of a "meat line" early every morning. A good many of the cattle used here come overland from Argentina. Kerosene from the United States costs about 1 peso a gallon, but the tin in which it comes also must be considered, since it serves a multitude of uses from waterpail to roofing material and baking oven. Potatoes are commonly sold by the half robo, which equals about a half bushel, but the natives are fond of explaining, with a significant gesture, that robo also means robbery.The laborers generally are paid not in money, but in features, discs resembling poker chips and bearing the company name, together with the equivalent value in actual currency. These features are used almost solely at the company stores, but if any workman desires his wages in money he may draw at any time all that is due him. For the salaried
The plaza of Antofagasta, with the barren Coast Mountains in the distance. The clock tower was the gift of English residents on the centenary of Chilean independence.
employees, the pampa looks like a good place to save money, since food is about the only thing he cares to buy in the local stores. Some of the larger coast towns have fairly good stores, but Valparaiso is the nearest real "spending place," and to get there takes four days to a week. The mail-order business, however, is said to thrive here mainly because of these very conditions, with disastrous results to the saving habit.
Large oficinas, with their many hands and the families, may make communities of 2,000 to 3,000 persons. Schools are provided by the government, the teachers getting 150 pesos to 200 pesos per month, to which some companies add 100 pesos or more, in addition to the customary free quarters, heat and water. Priests and physicians make regular visits. Musical and social clubs are organized; bands give open-air concerts two or three times a week, and worse music may be heard in many more favored parts of the world. Football is a favorite sport and there is keen rivalry between teams representing neighboring oficinas. There is the inevitable biograph, a dance hall, annual visits by a circus, a saloon and even a gambling house, for since the men will gamble anyway, it is deemed best to have it done where some control may be exerted over it. Little trouble ever arises, for the resident manager is in some ways a local czar, with the very efficient mounted police of the pampa to assist in keeping order.It is sometimes claimed that the laborers are exploited outrageously by the companies; that two prices are the rule in the company stores, the higher price always being for the laborers; that buying outside is almost or quite impossible; that they are assessed for medical service which they never need, and so on. It is also pointed out that although provided with houses, the living conditions among the laborers are
decidedly primitive, especially as regards sanitary arrangements. It is quite true that the camp commonly is placed where the wind will not carry the odors to the houses occupied by the manager and his subordinates. But in the bright sun and dry air of the desert, most disease germs do not thrive, and there filth, unpleasant as it may be, does not lead to the sickness which it might cause elsewhere. In order to get some return from the monthly assessment of a peso for doctor's services, so it is said, the people commonly feign illness, until the free medicine is received, whereupon the medicine promptly is thrown away. There probably is some truth in all the claims that the lot of the nitrate workers is not everything which could be desired, yet it is undeniable that they are better off than a good many of their own countrymen who are working elsewhere.
Living in the nitrate pampa has some compensations, as in the feelings inspired by the desert and especially in the beauty of its nights, but not even the mighty Pacific can lend charm to the seaports which act as middlemen between the oficinas and the outside world. Iquique, Antofagasta, Taltal, Chañaral, Mejillones, Pisagna and Tocopilla, ranging in population from 50,000 down to 5,000, suggest mining towns of our far west in varying early stages of evolution. Some of the foreign residents profess to find enjoyment there, as in a morning plunge in the ocean and a brisk canter along the beach, and with the clubs later in the day, but all too commonly the pleasures take the form of hard drinking as the only way of varying the painful monotony of existence. Iquique, the largest, generally is regarded as somewhat better than the others, but one who visits the others first is comforted mainly by the feeling that it must be hard to find anything worse.
A picture of one of these ports does almost equally well for all the others. A crescentic indentation in the coast is called the harbor, for want of any other name. All vessels must anchor far out, owing to shallow water, the presence of reefs, or entire lack of docks. Cargoes are lightered to and from shore, while passengers run the gauntlet of the boatmen, or fleteros, and the surf, both of which at times are rather unpleasant. Protection for the vessels is poor in most cases, but fortunately storms are not frequent along this coast. Around the harbor, barren, colorless mountains rise to heights of 2,000 feet or more, and at their base lies a featureless town sprawled over a narrow, flat or sloping shelf. Within the town, wide, unpaved, dusty streets are lined with frame houses in varying degrees of dilapidation. Here and there one may catch a glimpse of some carefully watered plants or even a tiny patch of grass in a private "garden," and the main plaza of the town is sure to have some highly prized and proudly exhibited palms and other plants. But for the most part there is nothing to relieve the impression of dinginess and dejectedness that hovers over the place. Dirty hotels are crowded with patrons of a dozen nationalities, for all who come and go must use the only accommodations offered. For a time, the busy waterfront, and perhaps seals in the harbor, prove interesting, but even these quickly prove boresome, since every lighter piled with sacks of nitrate is like every other lighter, and after the seals have bobbed up a few hundred times, only to disappear as often, it ceases to be a novelty. Waiting for a steamer, the only means of escape from these ports makes one wish he had staid in the pampa, where the world seems big and less forlorn.
Ships of many nations come to carry away the nitrate, while many coastwise vessels bring supplies from the fertile valleys farther south. Nearly half the oficinas operating in 1912 shipped their product through Iquique, giving this port more nitrate traffic than is carried on by any other two ports combined. Antofagasta and Tocopilla are next in order. The value of nitrate exports is more than 70 per cent, of the total value of Chilean exports, and its tonnage is as great as that of any other South American export. As the nitrate goes out, the Chilean government levies an export duty, just as Bolivia tried to do when Chile took up arms on that account. The export duty sometimes is regarded as a device for checking overproduction, whereas it is simply an effective means of raising revenue for the national treasury. For a long time nitrate duties and proceeds of sales of nitrate lands have amounted to more than half, and in some years to not less than 85 per cent., of the total national income. These revenues alone represent more than ten dollars per capita or as much as the United States government spends from all sources of income. It is easy to see, therefore, why Chile often is charged with extravagance. Yet large sums have been employed wisely in the building of state railroads; something has been done, and much more is now being undertaken, to improve port facilities, especially at Valparaiso; and much of the money has been used in building up an army and navy to insure Chilean leadership and prestige among the West Coast countries. It is estimated that in the thirty years following 1880 the total revenue from nitrate duties has been more than $300,000,000 (United States gold), while with the present rate of production and the same tax continued, the next twenty-five years will give Chile nearly $750,000,000 (United States gold) more.
One check on overproduction may be exerted through a law providing that government nitrate lands are open to exploitation only after such lands have been disposed of at public auction. But, at the same time, this law has tended to check individual effort in exploring thoroughly the limits of the nitrate deposits. Another check on overproduction has been the "nitrate trust," or Combinación Salitrera, an agreement, entered into in 1901 by the larger companies, concerning the limitation of annual output and its allotment among the different oficinas. For a number of years prior to 1909 the trust worked well, but since then, despite all efforts to keep them in line, a good many companies have limited their output only by the maximum capacity of their oficinas. As an official of one of the largest Chilean companies aptly said: "There is no need for agreements when the demand is so heavy and the prices so good. If the price goes down—well, perhaps agreements can be revived then."
The nitrate business is so vital to the northern provinces of Chile, and even to the whole country as it is now organized, that the future of the industry has been a question of much concern. Some believe that the opening of the Panama Canal, with the resulting shortening of voyages from Iquique and Antofagasta to the United States, United Kingdom and Germany, will stimulate the commerce in nitrate very materially, for those three countries now take about 80 per cent, of the exports. Optimistic prophets, noting also the increasing popularity of nitrates, forecast a new era of greater prosperity than ever before. The more pessimistic, on the contrary, foresee the speedy exhaustion of the nitrate supplies and a crisis for Chile unless adequate preparation is made for the inevitable readjustment.
Most estimates of the available supplies of nitrate range between about 70,000,000 and 100,000,000 tons, which at the present rate of production would insure the life of the industry for thirty-five to forty years. Some estimates, however, place the amount as high as 200,000,000 tons. The totals given are about equally divided between Tarapacá and Tacna on the one hand, and Antofagasta and Atacama on the other. Private lands, however, are estimated as covering more than half the total, though it must be remembered that the state lands are less well known. The smaller estimates make little or no allowance for discoveries of new nitrate deposits, which is quite likely to happen, nor do they count on any improvements in processes of manufacture, which very readily might prolong by many years the duration of supplies now known. It also is possible that ripio, nitrate-bearing costra and lowgrade caliche, thrown aside in the past, may be worked profitably in the future. Should all these things develop favorably, the nitrate industry could thrive for a good many decades to come. Otherwise its span of existence is not likely to extend much beyond the middle of the century, for increased production, which is entirely probable, must hasten the end.
Another possible "rock ahead" for the business has been found by some people in the production of nitrates from atmospheric nitrogen by an electrical process. Where water power is abundant and cheap, nitrates from this process can be made to compete with the Chilean product. It is being done now in Norway. But for most parts of the world which have large water-power resources the use of this power will be more valuable for other purposes as long as Chilean nitrates continue to be abundant and reasonably cheap.
It has been suggested that when the nitrate is exhausted irrigation may turn the pampa into a highly productive farming region. This may be possible for limited areas, but from what is known of the water supplies available it seems unsafe to look for any extensive agricultural development. Exhaustion of the nitrate apparently means a general decay of the region unless other mineral resources are discovered and developed. It means for Chile the loss of $100,000,000 (United States gold) in annual exports and $30,000,000 (United States gold) of government revenue. For the world it means turning to some other source of nitrogen for supplies to fertilize its crops. Happily the way already is open for the latter change.
- Unless stated otherwise all money values are expressed in Chilean pesos, paper currency, at the rate of 1 peso equals about 21 cents in United States money.