The Atacama Mining Desert: A Landscape of Enrichment, Migration, and Conversation

Laguna Verde volcano with lake of lithium deposits in the foreground on the high plains of Antofagasta, Chile, in 1947. Source: ETH Zurich, University Archives, Arnold Heim papers, slide 023e-107. Used by permission.

Project by Andrea Westermann
Last updated: May 12, 2019

The desert of Atacama occupies a narrow strip of land that winds along the Pacific coastline of Peru and Chile for about 2,500 kilometers. It is a treasure trove of mineral deposits, which have been depleted in many silver, sodium nitrate, and copper mining booms. At the same time, the desert is an ever-growing repository of artifacts left by humans. The Atacama may have been hollowed out for centuries, as its mineral resources were extracted. Yet it also collects and preserves societal pasts. Its extreme aridity is highly favorable to the longevity of objects and bones. By the mid-twentieth century, for instance, the German process of synthesizing ammonia (engineered by Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch in the 1910s) had completely ruined the once powerful Chilean sodium nitrate mining industry. Today, the ruins of some 170 nitrate mines are spread across the desert, and they have sparked a subgenre of poetry, the Cantos a las Salitreras.

Atacama desert, you accumulated nitrate companies
And you kept for yourself the walls and the iron
Here, nothing and everything remained under the sun
And despite all the light
Everything is cold as an ice floe.1

The Atacama stores up history and phantasmagoric, mirage-like stories.

Due to global warming, more regions and their inhabitants will have to grapple with recurrent and intensifying droughts and processes of desertification. In my case study, I explore the terrestrial, political, and geopolitical knowledge of those who encountered the Atacama Desert, whether they stayed there or left again. My guiding questions are: How did people know about the many aspects of their desert environment and how did they use this knowledge to advocate for their own interests and concerns? This work draws on studies in Chilean history, a growing body of anthropological microstudies of mining communities in northern Chile, and on related resource-oriented studies of geopolitics and international relations. I also draw on source material from local archives, international state archives, and international company archives. The findings will be published in a series of journal articles.

  1. Fernando Marttell Cámara, Canto a las salitreras del Norte (Iquique: Editorial Palimpsesto, 1999), n.p., trans. A. Westermann. Original Spanish: “Desierto nortino, acumulaste salitreras / y dejaste para ti los muros y el hierro / Aquí nada y todo quedó bajo el sol / A pesar de tanta luz / todo es frío como témpano glacial.“