by Oscar Martinez, E&MJ’s Latin American editor

CALAMA, Chile—Corporacion Nacional del Cobre (Codelco), the world’s largest copper producer, officially opened its underground operations at the gigantic Chuquicamata mine on Wednesday this week. This will extend the life of the mine by 40 years, which has been producing copper and other byproducts for more than 100 years as an open-pit operation.

The project, located in the Atacama Desert, northern Chile, involved more than a decade of work and an investment of $5 billion. This is the largest investment ever made by the state copper company, which is responsible for almost 11% of the world’s copper.

To date, the pit surface has reached 950 hectares already. This growth has made it economically unfeasible. As time passes, the operation needs to dig deeper to reach the ore and continue extending the transportation roads, the company said.

“Chuquicamata has begun a transformation that will maximize the economic value of the company and its contribution to the state in the long term,” said Codelco Board Chairman Juan Benavides during the ceremony.