Saturday, February 23, 2013

Sacrificing the Atacama? A Chilean View of Dakar


When I first saw the Atacama desert, in the late 1970s, its vast aridity overwhelmed me, and inspired me to return to Chile to undertake my M.A. thesis on llama and alpaca herding in the Andean highlands of Parque Nacional Lauca, east of the city of Arica. To do so, I had a fellowship from the Inter-American Foundation, but I also needed an in-country sponsor to be able to carry out the research. One of my faculty advisors at Berkeley put me in touch with Horacio Larraín Barros, then a geography professor at Santiago’s Universidad Católica, who eased my way through official obstacles at a time when Chile was an international pariah.

In the ensuing years, I have kept sporadically in touch with Horacio, and have visited him in Antofagasta and in his retirement home at the village of Matilla, in the Andean foothills east of Iquique. While retired, he is not inactive, and he still has an intense devotion to the Atacama which, in its extreme aridity, is one of the world’s finest archaeological reserves – nowhere else on Earth are sites and artifacts so well-preserved.
Recently, though, he’s become concerned about environmental threats to the Atacama, particularly through the Dakar Rally, which he often mentions in his Eco-Antropología blog. I’ve voiced my own misgivings about Dakar, which has operated in Argentina, Chile and Peru since 2009, when terrorist threats made them abandon Africa. Long before that, I recall seeing dirt-bike tracks vandalizing the massive geoglyph known as the “Giant of the Atacama” (pictured above) and other archaeological sites, and Horacio thinks Dakar has brought this to a critical stage. For that reason, I asked him permission to translate and publish a recent open letter he wrote to colleagues, which appears below.

As an aside, I will toss in the fact that Horacio is a distant, probably very distant, relative of Pablo Larraín, director of the Oscar-nominated film No that I discussed in earlier posts.

Horació Larraín Barros on the Dangers of Dakar
Colleagues and friends, it’s time to get involved. This Dakar Rally is going to continue growing, in the number of vehicles, drivers and, what’s worse, the number of curiosity seekers either as spectators or copycats with their own 4WD vehicles who leave an infinity of marks everywhere on the land. We cannot simply act like ostriches, hiding our heads or saying, “I already spoke about that.” We need to create a broad alliance of civic response to express the feelings of the entire scientific and educational community of the country. We have so far acted timidly and separately. I think it’s time to undertake collective action: obtain thousands of signatures of scientists, journalists, lawyers, photographers, visual artists, teachers, and others. I’m not sure how to organized this network, but it’s imperative to do so. The Internet is the medium of course, but how to make them listen to our voices? Does anybody have an answer?

I believe the time has come for everyone who appreciates or deals directly with environmental conservation (geographers, biologists, agronomists, architects, anthropologists, archaeologists, geologists, foresters) need to raise their voices in consensus against this event as it is developing in today’s Chile.

Pilar Cereceda has sent me documents proving how the Centro del Desierto de Atacama (CDA, Atacama Desert Center) has credibly raised its voice since 2009 and 2010. The painful thing is that such documents, sent to the responsible authorities, have been ignored. And this attitude illustrates how there are semi-official powers (economic and political) behind all of this, and that our voices as scientists, teachers and opinion-makers are not being heard.  My position is that we need to take more decisive action in common.

If anyone has any clearer ideas of how to articulate, through the network, a serious and well-grounded response, we would appreciate it. What’s clear to me is that none of the objections of the Consejo de Monumentos Nacionales (National Monuments Council), the CDA and other institutions have been taken seriously. Apparently, the responsible authorities have not even replied. And with respect to any assessment of the real damages caused and means of mitigating them, we have not heard a word, so far as I know.

What country are we in? Will we permit others the luxury of destroying our valuable ecosystems and cultural heritage with impunity?

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