Quillagua is a small oasis in the heart of the driest part of the Atacama desert. The Loa River that feeds through this town is the only flowing river for hundreds of kilometres. Until the 1980s Quillagua was an agricultural town with several hundred people living there. The townspeople prospered, as this was the only place suitable for agriculture in the area.
However, today agriculture is forbidden, abandoned farms and equipment lie rusting, falling apart, and only about 60 people remain in the town.
Walking through the town I passed two men drinking on the side of the road, and they began to speak with me. Seeing I was foreign one of them started to tell me about his life and the town when there was agriculture; a period he simply referred to as “before”. He told me of how happy everyone was, how the town thrived, that people gathered together in the streets to eat and celebrate regularly. You could see him really light up when he talked about it.
He told me how, now, everything’s different. He was crying when he told me how “the company” changed everything. People began to get sick. Then people started dying. This man, a stranger in the streets of Quillagua, fell apart, sobbing as he described how someone he loved collapsed right where we were standing. How he had to carry her lifeless body away…
In the 80s a government company called Codelco accidentally contaminated the Loa River with arsenic, upstream from Quillagua, poisoning the water. The company knew this was happening, but they kept it a secret, not wanting to take responsibility and absorb the cost of a clean up. The unsuspecting townspeople continued to drink the water and use it for agriculture. Soon enough, people began to fall ill, develop cancer and die. The contamination source was discovered and the government was forced to admit fault. Agriculture and water use from the river was banned. The company gave meagre compensation to the affected people, but no punishment was ever dealt to those responsible.
Arsenic levels remain high in the water and surrounding soils today. There are techniques to remove the poison, but Codelco, the top global producer of copper in Chile, claims the cost is too great.
Because for a mining company, even a government owned one, profit always comes first. Even if you have to kill an entire town in the process.