The case is located at the Atacama Desert in Chile in which the relation between nature and politics is reconfigured by resource extraction. Working together with local NGOs, the project has provided material and spatial evidence in support of indigenous communities of the Loa basin whose means of subsistence has been destroyed by copper mining. Dispossessed of water and suffering from increasing environmental contamination, these communities are slowly disappearing in the wake of ever-expanding mineral extraction. As a close study of Chuquicamata—the largest open pit copper mine in the world and a symbol of deposed president Salvador Allende’s nationalization project—the project attempts to demonstrate how resource extraction is key to understanding the long history of violence to which local peoples have been exposed. Utilizing a range of remote sensing technologies has turned the surface of the desert into a register of past and present forms of violence. The project registered the way in which the quest to exploit underground resources has led to the destruction of both environments and people.
In partnership with
Alonso Barros (Lawyer)
The history of the Atacama has been characterized by different cycles of mineral extraction, particularly nitrate and copper. The control of nitrate, exploited from the nineteenth century onwards, was one of the reasons for the Pacific War of 1879–83 in which Chile occupied the Atacama Desert, annexing the territory from Bolivia and Peru. It also led to the civil war that in 1891 saw President Balmaceda committing suicide after failing to nationalize the nation’s resources. The nationalization of copper mines was the economic basis for Salvador Allende’s plans to make Chile economically independent. It was therefore one of the reasons for the coup that would topple his democratically elected government in 1973 and lead to his own suicide. In contrast to the image of a perpetual El Dorado, the race for resources in the Atacama, from guano to nitrate, from copper to lithium, resulted in environmental contamination and in the dispossession of indigenous peoples.
Footage of Chuquicamata copper mine and the indigenous villages of San Francisco de Chiu Chiu and Quillagua, which have been affected by water shortages, vegetation decrease, and environmental contamination due to mining operations.
With close to zero humidity, the Atacama is one of the most arid places in the world, where human remains can be preserved for thousands of years. But despite its vast archeological findings from the pre-Hispanic era, the presence of bones in the Atacama is also the result of a more recent history of violence. After the 1973 coup d’état, a military group commanded by Arellano Stark was ordered by General Pinochet to embark on a tour around the country “expediting” judicial processes. The result of this “caravan of death” was multiple mass graves, many of them in the Atacama, filled with the bodies of political detainees. Their discovery is made all the more difficult by military operations in the area where these remains were exhumed, meaning that bodies had been blown up, scattered around the desert, or thrown into the sea. Forensic sciences have been able to identify some of the victims based on small bone fragments, but most of the disappeared are still uncounted for.
Interview with Dr. Patricio Bustos, director of Chile’s medico-legal service (SML), on the exhumation of President Salvador Allende and the search for disappeared detainees. March 2013.
As a transversal agent of contamination, arsenic foregrounds both the potentials and the perils inherent to exploiting the Earth’s resources. As a by-product of copper mining, arsenic reflects the immense wealth that lies beneath the ground in the Atacama. But the urbanization of the desert by mining has brought entire populations into a volcanic environment whose waters are naturally contaminated. Moreover, its continuous release into the air, water, and soils has affected not only those in the vicinity of Chuquicamata copper mine but also populations affected by emissions from smelter operations throughout Chile.
Mining operations require water for mineral processing, dust suppression, and drinking. Implemented during the military dictatorship, the 1981 Water Code separated the ownership of water from the ownership of land, allowing it to be freely bought and sold with little regard for the adverse effects upon the surrounding environment. The use of water for mining purposes enhanced its scarcity, making the lives of indigenous communities unsustainable and resulting in a drastic population decrease in proximity to the mines. As a vital resource for indigenous communities and mining operations, in the Atacama region water has become simultaneously a central object of conflict and the very means by which conflict takes place.