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Three amigos find a twin in old Spain

Thursday, 16th December, 2010

Peter McCormick, Robin Sellick and Geoff DeMain at the Corta Atalaya copper mine in Rio Tinto. It is the largest open cut in Europe, spanning 1.2 kilometres across and 360 metres deep Peter McCormick, Robin Sellick and Geoff DeMain at the Corta Atalaya copper mine in Rio Tinto. It is the largest open cut in Europe, spanning 1.2 kilometres across and 360 metres deep

By Stefan Delatovic

The Spanish village of Rio Tinto was eerily similar to Broken Hill in many ways, according to photographer-cum-local ambassador Robin Sellick.

Mr Sellick has just returned from a visit to Spain; the latest step in what is hoped to be a lasting partnership between Broken Hill, Rio Tinto and the Slovakian town of Banksa Stiavnica.

Mr Sellick accompanied local artists Peter McCormick and Geoff DeMain on a week-long visit to Rio Tinto, coinciding with the Festival of Santa Barbara, celebrating the Patron Saint of miners.

Mayor Wincen Cuy and Mr Sellick visited Slovakia last month to initiate the partnership. It's hoped the regions, bound by their rich mining histories, can provide greater exposure and cultural opportunities to each other.

Rio Tinto is a village of about 4,000 residents. Mining has been undertaken in the region for 3,000 years. 

A highway runs through the middle of the nearby mine - so big that it meant the village had to be moved - and there are ruins of a Roman village next to Europe's largest open cut pit.

Rio Tinto's mining museum gives an idea of what the mine was like when the Romans were in charge. Naked, shackled children did the work underground; they lived for about four years after starting the job.

The environment has also been worked hard. The mine once produced sulphuric acid and when the British took over in 1873 the resulting industrialisation produced widespread acid rain.

Any trees that survived that were fed to the smelter, leaving the surrounds barren. Rio Tinto has started planting eucalyptus trees because they grow quickly. It adds up to a landscape that looks a lot like Broken Hill.

In 1904 when Broken Hill's industrial movement was fomenting, Rio Tinto residents marched on the town hall to protest acid rain. The government of the time called in the army, who opened fire. A dozen people were killed.

The British also brought sports with them that were first played on Spanish soil in Rio Tinto. Spain just won the World Cup.

The mine, which now produces copper, closed in 2002 when metal prices fell. There's now a 50 per cent unemployment rate in the region as it waits for the operation to open again.

Even in the early stages, before employment ramps up, mining company EMED is working to build a positive relationship with the Rio Tinto community.

"They're running events, and they have had a hand in this partnership. They're very socially conscious, which makes for a healthier situation for everybody."

Eric McCormick is a landscape painter who is drawn to the character of places touched by mining. In Rio Tinto sulphides have streaked the groundand acids have coloured the lakes. 

Layers of earth and metal lay exposed over 300 metres down, and expunged materials are piled up high. It's both familiar and fantastic.

Mr McCormick said it had been wonderful to see. "Obviously there's mining activity happening there on a slightly grander scale," he said.

"There's a lot of wonderful colours from an artist's point of view. There's a lot of similarities, with the mine operation all around the community, and there are places where you'd swear you were in a different place and then a eucalyptus trees comes up.

It's a pleasant surprise to see the different architecture from an artist's point of view - white buildings with terracota roofs, that sort of thing".

Mr McCormick said he'd certainly return if the opportunity arose. He said Rio Tinto and Banksa Stiavnica were looking to diversify away from miningin the way Broken Hill had with the arts.

Geoff DeMain had yet to return to Australia at the time of writing. Mr Sellick said the partnership held a lot of opportunities, many of which were discussed in Spain.

A school exchange is planned. Students in each area will create illustrations about living in their home. Their counterparts will see the pictures andvideos of them being made, and it will culminate in exhibitions in all three areas. 

That way, students can see what it's like for their peers overseas. It is planned for a prominent Broken Hill artist to spend three months in Spain next year, and to bring two Spanish artists to the Silver City for a working visit.

Mr Sellick said the partnership was a long term partnership with long term returns, borne out of raising awareness overseas.

"We didn't speak the language, and the architecture over there is different, but when you start talking to the people you find that they're just as friendly, and that living in a mining town is living in a mining town."

 

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