Friday, July 25, 2008

Rallying for the Atacama

Last January, organizers of the famous Paris-Dakar Rally canceled their 2008 event after the apparently Al-Qaeda linked murder of a French family in the West African country of Mauritania the month before. The Rally, which was to spend eight days in Mauritania, seemed too vulnerable to terrorist violence, and plans have been made to move the 2009 event to Argentina and Chile.

Thirty years ago, with both countries under stern military dictatorships, this might have seemed improbable, though Argentina did host soccer's 1978 World Cup (and won it, even as political activists and many innocents disappeared off the streets of Buenos Aires and other Argentine cities). But today, southern South America is a safe place to travel, and the Rally will start in Buenos Aires on January 3 and end there January 18.

The route will head south to Puerto Madryn, cross the Patagonian steppe to Ingeniero Jacobacci and Neuquén, then head north to San Rafael and Mendoza before crossing the Andes to Valparaíso. It will then head north to La Serena and Copiapó before recrossing the Andes to the Argentine cities of La Rioja and Córdoba, then back to Buenos Aires.

Not everyone is happy with the Rally, which encourages off-road vehicle travel that can be environmentally devastating. In Chile's far north, for instance, motorcycle vandals have fishtailed up geoglyph-covered hillsides to damage pre-Columbian archaeological sites (similar to the Pintados site, in the Pampa del Tamarugal, pictured here). In that context, some Chilean public officials and environmental advocates have expressed concern about the Atacama Desert's "Flowering Desert," which I described in an earlier post on the Llanos de Challe.

According to the online Santiago Times (subscription only) via Mercopress, the environmental NGO Fundación Terram and several regional politicians have argued that the Rally is a one-time publicity bonanza likely to damage the long-term appeal of the flowering desert, which draws thousands of spontaneous visitors to the area whenever rare rains arouse the dormant seeds that lie beneath its surface. The organizers seem so devoid of environmental awareness that their website suggests that participants will have a chance to see Emperor penguins - which only occupy the remotest parts of Antarctica, several thousand miles to the south.

In a time of declining oil supplies and global warming, any event that promotes fossil fuel wastage is dubious and, if the event must take place, both countries should ensure that it never happens again. If there's a positive side to it, it's that, for once, Argentina and Chile appear to be cooperating in the travel and tourism sector. Both countries can benefit by working to make the region more tourist-friendly, and cross-border services simpler.

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