In the early 1980s, when I was researching my M.A. thesis on llama and alpaca herding in the Chilean Andes, Horacio Larraín was my local mentor. Then a professor of geography at Santiago’s Universidad Católica, he helped get approval for the project (funded by the Inter-American Foundation). We still see each other occasionally, though he has since retired to the northern city of Iquique and the interior desert village of Matilla.
A longtime aficionado of the Atacama Desert, Horacio is (like me) concerned with the human and environmental destruction wrought by the annual Dakar Rally, which relocated from Africa to South America in 2009. Since then, Dakar has killed both participants and spectators, and damaged or threatened countless archaeological sites and ecosystems in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru. Last year, a Spanish competitor smuggled 1.4 tons of cocaine back toEurope; this year, there’s been only one death, but two participants – a Dutchman and an Italian – were arrested into Antofagasta for off-route wanderings that damaged an archaeological site.
I’ve only ever seen Dakar at its starting point in BuenosAires (as pictured above in 2010), but I know the Atacama and deplore what this senseless event has done to it. I rarely if ever do guest posts but, in this case, I have translated Horacio’s open letter as published on the website Piensa Chile (Think Chile), where you can see the Spanish-language original.
I have edited Horacio’s essay for brevity and taken some liberties for clarity in English (I am not a professional translator, though I’m confident I have conveyed the meaning), and all the hyperlinks are mine. The photographs below display some of the landscapes and features that Dakar puts at risk.
Open Letter: A Critical Opinion on Dakar and the Preservation of Cultural Resources
In recent years, we have fought a difficult battle against this Rally which is presumably a sporting competition, but which really destroys landscapes and cultural heritage. To summarize, this Rally is a competition and pleasure for the rich (the entry fee is US$240,000) to try out the latest model vehicles before they hit the international market.
This pseudo-sport competition contains the following essential faults that make it totally incompatible with serious and responsible protection of the natural and cultural patrimony of our Tarapacá region:
1) There’s a maliciously false idea that “there’s nothing in the desert” and that, for that reason, you can go anywhere and drive through any part of it. Archaeologists, paleontologists, geologists, paleoecologists and paleobotanists know perfectly well that the subsoil is genuine mine of findings of the past, but all of them hidden from view today. For that reason, a superficial glimpse (which they seem to request) can detect little or nothing.
2) Many times, specimens of extinct fauna from the Tertiary and Quaternary, with extraordinary scientific value (species new to science) have been found on the desert flats.
3) The Pampa del Tamarugal is marked by numerous ancient trails, full of history, as manifested by the cultural artifacts tossed or left along them. Thus we can learn about the nitrate industry and the borax industry, of their abandoned settlements and their ancient ways and circuits of exchange. The ancient routes constitute living history for anyone who knows how to read them. For us archaeologists, they are bearers of culture, genuine archaeological sites.
4) One of the oldest and most venerable routes, the Quahpaqñanor “Inka Trail,” crosses the Pampa, from Quillagua to the north along the Salarde Llamara. Some months ago, we verified that the Dakar heavy support vehicles of 2012 and 2013 followed this same Inka route for more than 30 km, a criminal act that we reported, as the Camino del Inka Study Group (Universidad Nacional Arturo Prat) to the National Monuments Council in 2014. We received no reply.
This inaction and apathy by regional and national authorities worries us. It especially alarms and disturbs us that, to hear their declarations, our repeated scientific proof seems to carry no weight with them, and they are demonstrating an unfortunate absence of cultural consciousness.
Even a schoolchild is capable of understanding our fears and shock, on seeing how they expose the vulnerable desert landscape and destroy its surface, on which there was life thousands or millions of years ago that’s hidden to our eyes today. We could cite numerous cases of noteworthy findings in the open flats, where there’s nothing visible today except for some stones.
The Pampa is not a desert lacking life and bygone human activity: it is an open book for anyone who wants and has learned to read it. And that, necessarily, is the job of the scientist who talks about the danger that these off-road competitions involve, that they respect nothing, they trample and destroy, competitors and spectators alike, leaving thousands of new marks, marks that unfortunately will last for centuries.
For us, Dakar is a true hurricane, highly destructive, whose only objective is to satisfy the insatiable appetite of the powerful automotive industry and appease that hunger for bread and circuses to a bored and deprived humanity that lacks any greater cultural stimulus.
My Own Perspective
The Atacama desert, and corresponding parts of neighboring countries, should not be ecological sacrifice areas to fossil-fuel “sports.” With luck, Dakar 2015 will the last of its kind, or one of the last, but that will require the governments in question to remove subsidies and forego the international publicity they think benefits them - not to mention the damage Dakar does to their countries.
For earlier commentaries of mine on Dakar, please go to this link.