Chile: Destruction of the Altiplano

Chile: Destruction of the Altiplano

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By Arnaldo Pérez Guerra

Environmental problems have always been present, although they have become more acute. The water is slowly running out, while its exploitation increases hand in hand with what the authorities call "development." At an altitude of two thousand and three thousand meters, the hamlets of Socoroma, Putre and Belén, among others, are supplied with water from springs and snowfalls.

The Aymara live from the shores of Lake Titicaca and the Andes mountain range, to the northeast of Argentina, in territories that were fragmented and distributed after independence from Spain. In Chile, they survive in the highlands and the foothills of the Tarapacá and Atacama regions. Its sacred rituals develop to the rhythm of the seasons, syncretly coexisting pre-Hispanic and Christian traditions. They base their economy on subsistence farming in the oases and slopes along Azapa, Lluta, Camarones, Camiña, Tarapacá, Pica and Quillagua, where they mainly produce corn, garlic, oregano, tomatoes and chili peppers. Those who live in the highlands raise auquénids, while the inhabitants of the foothills are dedicated to the cultivation of quinoa, vegetables, fruits and seeds, thanks to the use of terraces. They are transhumant shepherds and farmers, and in their worldview, nature and pachamama - mother earth - is sacred. Evo Morales Aima, current president of Bolivia, is an Aymara, and he knows well that borders are not important: "We must exploit our natural resources together, to solve our social and economic problems together," he said at the National Stadium.

After the Pacific War - more properly the Salitre and Guano War - the forced "Chileanization" began in Tarapacá and Atacama. The war between Chile, Peru and Bolivia took place in Aymara territory: "At the beginning of the 20th century, Chilean culture was forcibly imposed, repressing ours. Many families were forced to abandon their lands, which began to be notarized by the treasury, However, we continued to occupy them. The violent 'Chileanization' caused our culture to be practiced clandestinely. The use of our language was even prohibited, beginning in 1920, "says Alfredo Chipana, a member of the Iquique Urban Indigenous Legal Commission.

Many lost their identity. The Pinochet dictatorship began a second "Chileanization", erecting regiments and concentrating the rural school population in the so-called "border schools": "The link we had with Upper Peru was broken, and our economy that was based on exchange of products between the different ecological levels such as the puna and the coast was completely destroyed. Families were separated by borders. In addition, large tracts of territory where the Aymara live were mined, "he adds.

Some 90,000 Aymara live in Chile, although the 2002 Census only counted 48,501, representing 7 percent of the country's population. More than 80 percent have migrated to cities, increasing acculturation processes, weakening kinship ties and degradation of the highland ecosystem. The causes of the abandonment of towns and villages are drought, conflict with mining companies, educational problems, social pressure, and lack of work. But they continue to resist losing their way of life and the dream of forming a great Andean nation. Many see with amazement and joy how in Bolivia an Aymara assumed the presidency. There is high hope that their problems will be solved, and that may push for better times for the Aymara who "by accident" live in Chile.

Antonio Mamani, executive secretary of the Association of Rural Municipalities of Tarapacá, a native of Cancosa, points out that it is urgent to defend the rights of his people and full participation, which has not been achieved because of the authorities on duty: "Interculturality does not It is the same as integration. Interculturality should be one of the basic elements for understanding between different sectors of society. The government speaks of 'indigenous integration' and that is a mistake. For us, territoriality and heritage too are important concepts. We want to preserve our culture and what this implies: land, water and way of life. Can we be able to understand our environment, defend biodiversity and produce a harmonious development that respects the complementary existence of nature, human beings and Neoliberalism and globalization destroy our culture, leave pollution and death. That is not development but an attack on it. to nature, our life and that of future generations ".

Permanent uncertainty

The June 2005 earthquake affected the communities and cities where the majority of the Aymara population is concentrated, and highlighted their social exclusion and lack of protection. "Despite the historical neglect that our communities have experienced, we feel that the authorities have not been sensitized, but rather use this tragic event to propaganda for other matters, without taking concrete and urgent measures in favor of the affected indigenous communities. "demanded the Aymara National Council, which groups together most of the community representatives and leaders. They demanded to know the budget assigned by the State, after Tarapacá was declared a disaster zone and the destination of the money: "They never responded. In addition, we requested that the authorities take into account our cultural identity for the reconstruction of the houses, which neither that was accomplished, "says David Esteban Moscoso, an Aymara leader.

For Antonio Mamani, the big problem is the extraction and exploitation of water by large mining companies: "Water is increasingly demanded by transnational companies, which has no correlation with our worldview. The legislation allows them to request water as a good. Our communities do not understand that logic. Water has always been occupied by the communities. There is a contradiction between customary law and legislation. Unfortunately, the loser is the indigenous. They extract minerals from our territories with the promise of work and development, but they leave only pollution and drought. In Puchuldiza, near Colchane, a mining company affected the geysers and they will continue to try to build wells. What is development if we are getting poorer? It is true that there are policies and some spaces , subsidies and resources but they are to 'integrate' or produce a 'development with identity', as they say. That is not our development or our worldview. tion? There is talk of ‘interculturality’, but there is no exchange between the two cultures in schools or universities. "

A long and difficult process of organization has been experienced by the Aymara communities in Chile. Today its maximum organization is the Aymara National Congress, which has been in existence for about ten years. In July of last year, in Pozo Almonte, they held the V Congress, and it was a success. Emiliano Choque, leader, points out: "We have lived through stormy moments of division caused by a lack of identity, leadership and leadership. The government, through Mideplan and Conadi, has wanted to manage us as they please using their economic resources. They want to see us. people on their knees and divided in exchange for crumbs. " David Esteban, former president of the organizing committee of the V Congress, adds: "The government is not interested in supporting us, it wants us divided to continue submitting to its colonialism. But we have managed to discuss the defense of the territories, the exploitation of water, and full participation with autonomy and free determination, Convention 169 and the constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples. Also issues of international law, identity and our culture and way of life. We have new national councilors, who assumed their positions in a sacred ceremony : Nelson Challapa, for Iquique; Orlando Bueno, for Huara; Rodrigo Mamani, for Alto Hospicio; Carmen Ayavire, for Pica; Bartola Mamani, for Cariquima; David Esteban, for Pozo Almonte; and Emiliano Choque, for Camiña. In Putre also leaders of different communities, associations and boards of indigenous rural neighbors of Arica, Camarones, General Lagos and Putre, participate in the initiative. He identified the existing directors: Richard Fernández, from Arica; Bibiano Flores, from Camarones; Isabel Condori, from Putre, and Rosa Maita, from General Lagos. "In the middle of the year, the sixth Aymara National Congress is planned, this time in the commune of Camarones.

Environmental problems have always been present, although they have become more acute. At an altitude of two thousand and three thousand meters, the hamlets of Socoroma, Putre and Belén, among others, are supplied with water from springs and snowfalls. Any alteration of the ecosystem, no matter how minimal, puts the life of the community at risk: "It is a constant struggle to survive. Peoples disappear little by little because many emigrate. Mining companies and large transnational companies take over our resources. The balance of nature is of interest but money and exploitation ", says David Esteban.

Various dangers weigh on them. Between 1992 and 1998, the government authorized the construction of highland wells that sought, it was said, to supply Arica's growing demand for drinking water. The following year, wells were drilled - which draw water at a height of 4,000 meters - in the Lluta Valley. In 2000 the authorities reformulated their speech saying that "the wells would serve to revitalize the agricultural activity of the Azapa Valley." The big businessmen of Azapa and Arica pressed for more water for their businesses. 300 liters per second would be extracted in the 7 wells built. But these served to deliver the vital resource to mining operations, damaging the watersheds and bringing more drought and extinction of wetlands and bofedales. In 2004, Aymara and environmental organizations started a complaint campaign to object to the exploitation of the wells and the approval of the Environmental Impact Study (EIA) endorsed by Corema. In March 2005, the project was finally rejected, but it is still feared that it will be replaced in the not too distant future. If the works continue to be subject to the political will of the government in power, the Aymara will live in permanent uncertainty.

Perpetual and free water

The business project, endorsed by environmental authorities, which sought to exploit water reserves in the Lauca National Park and build more wells for mining companies and transnationals is described as "a genocidal attack against our culture and way of life" by David Esteban. For her part, Magdalena Choque, from Parinacota, denounces that "there are drought effects in many wetlands and, consequently, serious problems in the feeding of our animals and in the consumption of irrigation water. The Cotacotani lagoon is already dry. it supplied water to the towns in the area. " Another conflict occurred in 2003. They had to mobilize after the announcement that Codelco would exploit groundwater in the town of Mocha, in the interior of Huara. Héctor Cayasaya, from Mocha, points out: "If Codelco exploits the water, the few people who live in the town will end up dying since the main subsistence resource will be exhausted. They register the waters and that does not correspond since they belong to us ancestrally." He points out that the danger has not ended because he has a record that the mining project will start in 2012. The Tarapacá, Aroma and Coscaya streams are supplied with water from Mocha.

The water problem has not been solved. Disputes with mining companies have dragged on for more than a decade, more than enough time to denounce their unsustainable extraction and the beginning of a water crisis that affects the population, agriculture and tourism. The high Andean salt flats are at risk. The new environmental authority will have to decide how to deal with mining that is committed to continuing to grow hand in hand with weak legislation. In Chile, the exploitation of water is free. The current Water Code allows the first interested party in a certain aquifer to have the preferential right to stay with it if they register it with the General Water Directorate (DGA). If you meet the requirements stipulated by law, the rights you receive are final and you can sell, lease, or benefit financially from the water. The vaunted reform of the Water Code -June 2005-, did not end with the free resource: if the water is not used, the owner only has to pay an annual patent. The permissive law and the indolence of the authorities encourage speculation. "A judgment of the Supreme Court settled the controversy over the management of groundwater, ruling on a protection appeal from the Aguas Andinas company, it indicated that the DGA must in the future, 'when deciding on the applications presented regarding rights of use of groundwater, in aquifer sectors where there are already established rights, verify the legal availability of water at the source or aquifer level and not limit itself to the verification of the mere physical existence of the water resource, '"says lawyer Pablo Jaeger. But, nevertheless, for the Comptroller "the determination of the availability of water resources is a technical matter and the exclusive competence of the DGA". Groundwater rights continue to be granted only by verifying the existence of the resource and when no measure limiting exploitation or prohibition has been decreed, the exploitation permit is simply granted.

In 1992, through a decree, the Ministry of Public Works (MOP) was ordered to drill wells to extract water from the Lauca river basin. In 1998, the project took effect again. Only 15 days before it was approved by Conama, the Aymara organizations managed to stop the exploitation. The negative impact that caused the death of the wetland near well number 4 was taken as a precedent. However, wells 1 to 10 were drilled and enabled, in 1992 and 1993, in the Lauca river basin, by order of the MOP. Pumping tests were carried out, determining that wells 1 to 3 were of no interest and that in wells 5 to 10 an extraction of groundwater was possible. In 1999, the company Ambar S.A. submitted an EIA to the MOP Irrigation Directorate.

Drought and pollution

According to the communities, the indiscriminate exploitation of underground watersheds has dried up large tracts of wetlands and continues to deplete water, which affects the Aymara in the General Lagos commune and other border areas. They point out that the construction of the Lauca canal caused an evident drop in Lake Cotacotani and the dryness of wetlands in Parinacota and Chucuyo. It is not something new, because the Lauca tunnel built in 1960 for the Chapiquiña hydroelectric plant exhausted the springs and springs in the Murmuntani ravine, forcing its inhabitants to emigrate or die. These projects affected the wetlands surrounding the wells drilled and endanger the Lauca River and its reserve. Meanwhile, the MOP indicates that "there will be greater availability of water for new productive developments at a multisectoral level, in projects related to rural water, incorporation of new irrigation technologies and diversification of crops." In August 2004, the National Forestry Corporation (Conaf) issued a report on the MOP project to enable the wells built in the Lauca National Park, indicating that the drilling did not comply with current environmental regulations. They will cause the decrease of the surface water of the Lauca river of up to 20 percent, and the extinction of some species: "The works will generate the loss of 66 hectares of wetland area, and the decrease of 70 percent of species." Studies carried out by Codeff and the Aymara Commission for the Environment (Cadma) have detected that the Lauca wells do not have solid walls and that the waters have the same characteristics as the surface waters of the river, which indicates that the underground water feeds the river. The then minister Etcheberry pointed out that the project was not imminent and that it will not start for at least the next two years.

Magdalena Choque, president of Cadma, doubts the official reports: "Well number 4 was exploited for a year by Obras Hidráulicas and the result was that the nearby wetland dried up. The explanation they gave was that there were cracks in the well tube and that in the others they will seal them, but nothing guarantees us that this sealing will be effective. There are already leaks in well 8, "he says. Lauca National Park is located at 4,600 meters above sea level, on the shores of Lake Chungará and was declared in 1981 a world biosphere reserve by Unesco. The Aymara point out that only one percent of the Lauca National Park is Fiscal, and that the remaining 99 percent is in the name of families who have titles dating back to 1900, but the government does not recognize them.

David Esteban is concerned about the dozens of boreholes located in the Salar de Huasco and whose "obvious destination" will be the Collahuasi mining company: "The extraction of water will affect the biodiversity of the Salar and the life of the Aymara who inhabit Pica. of the water should be under Aymara control, "he says. In the town of Parca, contamination by microparticles is the responsibility of another mining company: Cerro Colorado, eight kilometers from the town: "It does not have permits from Corema regarding the monitoring systems used to measure air quality. Therefore, the data that they collected during all these years are not valid. Contaminating dust affects surface water, flora, fauna and human life ", says Arturo Araya.

Danger areas

Laguna Cotacotani: extraction of water for hydroelectric plant.
Salar de Surire: extraction of deulexite (medium mining).
Lagunillas and Huantija: extraction of water for copper mining.
Salar de Huasco, Coposa and Michincha: extraction of water for copper mining.
Salar de Ascotán: extraction of water for copper mining and non-metallic mining.
Salar de Tara and Pujsa: potential water extraction (rights granted main tributary and processing of exploitation for non-metallic mining).
Salar de Atacama: extraction of groundwater for non-metallic mining, use of surface water for copper mining).
Salar de Punta Negra: extraction of water for copper mining and installation of power lines.
Salar de Maricunga: extraction of water for copper mining.


1. The Aymara base their economy on farming, oases and slopes along Azapa, Lluta, Camarones, Camiña, Tarapacá, Pica and Quillagua.
2. The extraction and exploitation of water by large mining companies has dried up the wetlands and streams. They keep trying to build wells.

(*) A version of this article was published by Punto Final.

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