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Lota Mining Complex

Date of Submission: 11/01/2021
Criteria: (ii)(iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Chile to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
City of Lota, Province of Concepcion, Biobio Region
Ref.: 6498

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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


During mid-19th and 20th centuries, settlements arose along the Gulf of Arauco, in a territory known as the Carbon Basin of the Biobio Region in Chile, due to and for the exploitation of submarine coal deposits, which, located down the coastline of the cities of Coronel, Lota, Curanilahue and Lebu, began a globalization process in South America that originated an intense territorial, industrial, urban and social deployment, of which to this day examples remain.

The core of this mining activity was the town of Lota, which took center stage when industrialist Matías Cousiño, one of Chile's main businessmen at the time, founded in 1852 the coal-mining enterprise "Compañía Carbonífera e Industrial de Lota", generating an industrial activity that spanned for over 150 years, an emblematic example of the extraction of the so-called "black gold".

The initial phase of coal extraction was precarious and artisanal in nature, however, with mechanization Processes imported from Europe and the United States, large-scale coal mining soon became possible, originating an intense productive transformation that marked the region and the country's economy as well as influencing the rest of the world through the export of minerals.

Coal, at that moment, was one of the world's main sources of power, supporting national industrial processes such as copper smelting and the country's nitrate production, supplying heating systems and boilers for land and sea transport, providing the fuel needed to operate railway networks and vessels that, up until the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, sailed between the Pacific and the Atlantic, passing through the Strait of Magellan or Cape Horn transforming Lota into a key refuelling destination for global trade processes.

The Lota settlement, which was organized according to the canons of a Company Town, evolved into an urban centre representative of the energy mono-production of South America, placing itself at the industrial forefront of the region. At the tum of the 20th century, Lota was already a thriving city, with a unique and supportive culture that grew and strengthened, forging an early unionism among its citizens, explained by the dangers of the extraction of coal that was located under the Pacific Ocean.

The unique underwater exploitation of the Lota coal deposit is geologically possible thanks to the coal mantles that belong to the Lota Member and the Curanilahue Formation shaped 55 to 60 million years ago (Lower Eocene). Between 7 and 9 mantles are recognized, with variable thicknesses from 0.5 to 1.2 m, interspersed with different types of bituminous to subbituminous sedimentary rocks. These mantles were formed as a consequence of continental sedimentary cycles, alternating sedimentation periods of plant material (paralytic environment) with sedimentation periods of fluvial origin (rivers). With its unique inclination of 15° to 20° to the NW, this condition led it to turn into the largest underground, undersea exploitation in the Americas, originating what today we can define as the "Lota Mining Complex".

This complex, currently represented by the proposed serial property: i) Chivilingo Hydroelectric Plant; ii) Isidora Cousiño Park; iii) Chambeque Sector and iv) Chiflón del Diablo Mine, is legally protected at its highest as a national heritage site, each recognized as Historical Monuments between 1990 and 2014.

The four components describe the industrial development of the era; with facilities designed to exploit the undersea and land deposit, infrastructures built to respond to the workers and their families' functional and recreational needs, and collectively constructed based on traditions that arose around coal.

Evidence of this collective lifestyle is the Lota Alto sector, an urban area where the descendants of coal industry workers to this day still live. The sector has housing pavilions of various types and representative elements of daily family life, such as bread-making ovens and common laundries, testimonies of the work that women provided during the industrial process.

In 1973, the Lota mining industry was nationalized, becoming property of the State of Chile under the name of National Coal Company (Empresa Nacional del Carbon or ENACAR), maintaining a significant production although, with the passage of time, it was affected by the global coal crisis, its high production cost and the evolution of environmental parameters, situations that culminated in the closure of the Lota mine in 1997.

The Lotino mining culture has a strong identity forged in the effort and solidarity that endures and is expressed in everyday life to this day, despite the end of the industrial activity. Likewise, it constitutes a significant example of the model of industrial paternalism in the Latin American region and a physical testimony of the passage from a culture based on local agriculture to one based on industrial processes, which soon expanded worldwide. The Lota Mining Complex is the acknowledgement of a process that manifested itself through decisive territorial and social transformations that culturally shaped several generations.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The Lota Mining Complex includes components conceived and created by human beings, which show the evolution of an industry that was essential for a global economic, social and cultural development between the 19th and 20th centuries.

Through this serial property, as a whole, it is possible to interpret stories that continue to illustrate an era that was based on the intensive exploitation of submarine coal deposits with features that relate directly to the Industrial Revolution, establishing itself as a significant example of this mode) of progress in the Latin American region.

For the aforementioned reasons, its Outstanding Universal Value is presented, considering criteria (ii) and (iv) of Chapter 11.D of the "Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention", namely:

Criterion (ii): The Lota Mining Complex represented an enclave for the exchange of interests, knowledge and technologies, which promoted a process of what was considered a premature industrial revolution in South America with the transformation of a small agricultural town into a world benchmark for under­ the-seabed, large-scale mineral extraction and the consequent socio-economic, cultural and technological changes in brought upon its population and territory.

The exchange of knowledge and know-how between Chilean professionals and technicians from England, Ireland, Germany and North America enriched technological solutions, architecture and urban designs; ideas that prospered and became institutionalized with the contributions of the labour work which was performed by farmers and indigenous community members, generating an exceptional mining complex, based on the adaptation of imported technologies to the local reality and cultural fusion.

This "important interchange of human values", is evident in the proposed industrial and technological milestones, such as those that, for example, resulted from the search for energies that could increase productivity, establishing the generation and transmission of electricity as a pioneering element, as well as the graceful landscape works that confirm the blend of know-how, ideas and styles in this cultural melting pot that arose from exchanges between Chile and Europe.

Criterion (ii): The proposed complex is testimony of the cutting-edge industrial development that made possible the under-the-seabed mineral exploitation. Its operation required the implementation of an intricate technological system and significant human efforts to carry out the extractive operation of the Lota coal deposit.

The deposit located deep in the Pacific Ocean, 500 meters below sea level, with an approximate extension of 5 kilometres from the coast and a surface area of 42 hectares, consisted of a set of tunnels, galleries, ventilation systems and drains built during different periods, with a structure composed of eucalyptus wood pillars of approximately 1 to 1.2 meters in height that supported the submarine coal mantles. This infrastructure allowed the daily entry of hundreds of workers to perform the manual extraction of coal for almost 150 years.

The proposed serial property integrates the main material attributes that account for the coal exploitation process, which included ground-breaking construction systems that allowed the sub-maritime extractive activity; shafts with their imposing articulating elevators between the seabed and the surface; stackers for slag heaps; as well as docks, tunnels and railway lines that transported the extracted raw material and that converted the Lota Mining Complex into a large-scale coal activity hub, which notably influenced progress and development processes worldwide.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

All component parts of this serial property, to this day, continue to preserve the design, shape and material attributes used as well as the initial location where the coal industry originated, revealing itself as an accurate reference of the mining industrial heritage on the continent. The serial property, as a whole, is framed within the continuous dynamism of the evolutionary processes that man has interacting with the territory he inhabits, so the impossibility of maintaining true and precise conditions with those from the rise of the enterprise in its initial moments, are understood.

The absence of signs of significant interventions leads us to determine that the components are authentic and original. Their design has preserved over time, with the processes and productive periods of coal mining remarkably distinguishable among the existing constructions.

In terms of the authenticity of materials, in the areas where it is possible to see the innovative use of concrete and steel on the surface and wood - whose prominence is in the underground galleries -, there are no significant modifications that alter the construction process of the industrial infrastructure that composes the serial property. All visible changes are attributed to the wear and tear of the materials.

In terms of location, the mining complex area remains unchanged, largely preserving its characteristic traits of its peak during the late 19th and mid-20th centuries.

The intangible attributes related to the mining and local culture associated with the complex are conserved through a dialect that contains specific words and meanings, and through basic everyday activities such as bread baking in community ovens or mining celebrations and culinary traditions of the former workers. An example of this is the characteristic carbonada, a dish that is native to the mining community, consisting of a stew made from an assortment of low-cost ingredients, which allows to feed the numerous families that work in the mine. This traditional dish is currently consumed throughout the country and is part of Chile's culinary identity. In a similar way, what is known as mining bread was born, a collaborative activity between neighbours in response to the need to feed their children. By doing so collectively, costs were lowered, as firewood and community ovens were shared. In 2019, the techniques and knowledge associated with Lota's mining bread were included in Chile's Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Currently, this tradition persists thanks to the fact that its elaboration fulfils two roles; on the one hand, women identify it as a way of supporting their families from a financial perspective, offering this product in various sectors of the district, mainly at the various farmer's markets in Lota; and on the other hand, it continues to be a basic food source of the Lotino family communities.

Each of the components are legally protected as a national heritage site, which correspond to the limits of the zones declared as Historical Monuments, allowing to assure a state control of any possible interventions that could alter their values. Individually or as a group, the components have been the subject of studies addressed by different academic entities, which contribute to enhancing the significance of the material and immaterial elements for current generations.

The magnitude of the Lota Mining Complex as a whole enables an integral understanding of the Lotino Outstanding Universal Value and of the industrial and social processes associated with the intricate mineral extraction, allowing for a true representation of the intensive industrial exploitation of the era.

The serial property fully expresses the attributes related to the forms and design of infrastructures, innovative construction systems, the interconnected galleries and tunnels, and the landscaping associated with the gardens for leisure. These values are fully illustrated in an exceptional documentary collection of more than 1270 linear meters.

Specifically, at the Chambeque Sector and the Chiflón del Diablo Mine components, one can find infrastructures, construction systems and underground networks for the extraction and transport of raw materials, including: shafts and elevators, thermoelectric plants, industrial warehouses, wash plants, wash plant silos and conveyor plants, turntables, conveyor belts, storage for explosives, slag heaps, tunnels, piers and representative 19th century construction systems, such as "room and pillar" mining.

The Chivilingo Hydroelectric Plant, whose function was to provide the necessary power for the appropriate productive development, has become a milestone representing the world's engineering level at the time. It was the second plant with those features in South America and today is the only plant of its kind left standing on the planet.

The private garden, known by the name of Isidora Cousiño Park, is considered relevant by researchers that focus on this site, due to its status as a symbol of the wealth derived from the extraction and export of coal and also as an important piece of evidence of the social segregation present during the period. This aspect is also visible in the different types of housing and the diverse uses of buildings for social practices.

Unfortunately, the integrity of the components' attributes today is in a state of vulnerability due to deterioration generated by the disuse of the infrastructure, environmental factors and earthquakes. Faced with this complicated scenario, joint efforts have been initiated between the State Party and the community to generate a rescue route that allows the affected components to be recovered, with emphasis on a gradual restoration and preservation plan. This collaborative and coordinated work between state actors and the community has among its objectives to achieve a responsible and sustainable management of the site, allowing to protect the permanence in time of ail the serial property's components.

ln line with this objective, the Lota Alto urban area is proposed as a buffer zone for the serial property, recognized in terms of heritage with the Typical Zone declaration, which corresponds to the maximum category of protection for urban complexes. Characteristic housing typologies of Chilean mining towns are distinguished; community facilities and representative spaces of the Lotino culture forged by the harshness of the coal mining activity. In terms of urban planning, in Lota Alto, the basic concepts of service infrastructure and social stratification are clearly manifested and applied, marking the Company Town values. The area has notable features in terms of its shape, spaces and structure. The company, in its quest to optimize and increase its production, developed housing for workers and their families, giving rise to a mining city that distances itself from Hispanic-American conventionalisms with a rather linear urban layout and branches that adapt to the geography, followed by a series of buildings where the housing pavilions stand out for their authentic arrangements and expressions.

Therefore, this buffer zone also becomes testimony of a period that combines the development of industrial processes with urban transformations that express what happened under the intensive exploitation of the coal seams, whose activity demanded the constant arrival of young miners who had to overcome the difficult working conditions on-ground as well as on maritime subsoil; conditions developed under the logic of capitalist labour relations. These conditions explain the emergence of a society forged on solidarity and worker's unions who offered the inhabitants hope for a better world. This cultural mining identity, based on common efforts, on emotional support and companionship, which was originally made up of Chileans and foreigners, is still reflected in family histories, rites, customs, ways of life, knowledge and artistic expressions that to this day are palpable in the territory, especially in Lota Alto, and evidence the deep-rooted culture of the nation's coal extraction.

Comparison with other similar properties

To establish comparisons, on a national and international scale, with assets similar to those of the Lota Mining Complex, resemblances were sought with other underground deposits and examples associated with the transforming industrial processes that occurred between the 19th and 20th centuries. The State Party has two sites inscribed on the World Heritage List that can be compared to this mining case.

The first corresponds to the Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Offices, located 47 kilometres from the port of Iquique in the Tarapaca Region of the country, which was inscribed in 2005. It shares a common industrial origin with the proposed serial property in terms of the exploitation of minerals between 1872 and mid-20th century. Technological intervention also played a fundamental role in the consolidation of the nitrate deposits, due to their location in areas with difficult access and without resources such as water and electricity, for which strong investments in infrastructure were implemented.

Second, the mining town of Sewell, located in the O'Higgins region, which was inscribed in 2006 and is associated with the largest underground copper mine in the world, known as "El Teniente". This exploitation is subsequent to the saltpeter and coal industry, dating back to 1905 and located in the heart of the Andes Mountains, in a territory known for its complex climatic and relief conditions, which required technical and constructive efforts to successfully extract copper.

The development of the nitrate and copper industries reflects the combination of knowledge, skills, technological and economic investments from a diverse community made up of people who came from different parts of Europe and South America. This condition generated, in turn, powerful mining cultures, as well as urban and social transformations in their localities, influencing the economic processes of Chile.

The Lotino contribution was essential for the development and consolidation of the industries related to saltpeter and copper, since Lota's coal was the fuel essentially used for the industrial processes related to the exploitation of these raw materials. The stone coal was used as fuel for the reverberatory furnace, which allowed a greater world demand for copper and was fundamental in the process of exporting nitrate.

The coal mining activity therefore drove industrial progress worldwide and, in this sense, the serial property acquires relevance by representing the important processes that took place between the 19th and 20th centuries, framed in the exploitation of primary resources.

Coal was a strategic resource in the promotion of wealth and progress during a decisive time in history and the Lota Mining Complex was the star for close to 150 years in the coal production process, becoming the centre of a unique industrial and cultural enclave.

On an international level, it is possible to compare the Lota site with the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Essen and the Major Mining Sites of Wallonia.

The importance of the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex, located in Essen, North Rhine­ Westphalia, Germany, and inscribed in 2001, lies in the industrial processes carried out in a period similar to Lota. The mineral that gave rise to this complex was also stone coal, mined from underground deposits. The imposing constructions that make up the complex, in shape and design, are part of its attributes as well as the equipment required for the extractive process, mineral transport networks and waste pits.

In 2012, UNESCO recognized the Major Mining Sites of Wallonia (Grand-Hornu, Bois-du-Luc, Bois du Cazier and Blegny), located in southern Belgium. The four sites describe the history of the early periods of the industrial era in Europe associated with the exploitation of coal that includes, as in Lota, multiple technical, architectural, social, landscape and urban dimensions.

Coal mining in Belgium gained strength prior to Chile because the Wallonia mines began operating at the beginning of the 19th century with great momentum. Mineral extractions were maintained for more than 150 years, but during the 20th century the productive development was affected by economic depressions and wars. As in the case with Chile, the Belgian government tried to intervene and boost this industry during post-war reconstruction, but the economic decline was stronger. While some sites tried to modernize, in the 1970s, the mines progressively began to close up until 1980, seventeen years prior to Lota, when the last site in operation ceased its productive functions.

The two sites described above show traits attributable to the Industrial Revolution in terms of technological and social aspects; both represent a place of cultural integration that exerted considerable influence on Europe and the rest of the world. They also account for the technological progresses achieved in mining, with iconic facilities similar to those that make up the Lota Mining Complex.

The serial property may share attributes with the cases of Belgium and Germany, but differs from both due to the differences in the geographical context where the mineral extraction takes place. The Lotino case has unique features that stand out. In the first place, its location in the American continent, on an abrupt coastal edge, where the mineral is found in undersea deposits. For this reason, it constitutes an undersea mine of exceptional significance at a global level. On the other hand, Lota's mining culture shows the consolidation of cultural exchange between South America and Europe; but also, the founding of a mining culture where the contributions of a farming and native indigenous community came together. Another relevant characteristic is the significant effort implied in the extraction of coal under the Pacific Ocean, a condition that differs from the Walloon and Essen mines. The Chilean case is an incomparable contribution to the understanding of the leading role that coal had in the American version of the Industrial Revolution.