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Chileans Agree to Sell a Golden Village

January 29, 1995|FEDERICO QUILODRAN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

CHURRUMATA, Chile — The villagers of Churrumata sit on top of a fortune, but they'll never see it.

It often takes a fortune to make one, so the nearly 600 people have packed up--to make way for a Canadian mining company that can afford to dig down into the hard land of the Atacama Desert to get at the gold below.

"It hurts, but you can't stop progress, so I am leaving with pain and tears," said Luis Donaire, 88, owner of Churrumata's only general store, who has catered to the villagers for 60 years.

The Dayton Co. bought the village's 130 adobe houses and other buildings before beginning work on its mining concession in the district.

In general, the poor villagers seem satisfied with the deal, saying they lacked the resources to profitably exploit the gold veins that extend under the town.

"We were living sitting on gold, but we were not able to dig it out the way the company will do," said Donaire.

Dayton says it is investing $90 million to create and develop the Andacollo Gold Mine. It expects to begin mining next September and produce 3.7 tons of gold a year, worth $40 million on today's market.

Virtually all of Churrumata's residents were "pirquineros"-- small, independent miners who use rudimentary tools to scratch the soil. They have to dig out large amounts of soil to find a few grams of gold.

Cesar Chaibun, public relations supervisor for Dayton, said evacuating Churrumata was necessary because the industrial mining process, which will include the use of explosives, would make living there dangerous.

He told a visiting reporter that turning to such a process was inevitable because "we will have to remove one full ton to produce one gram of gold."

The pirquineros' main concern is where to go now and what to do next. Most will keep on as miners and many are moving to Andacollo, another small mining town nearby in the heart of the Atacama Desert about 300 miles north of Chile's capital, Santiago.

Bartolo Alvarado, 48, will "start all over again" with the $6,200 he got for the modest house he shared with his wife and three children.

He said that was about what most residents received for their properties, although some were paid less. A few got more.

Donaire, the store owner, declined to discuss his deal with Dayton, but neighbors said he was paid as much as $50,000. He is moving to Andacollo, where he is already building a new house.

Some people got nothing, because they did not own a house or land.

Jorge Olivares, 26, was one of those. He lived with "a friendly family" while he eked out a living scratching for gold.

He said he made the equivalent of $40 to $50 a week from the few nuggets of gold he dug up.

Despite his age, Olivares has been a pirquinero for 10 years and will keep mining.

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