Río Grande: A Portrait of an Industrial Village

Río Grande is a small town full of trucks. They loom over new arrivals, lining almost every street. It is in their imposing presence that one gets a first glimpse of the deep entanglements Río Grande has and had with several industrial projects. There are a few other hints, the railway tracks the border of the town, the sleepers overgrown and the tracks dull from decades of use; the “Hostal Lithium” in the middle of the town; and that the newest and largest building belongs to one of the local cooperativas.

The first time I went to Río Grande I was just passing through, spending one night at the “Hostal Lithium” so I could visit the lithium extraction plant, Llipi, early the next day. But I would soon become more interested in the town itself. The fact that almost everyone in such a small, far-off and dusty place seemed to own a Volqueta, a medium sized truck useful for moving matter around on industrial sites, intrigued me. In a sense the sheer physicality of those imposing vehicles forced me to wonder how they had gotten there. This post, which is the first of a series of entries about the small town at the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, comes from this curiosity. It is informed by conversations and interviews I have led with locals of Río Grande and wants to draw up a portrait of the town and its history.

Río Grande was born out of a settlement for workers constructing the railway line between Antofagasta and Uyuni, started in 1884 and finished in 1889. It connected several Bolivian mines with the port of Antofagasta, a fact that allowed former railway workers to start supplying the mines with much needed goods. For Río Grande it was combustibles:

“My grandfather surely had contacts in the mines, and made a contract to gather firewood, and he started telling people to come here. Tola, they would cut it, gather it in bundles, and then bring it here with their llamas. It would be gathered here and then loaded onto flat train carriages, and they would take it to the mines. So my grandfather started working in that. But because we did not want that (moving the tola with lamas), we started settling here in Río Grande, at the cuadrilla 7.”

Vicuñas standing on the railway tracks by Río Grande, on either side of the tracks different kinds of Tola are growing. Photograph taken by the author.

Tola is the Quechua word for firewood, referring mostly to Andean shrubbery that can be used as combustible. Visitors of the Andean highlands will be familiar with vast landscapes covered in low, spiky shrubs, some more green, some more yellow. Despite their seeming similarity to the unskilled eye, Andean tola has a wide array of uses, ranging from protection against winds and soil erosion, over grazing matter for camelids like Llamas, Alpacas or the slender Vicuñas that come to Río Grande to breed every year in the thousands, to medicinal uses. The variety used for combustible exports by the first inhabitants of Río Grande looks more like moss and has a much higher density than some of the shrubbery Tola. In mining it was used as combustible, matter to be converted into energy.

When the Tola Fever was over, the inhabitants of Río Grande soon found another occupation, again related to industrial mining. The soil around the settlement is rich in several minerals, one of them being Calcium. Calcium has different uses in mining operations, being used in the construction of haul roads, as it absorbs moisture from the air; or in the production of steel.

“Over by the corner, there we would finish some 350 quintales (about 100kg each), with every bake, that’s what we’d call it ‘baking’. … well, it was hard work, no mechanization, we’d cut the firewood, crush the rock, carry it on our backs, for two nights and two days we’d be stoking the fire – what tremendous heat! That was the hard part. When we were finished we would send it to the mines to the South, to the factories, in Atocha, to Comibol (the national Bolivian mining company), they were running all the mines.”

The ovens used to bake calcium on the edge of Río Grande. Photograph taken by the author.

Today the old ovens used for the arduous process described here are still visible on the edge of town. Even though their use is now a thing of the past they have remained standing for several decades.

Río Grande then is born at the juncture of industrial development and local ecology. The construction of the railway built to transport minerals from the mines of the Altiplano to the port of Antofagasta determined its location and brought some of the first inhabitants. The mines’ need for combustible provided the first means of subsistence for the settlement, and shows how even in a seemingly hostile environment the ecology can provide for unexpected ways of survival.

This story is also evocative of the Trueque, a long-distance barter system with which the inhabitants of the Salar region historically propped up their diet. Panes de Sal, breads of salt, would be taken to the valley regions in Llama caravans to be exchanged for all sorts of agricultural goods and fruits.

The history of Río Grande cannot be told separately from the materials that shaped its waxing and waning over the decades, as they came into higher or lower demand by the mining industry. Today the Tola found around the town is almost exclusively used as food by the Vicuñas which roam the area in large numbers. The old calcium ovens have become part of the scenery, blending in perfectly with the landscape. In the next post in this series the story of how another mineral shaped the small industrial town at the edge of the Salar will be told.

This post was also published at Lithium Worlds.