In the arid north of Chile some 1,500km from the capital, Chuquicamata has been a plentiful source of copper since before the rise of the Inca Empire in the 1400s.

"Chuqui" - as it is informally known - is one of the country's most emblematic mines, a symbol of human ingenuity despite the fortnight of labour strikes held this June against mine owner Codelco over job cuts and compensation.

Economic reality sunk in last month when the mine shut down, as miners demanded better wages at the same time the place began an expensive transformation from an open pit to an underground shaft mine.

The problem is twofold: the mine's massive mineral reserves are dropping whilst copper prices are also declining, so miner pay has been going down.

This crisis is a big blow for Chile - the world's largest copper exporter - where the industry accounts for about one-tenth of the national economy.

'Copper-intensive component'

The price of copper has fallen by about 10 percent since April, following a trend that many commodities have seen amid global economic instability, hunger for the mineral has weakened.

Copper Future Prices

The price of copper futures has dipped to around $2.70 per pound ($5.95 per kilogramme), as trade uncertainties put a dent in commodity demand.

And as the miners in Chuquicamata well know, market factors can translate into real pain.

Despite the recent dip, analysts are generally bullish about the future of copper, thanks to China's push to develop the largest electric vehicle (EV) industry in the world. This effort means Chile's copper industry, worth $31.5bn a year, may be poised for a resurgence.

And it is precisely this sort of spark that will drive discussions at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit that kicked off Friday in Chile, highlighting links between nations on both sides of the world's largest ocean.

Cars that run solely on electric batteries are made with an average of four times as much copper as automobiles with internal-combustion engines. "Energy storage is the most copper-intensive component of electro mobility," says the International Copper Association. This is why the element is increasingly coveted, with electric cars ravenous for the metal.

"The higher copper intensity of electric vehicles is actually already playing a significant role to offset the decline in 2019 copper demand," Oliver Nugent, a commodities strategist at Citi, told Al Jazeera.

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China is expected to account for about half of the global EV industry by 2025, according to a recent University of Pennsylvania report.

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