Isla Bórax

Below is the 1/2 Centavo, a .25 gram/4 grain .999 Silver 11 millimeter coin, the only coin in circulation on the island.  This mintage was 250.  Designed by Joe Paonessa and minted via hammer-striking by Joe Paonessa.  The floral design pays tribute to the original owner of the island, originally who brought the people there to mine the borax. 

ISLA BÓRAX Located almost 700 miles off the coast of South America in the Pacific Ocean, Isla Bórax is a dry rocky outcrop past its prime. As the name eludes, the island’s claim to fame was its borax deposits.

Uninhabited for centuries, an Austrian family laid claim to the island upon the discovery of borax deposits shortly after World War I. It seems a relative had been aboard a ship that explored parts of the island, determining it’s financial value. The family, financially hurt by the economic collapse of much of Europe in the early 1920s, settled in very modest facilities on the island. Gathering poor peasants and a few domestic animals, the island was quickly set up as a working island visited by a ship that took borax to market twice a year.

The peasants reported being kept in financial slavery mining borax by hand for decades. While the working conditions were physically challenging, the proprietors were not cruel or terribly heavy handed. It was just hard work for just enough pay to be forced to stay put…sort of an economic jail, meaning enough money to stay but not enough to leave.

The wealth of Isla Bórax did not last long. As borax demand diminished, those regions with better transportation and more modern borax mining techniques controlled the industry. It was about this time, in the 1950s, that much of the known borax had been mined on the island.

The rocky, dry and forbidding island covers some 695 square miles and much of it is void of any vegetation. Much of the island is made up of steep terrain that cannot be navigated easily. An interior narrow valley contained rich borax deposits. The northern end of the island contains a volcanic cone. Less than 5% of the island has ever been explored with some 95% being so inaccessible exploration is not possible. Indeed, most of the coastline is sheer cliffs.

The island is free on any poisonous insects and most animal life. Compared to most locales the island could almost be termed sterile. Most of the island does not support much animal and insect life. Most birds choose to nest in unexplored areas.

Few species of plants survive on the island. For the most part the island is stone, rock and gravel with only a few small pockets of soil. About 3 acres can be utilized for gardens. This is generally due to the lack of surface water and streams.

The island has ample water under its rocky base. The geothermal, mineral enriched water comes out hot from the wells used by the islanders. The only way to reach the water is through drilling a well. These wells are shallow with fingers of water close to the ground level, yet none of these ‘fingers’ reach the surface of the island to form a spring.

The climate is fairly uniform throughout the year, ranging from about 10 to 25 degrees centigrade. Winds are almost constant in winter months.

The island is subject to earthquakes and has suffered several strong quakes since being colonized.

There have been many comparisons to Tristan da Cunha in the Atlantic Ocean. Tristan da Cunha is not accessible by foot in most areas just like Isla Bórax. The main difference is the lack of vegetation over most of Isla Bórax where rainfall varies from none to about 4 inches per year.

Like Tristan da Cunha, Isla Bórax suffered a volcanic eruption forcing the evacuation of the island for about 4 years. The eruption happened shortly after the May 1960 earthquake that hit Chile. For days ash and lava spewed. As the air quality worsened, a call was made for any vessel to evacuate the island. The inhabitants were taken to Chile.

Upon arrival, the Austrian family left the workers to fend for themselves. Most lived in poverty taking temporary manual labor positions and attempting to assimilate into society with little success. The children were greatly affected because of the poor education opportunities on the island. Their knowledge was greatly below the same age children in their communities resulting in most failing to attend class and seek any sort of work they could find in order to help their impoverished families.

After about four years, as news came the island was again safe, a large number of families returned to the island.

Finding little left, the families generally settled in a small ravine that dropped to the water’s edge. Of local materials they build 24 small homes. Up a steep incline is an entrance to the small borax valley. Sixteen other families settled through the general area. Like the others, a mixture of rock and mud was used to build the homes. In a photo the homes seem camouflaged as the rocky ground matches the rock used to make the homes. Of the 695 square miles, only about 29 square miles is settled or explored. The remaining 666 square miles have never been fully explored due to the rugged terrain being so inaccessible.

The community that numbers somewhere between 100 and 140 live in small unplumbed homes, drawing water from the few water sources on the island. Tiny tracts of land hold enough soil to allow for small gardens. With very few resources, the islanders barely survive on what little the island offers. Exports are minimal. Some islanders are artists, carving and painting as well as collecting shells to sell. In real terms, the per capita income may be as little as $1 per month, meaning a family of five might survive on a mere $60 per year. These figures represent ‘non-barter’ purchases. In reality, the buying power is many times higher but as a rule of thumb, if it is not made or produced on the island, it is a cash purchase.

Isla Bórax has a functioning government. The government consists of eight people elected by popular vote. The eight form a council. From the eight, the person with the highest number of votes wins the Presidency. The next highest is awarded Council Leader. Four members are elected at large and the remaining two positions are awarded by winning vote for Clerk and Treasurer. All positions are for 3 year terms while the Clerk and Treasurer positions are four year terms. The primary function of the council, that meets monthly, is to see to the general welfare of the population and tending to any business related dealings. The council meets the third Thursday of each month at 0900.

A recent council meeting included seeking a vessel willing to bring in supplies and ship exports to the continent, checking the water quality of the town wells, closing an area designated for trash and assigning another area.

Taxes are quite minimal. The council set an import tax of 12.57% and there is a ‘head tax’ of roughly 0.1035 US dollars per person per year. Effectively the Head Tax is just a little less than 9/10ths of 1% of income.

Naturally, the minimal dollars collected in taxes provides for no actual services. In fact, the country has written into its law that no government member may take a salary or reimbursement for any service offered on behalf of the people. All government officials must volunteer their work for the good of the people. Naturally only a tiny government providing virtually no services can function in such a manner.

The Government is very non-evasive, known for taking minimal action when required, in order to maintain peace and harmony among the islanders. Politics end up being friendly versus polarized. Even the Government’s byline is “Where Every Person Matters”.

There are no police. The community is crime-free and any minor infraction is typically handled by the families involved to the satisfaction of all parties.

There has been some speculation there may be oil deposits on the island or offshore. Some have claimed a fishing industry could be developed. Both of these possibilities are not seen as a fix for the island’s poor economic condition. Islanders admit their government is purely local in the eyes of outsiders. They realize those seeking exploration for oil or fishing operations will seek out Chilean and Peruvian officials regarding agreements. The Isla Bó rax Government does not have the means to enforce any laws offshore nor the resources to take on larger governments. Even eco-friendly tourism has been investigated but any investor must put up the funds to develop the infrastructure to proceed, a proposal not likely to succeed as many more ideal locations could be utilized without the increased investment. The best bet for the economic woes would be cruise ship visitation. While waters are certainly deep enough to encourage such, the island’s location is not along established routes. Only smaller vessels with a small working crew of paid passengers might find such an island attractive because of their isolation. Even so, the island has very little to offer any visitor.

There are few services. Businesses, as small and ill equipped as they are, function as tiny stores and a restaurant. Both stores are little more than a cart or kiosk usually more bare than filled with shopping options. The biggest store in a tiny closet size building has a few little items like sewing thread and such. Supplies can be hard so rarely that when this store got down to it’s final spool of thread, it was sold by the length to customer needed instead of by the spool. The restaurant is by reservation with the woman cooking pre-ordered food with fixed serving hours. As is the usual case, each establishment is ‘open on demand’ seeking out the owner to buy something as the stores keep no set business hours.

Health care is an issue. Minor injuries can be handled but more serious accidents and common procedures require evacuation by any nearby ship. A broken bone must be set elsewhere. No surgeries can be conducted on the island. Medical services are limited to a good first aid kit. A cut requiring a stitch or two to close can be handled but without deadening the area beforehand.

There are no telephones, radio, television or internet. There in no water system or sewage system. There is no electrical plant. The island does not own a seaworthy vessel. There are no cars or roads. All travel is on foot or domestic animal. There are few animals because there is little vegetation.

The biggest issue is postal services. The one or two visitors a year generally take any mail, sometimes picking up mail as well. They note it might take up to 3 years to receive mail. It is noted receiving mail is more problematic as fewer boaters come from the continent to the island. In addition, any foreign currency cannot be exchanged or converted into goods without a kindly boater purchasing needed supplies with any money found in the mail. Under usual conditions, mail is considered private, so few boaters would open envelopes and purchase welcome supplies with the money.

Education is minimal, mostly grassroots in that several ladies teach children using whatever books are available. Even with this effort, the level of education put children far behind their peers in other locations. Most, however, can read and write, although not extremely well. As for scratching out a life in an inhospitable place, they would be of Olympic quality.

The government does issue a short newsletter containing details of government activities and newsworthy notes from the community at large. As you might suspect, the newsletter is a monthly and barely a page, handwritten and copied using carbon paper. The editor is the Clerk.


There is a local currency that circulates on the island, as the Government claims, for the matter of clarity and convenience, noting non-monetary arrangements are no always understood and the exchange of coin simplifies and brings clear understanding to such matters. The coins are expressed as ‘a form of convenience for the exchange of goods and services’.

As one might suspect, coins are minted in the most primitive form of moneymaking and intended for local use.

If markets can be identified and costs meet the local budget, some coins might be sold internationally.

The one coin in circulation, as we understand it, is a small coin, a 1/2 Centavo. The value of the coin, pegged to the island's precious metals holding, would be approximately 120 per ounce of .999 silver.






























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