Atacama

ATACAMA

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.

Researcher

Godofredo Pereira

In partnership with

Alonso Barros (Lawyer)

Copper

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.

“Chile Uses Nitrate to ‘Buy American.’” 1946 color print advertisement for the National City Bank of New York.

“Chile Uses Nitrate to ‘Buy American.’” 1946 color print advertisement for the National City Bank of New York.

Photo of Cuban prime minister Fidel Castro visiting Chuquicamata copper mine. He would later compare the mine to the pyramids in Egypt. November 14, 1971.

Photo of Cuban prime minister Fidel Castro visiting Chuquicamata copper mine. He would later compare the mine to the pyramids in Egypt. November 14, 1971.

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.
Extracts from the Political Constitution of the Republic of Chile, 1971. Approved in the first year of Salvador Allende’s presidency, this constitutional reform allowed for the nationalization of Chile’s copper resources.

Extracts from the Political Constitution of the Republic of Chile, 1971. Approved in the first year of Salvador Allende’s presidency, this constitutional reform allowed for the nationalization of Chile’s copper resources.

The urbanization of the Atacama Desert by mining. Image: Godofredo Pereira.

The urbanization of the Atacama Desert by mining.
Image: Godofredo Pereira.

Bones

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.

Coup d’état, September, 11, 1973. From: Ciencia, Justicia, Verdad, Memoria, a publication by Agrupación de Familiares de Los Detenidos Ejecutados y Desaparecidos de La Moneda and Museo de La Memoria y Los Derechos Humanos. August 2012.

Coup d’état, September, 11, 1973. From: Ciencia, Justicia, Verdad, Memoria, a publication by Agrupación de Familiares de Los Detenidos Ejecutados y Desaparecidos de La Moneda and Museo de La Memoria y Los Derechos Humanos. August 2012.

Declassified memorandum Genesis of Project FUBELT, September 16, 1970. Also known as Track II, FUBELT consisted of US funding and support to prevent Salvador Allende from being elected president of Chile and was later used to aid the coup on September 11, 1971 by military forces under the command of Pinochet.

Declassified memorandum Genesis of Project FUBELT, September 16, 1970. Also known as Track II, FUBELT consisted of US funding and support to prevent Salvador Allende from being elected president of Chile and was later used to aid the coup on September 11, 1971 by military forces under the command of Pinochet.

Report by the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation. Established after the return to democracy in 1991, this commission focused on human rights violations during the years of Pinochet’s military regime. Translation by United States Institute of Peace.

Report by the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation. Established after the return to democracy in 1991, this commission focused on human rights violations during the years of Pinochet’s military regime.
Translation by United States Institute of Peace.

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.
Multispectral image from 2013 focusing on an area 5 km south of Calama where marks resemble a 2 km-long curved dagger, the infamous corvo characteristically used by the Chilean military to slit the throat of foreign enemies. © 2013 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All Rights Reserved. False color composite: Godofredo Pereira.

Multispectral image from 2013 focusing on an area 5 km south of Calama where marks resemble a 2 km-long curved dagger, the infamous corvo characteristically used by the Chilean military to slit the throat of foreign enemies.
© 2013 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All Rights Reserved. False color composite: Godofredo Pereira.

Declassified cable on Operation Condor, FBI, September 28, 1976. Operation Condor consisted of a joint intelligence operation between the South American military dictatorships of Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolívia, Paraguay, and Uruguay and was supported by US intelligence.

Declassified cable on Operation Condor, FBI, September 28, 1976. Operation Condor consisted of a joint intelligence operation between the South American military dictatorships of Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolívia, Paraguay, and Uruguay and was supported by US intelligence.

Microsoft Word - Chile90-Report.doc

Report by the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation. Translation by United States Institute of Peace.

Arsenic

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.

Map of environmental contamination sources in the area of Chuquicamata and San Francisco de Chiu Chiu.  Godofredo Pereira, 2013.

Map of environmental contamination sources in the area of Chuquicamata and San Francisco de Chiu Chiu.
Godofredo Pereira, 2013.

Extracts from the report on the expansion of the Talabre tailings pond by Alonso Barros and Godofredo Pereira, Atacama Desert Project, Forensic Architecture, September 2013. Presented by the community of San Francisco de Chiu Chiu during the process of indigenous consultation on the Chilean national copper corporation Codelco’s mining expansion project RT Sulfuros.

Extracts from the report on the expansion of the Talabre tailings pond by Alonso Barros and Godofredo Pereira, Atacama Desert Project, Forensic Architecture, September 2013. Presented by the community of San Francisco de Chiu Chiu during the process of indigenous consultation on the Chilean national copper corporation Codelco’s mining expansion project RT Sulfuros.

Expansion of the Talabre tailings pond (measuring sixty-five square kilometers), where liquid waste resulting from the processing of Chuquicamata’s copper is deposited. Photo: Godofredo Pereira, September 2013.

Expansion of the Talabre tailings pond (measuring sixty-five square kilometers), where liquid waste resulting from the processing of Chuquicamata’s copper is deposited.
Photo: Godofredo Pereira, September 2013.

Expansion of the Talabre tailings pond (measuring sixty-five square kilometers), where liquid waste resulting from the processing of Chuquicamata’s copper is deposited. Photo: Godofredo Pereira, September 2013.

Expansion of the Talabre tailings pond. Photo: Godofredo Pereira, September 2013.

Extracts from the report on the expansion of the Talabre tailings pond by Alonso Barros and Godofredo Pereira, Atacama Desert Project, Forensic Architecture, September 2013. Presented by the community of San Francisco de Chiu Chiu during the process of indigenous consultation on the Chilean national copper corporation Codelco’s mining expansion project RT Sulfuros.

Extracts from the report on the expansion of the Talabre tailings pond by Alonso Barros and Godofredo Pereira, Atacama Desert Project, Forensic Architecture, September 2013. Presented by the community of San Francisco de Chiu Chiu during the process of indigenous consultation on the Chilean national copper corporation Codelco’s mining expansion project RT Sulfuros.

Water

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.

Abandoned village in Quebrada de Mani, downstream from Quebrada Blanca copper mine, Pozo Almonte. Photo: Gonzalo Pimentel, 2013.

Abandoned village in Quebrada de Mani, downstream from Quebrada Blanca copper mine, Pozo Almonte.
Photo: Gonzalo Pimentel, 2013.

Abandoned village in Quebrada de Mani, downstream from Quebrada Blanca copper mine, Pozo Almonte. Photo: Gonzalo Pimentel, 2013.

Abandoned village in Quebrada de Mani, downstream from Quebrada Blanca copper mine, Pozo Almonte.
Photo: Gonzalo Pimentel, 2013.

NDVI analysis by Jim Norton (GISCorps) indicating a clear decrease in vegetation over the last forty years. Atacama Desert Project, July 2013.

NDVI analysis by Jim Norton (GISCorps) indicating a clear decrease in vegetation over the last forty years.
Atacama Desert Project, July 2013.

Abandoned village in Quebrada de Mani, downstream from Quebrada Blanca copper mine, Pozo Almonte. Photo: Gonzalo Pimentel, 2013.

Abandoned village in Quebrada de Mani, downstream from Quebrada Blanca copper mine, Pozo Almonte.
Photo: Gonzalo Pimentel, 2013.

Abandoned village in Quebrada de Mani, downstream from Quebrada Blanca copper mine, Pozo Almonte. Photo: Gonzalo Pimentel, 2013.

Abandoned village in Quebrada de Mani, downstream from Quebrada Blanca copper mine, Pozo Almonte.
Photo: Gonzalo Pimentel, 2013.

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