15 Feb 2017

It’s great to be part of the RSA as I have the opportunity to visit some amazing places. In December last year, I went on RSA tour to Chile to visit our recently appointed ambassador Miguel Atienza. Miguel is working at the Facultad de Economía y Administración at the Universidad Católica del Norte in Antofagasta in northern Chile.

The department is one of only a few in Chile with a regional and urban focus. The research activity of the Department is done by the Institute of Applied Regional Economics (IDEAR), created in 1996 and, nowadays the main research centre on Regional Studies in Chile. IDEAR is composed by ten PhD researchers focused on the analysis of regional and urban inequality, development policies and research methodology and techniques in regional studies www.idearucn.com.

Miguel’s research centre focuses on the development of peripheral regions with a particular focus on mining activities and the role of multinational companies in this. Being located in Antofagasta, which is a hub for copper mining and non-metallic minerals such as nitrate and iodine, these topics are fascinating and very pertinent indeed.

If you want to find out more about Miguel’s work or the RSA activities in Chile, then please reach out to him via email at miatien@ucn.cl

Photo: Students and staff at the Facultad de Economía y Administración, Universidad Católica del Norte

Antofagasta, where Miguel is based, is the capital of the Antofagasta Province and Region. When silver was discovered some 150 years ago, the city was founded as a service town for the mining industry. The mining industry still dominates the region, drives development and the future of the city, a tricky dependency strongly linked to the fluctuation of the copper price.

So, the search is on for Antofagasta for a sustainable alternative to the mining industry. Ideally to keep the youth in the city who currently leave as soon as they can to move to major hubs further south.  Similar problems are well known from other parts of the world where for example entrepreneurial hubs where set up to increase the attractiveness and job market of a region. If you are interested in the work done in Antofagasta regarding entrepreneurship and SMEs then reach out to Gianni Romani Chocce, Director Centre for Entrepreneurship and SME at the Universidad Católica del Norte via email at gachocce@ucn.cl.

Photo: Night sky Antofagasta

While in Antofagasta, we went on a trip to a former mining town in the Atacama Desert called Chacabuco. Founded in the 1920s, this former nitrate town was set up by the Anglo Nitrate Company to provide all its workers needed. It was noticeable at the time for its size, production capacity and the quality of housing. The town had its own currency and all facilities were run by the company, a clever way to keep the money ‘in house’. There was a hospital, library, hotel and even a theater offering distractions from the daily grind such as performances by international stars like Enrico Caruso.

Photo: Map of Chacabuco

When the nitrate boom came to a halt at the end of the 1930s, the town fell into ruin and was deserted in 1940. A destiny several other nitrate towns in Antofagasta’s hinterland shared.

In 1971 then the ghost town was declared a national monument. However, history had a twist up its sleeve for Chacabuco when between 1973-1974 Pinochet ‘recycled’ the town’s facilities as a concentration camp and housed over 2,000 political prisoners. Many of them were killed and the bullet holes from executions are still visible today. A fascinating place full of history and well worth a visit.

Photo: Chacabuco’s workers’ quarter

Regional Policy and related issues in Chile
While visiting, I learnt that Chile as an emerging economy and powerhouse within Latin America faces particular issues of a growing population which go hand in hand with a rapid urbanisation. According to research by the OECD (2013), already 77% of its population live in urban areas.

The solution, according to the OECD (2013), are growth-oriented initiatives and policies that focus on urban areas of different sizes to spread the benefits.

In addition, a problem that is slowing down development at a regional level is the centrist approach to subnational policies where smallest improvements must be ordered from Santiago. Not surprising then that influential mining companies step in to solve infrastructural problems. Such local development initiatives which are in the interest of the mining companies are often without any long -term sustainable vision for the city, region, country.

In fact, when a mine becomes inefficient to run, it is common that the company and its entourage move on to the next site without cleaning up or transforming the old site back to its previous state. In addition, the money these mining companies make is rarely fed back into the regions. In essence, these companies take what they need and leave behind major environmental burdens for the country to deal with. I wonder how long this can go on.

The recommendations by the OECD in their 2013 report address the lack of a policy and call for an effective planning policy that finds a balance between national, regional and local interests as well as between public and private interests.

Other issues the country faces are the need for investment in the education sector and human capital. Basic state education is free but of low quality. Many who can afford it send their kids to private schools and universities. As a result, the gap in society widens and inequalities and poverty increase.

Being aware of such issues, of course, is the first step towards solutions. There is another silver lining ahead as the RSA aims to activate more researchers in Chile to become part of our community, to influence policy makers, to write in our journals and to make their voices heard.

So, watch this space and maybe see you soon in Chile!

Daniela Carl, Deputy CEO, Regional Studies Association

OECD (2013) OECD Urban Policy Reviews: Chile. Available online at www.oecd-ilibrary.org/urban-rural-and-regional-development/oecd-urban-policy-reviews_23069341

Vilches, F. (2011) From nitrate town to internment camp: the cultural biography of Chacabuco, northern Chile. Journal of Material Culture. Vol. 16, Issue 3. Available online at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1359183511412879?etoc=&