Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

DEVELOPMENT-ARGENTINA: Miners Turned Tour Guides Learn New Skills

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 19 1999 (IPS) - The Hipasam iron mine in Argentina, the largest of its kind in South America, has become a tourist attraction since the government deemed it unprofitable and closed it down in 1991.

“I don’t feel like a tourist guide but rather a local expert, because I know everything that goes on down there,” Luis Giménez, who worked in the mine since it began to operate in 1969 and now guides visitors, told IPS.

The mine is located in the province of Río Negro, 1,300 kms south of Buenos Aires and just under 30 kms from the Atlantic coast.

The population of the nearby town of Sierra Grande ballooned from 100 to 12,000 when the mine began to operate.

Today’s tourist business directly provides around 30 jobs. But if the mine were reopened it would provide work for at least 600 people, with the consequent impact on all other activity in the area.

Hipasam, the public enterprise that began to mine iron ore in the area, employed 1,200 miners at one point, and at its peak produced two million tonnes a year of iron ore, as well as lead, flourite, mica and magnesium.

Giménez, one of the many single, unskilled workers drawn to the area by the prospect of a steady job, pointed out that 99 percent of those who worked in the mine in the beginning came from other provinces and learned the ropes as they worked.

“Today we guide tourists, but my dream is that the mine will reopen,” said the former miner.

Women were banned from entering the Hipasam mine due to a local tradition according to which Mother Earth could become jealous and cause cave-ins.

The miners-turned-tourist guides tell of a female geologist who had to disguise herself as a man in order to descend into the mine. Today they embarassedly admit that most of the visitors are women.

The Hipasam mine was shut down in the context of the process of privatisations implemented by the government of Carlos Menem, under the argument that extracting and transporting the ore was no longer profitable after the sale of the state-owned steelworks Somisa, the mine’s only client.

But foreign investors are studying the possibility of reopening the mine, which has an estimated 200 years of reserves. That would demand, however, updating production methods to bring the mine into line with the requirements of today’s international market.

The possible reopening of the mine has led many Sierra Grande residents to give up their plans to move away.

Tourism, meanwhile, has provided hopes for new jobs. Since 1994, more than 30,000 tourists have visited the mine by one of two routes – the “conventional” route or the “adventure” track.

The “conventional” visit involves a walking or bicycle tour of three kms of tunnels, some of which descend 100 metres into the ground. The tour ends in the Miner’s Museum.

Although the mine has a total of 96 kms of tunnels, the deepest of which stretches over 500 metres into the earth, the tour guides take visitors to areas that have already been exploited and have been declared safe from cave-ins.

In the Museum, visitors can see hammers, mining drills, explosive devices and photos from Hipasam’s boom period. The tourists are invited to try on miner’s clothing, boots and lantern helmets, and to entrust themselves to Saint Barbara, just as the miners did before they descended.

The “adventure” route involves descending more than 100 metres into the earth, and touring flooded areas of the mine in a raft dubbed by the miners “La Dudosa” (the Dubious One). Special lighting and sound effects help provide the impression of an operating mine.

Giménez, who initially lived in the mine’s “singles camp,” married and had three children in Sierra Grande. “Our children came up with this idea. They were not miners, but they know a lot about the mine, and some of them speak English or French.”

Giménez never imagined that he would end up working as a tour guide. But his desire to stay and wait for the anticipated reopening of the mine led him to adapt to the new working conditions.

The mine is not far from Puerto Madryn, in the southern province of Chubut, which draws tourists interested in observing whales, seals and sea elephants in their natural habitat. The excursion to Sierra Grande has been added to that traditional and internationally known tourist route.

The mine is visited by both Argentinian and foreign tourists, as well as students who shack up in cabins that belonged to the miners. Along the way, visitors gain a firsthand understanding of part of the history of the economy of this Southern Cone country.

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