Additional authors: Jorge Vergara-Castro, Jorge Rowlands, Sebastian Rodriguez, Salvatore Engel Dimauro, and Alonso Barros

cientists from Santiago travel thousands of miles to the dusty Atacameñan desert community of Camar to tout hydraulic recharge models that predict restoration of a freshwater aquifer by 2600. Others pontificate on the validity of using CropSyst, a model developed by wheat researchers in eastern Washington, for understanding the impacts of water use on fragile, perennial vegetation. Inconvenient incongruencies, such as the immense difference in soil salinity between the glacial plains of Washington and the highly arid Andes, are swept aside. When the leaders of Camar protests the rapid loss of pastures or lagoons ominously emptied of birds, mining company representatives patronizingly scold their lack of scientific acumen and judgment. As the scientists leave the communities in their red Toyota Hilux SUVs adorned with corporate logos, the wheels dislodge dust that lands in the community’s agricultural fields. The outflows of freshwater springs that irrigate household food production in the driest place on Earth are now beginning to run dry.

This is diffuse conflict in the ‘sacrifice zone’[1], a place where science, clientelism, and ‘progressive’ consumer relations attempt to control the discourse while 1300 liters of water are extracted per second.

Much work has been dedicated in critical strands of geography to strategies for assisting in environmental struggles. As part of this, environmental justice (e.g. Bullard and Johnson 2000, Brule and Pellow 2006, EJOLT’s ongoing mapping environmental justice work) and political ecology (e.g. Blaikie 1985, Carney 1993, Bridge 2009, Robbins 2012), as well as critical cartography (e.g. Schuurman 2000, Crampton 2001) and remote sensing (e.g. Waite et al. 2009, Kelley 2018), have emerged as ways through which geographers have engaged with such struggles. Among the strategies have been participatory and counter-mapping, and critiquing if not debunking conventional environmental narratives. The above attend to the necessary but often omitted analyses of actually existing biophysical processes as a way to counter hegemonic practices in and discourses on environments that affect communities in deleterious ways. So geographers partake in indigenous modes of territorial insistence, based on 1:1 cultural mappings, as expressed in toponyms and over 10,000 years of continuous occupation along a myriad rivulets and gorges, in what is arguably the richest mining district in the world.

However, critical and radical approaches from within Latin America have also preceded or developed in parallel to the above-mentioned ones. Examples in recent years include Barros’ (1997) critique of Euroamerican “development landscaping” discourses in dialectical opposition to the Atacameños inter-scalar kinship concepts in relation with the Pachamama, Barros’ (2011) use of water availability data to describe unequally restored water rights for Chilean indigenous communities after the passage of UN Convention 169, or Giraldo’s (2018) recent work on Latin American smallholder agricultural practices and pedagogy as an applied, political ecology of agriculture. Tricart and Kilian’s (1979) concept of ecogeography is also a work used by our Latin American colleagues. Their analysis of the interrelations of nature-society relations in a determined space, with the intention of destabilizing notions of a ‘human’ outside of nature, has achieved ends similar to those in early political ecology work in the U.S. and U.K. We herein allude to them as well in this discussion and we view all these approaches as important in developing a set of strategies that consider both social relations of power and the environmental conditions that are negatively impacted by the powerful and that ruin the surrounding ecosystems and the communities that depend on them. Because of its equal attentiveness to biophysical and social relations, we find the emerging subfield of critical physical geography[2](CPG) an especially effective prism through which to observe  the multifaceted eco-social processes involved in environmental struggles.

In this brief intervention, we discuss how CPG is being deployed in Salar de Atacama community settings through study, organization, and strategic resistance against the mining and water extraction industries. Atacameño, Aymara and Quechua indigenous peoples have lived in the Atacama desert for several thousand years, interconnected through trans-Andean caravanning routes and cultural exchange. These communities face mounting pressures on water resources and territorial rights due to the expansion of extractive and tourism industries.

Geopolitical and physical context

Several Atacameño communities — Toconao, Talabre, Camar, Socaire, and  Peine (from north to south) — line the Borde Este (eastern border) of the Salar de Atacama, an area comprised of an interconnected freshwater lagoon system that permits the survival of endemic flora and fauna in the interior of the harsh desert (see Fig. 1). The indigenous communities in the Salar have used these ecosystems to access water and pasture for several millennia (Pourrut and Núñez 1995).

Fig. 1: The Salar de Atacama in northern Chile depicting the location of Atacemeño communities Toconao, Talabre, Camar, and Peine along the Borde Este of the Salar de Atacama, Zaldivar and Escondida (BHP) copper mines and SQM and Albermarle lithium mines, as well as main water extraction points for all four mines.

During the past 150 years, the Atacama Desert has been a key extraction point in the global circulation of raw material for capitalist development. In the mid-19th century, British colonial wealth resulted from the exploitation of indigenous and precarious migrant labor to explore and extract iodine and nitrate (saltpeter) reserves that buttressed crop fertilization and arms development in Europe and the United States. As nitrate mining collapsed in the early 20th century, copper slowly began to take its place, beginning with the opening of the Chuquicamata mine in 1911. A series of foreign multinational investments and pro-extraction government policies, later facilitated by both Allende’s short-lived socialist tenure and Pinochet’s dictatorship, began a massive expansion of open-pit copper mining. Neoliberal legal codes imposed under Pinochet expanded copper and water extractions along with the repression of labor rights and unions. During the purported transition to democracy and its flurry of privatizations through the 1990s (that many consider failed due to strong authoritarian enclaves inherited from the military dictatorship, see Garretón and Garretón 2010), mining investments created an enclave economy that failed to create ‘multiplier effects’ in the broader Chilean economy and brought reduced pay and worsening working conditions for mining employees (Gordon and Webber 2008). Poverty rates in mining zones, mainly rural indigenous communities, exceeded and still exceed the national average (Clark 2006). Since the late 1990s, lithium mining has expanded in the mineral-rich lagoons of the Salar de Atacama, now comprising a booming industry as techno-optimists, venture capitalists, and Promethean socialists alike see lithium-powered batteries as a key step towards a comfortable future neatly liberated from fossil fuel dependence. Today, copper represents about half of Chile’s exports and Chile is the world’s second largest producer of lithium. Lithium demand is expected to double by 2027 and much of the supply will come from the Salar de Atacama (Orellana 2018).

Water is the main nexus of eco-political conflict between the Atacameño communities and the four mining companies. Communities claim that since the development of mining there has been insufficient water available for agriculture and household use and there has been a large-scale decline of fragile, brackish water lagoons that have historically been used for flamingo egg harvesting, firewood collection, and grazing (personal observations of all authors, 2004-2019). Lithium production requires evaporating salt brine in a series of ponds with increasing concentrations. Since the first pond construction in 1995, evaporation now covers approximately 50 km2 (By comparison, the extent of fresh water lagoons in the entire Salar covers about 5 km2). Albemarle and SQM are the two major lithium mines located in the south-central part of the Salar de Atacama, with extraction wells in the nucleus close to the Borde Este. SQM is located within Camar’s land claims and 40 kilometers from the namesake village, while Albemarle operates within the territory of Peine, likewise nearby the village. BHP and Zaldivar are large-scale copper mines (BHP’s Minera Escondida is the largest open-pit copper mine in the world) located outside of the Salar that pipe freshwater from the Tilopozo wetlands and lagoon located at the extreme southern extent of the Salar approximately 70 kilometers to their mines (see Fig. 1).

In the early 2000s, major protests erupted over the case of Salar de Punta Negra, a Salar sucked dry by BHP’s over-extraction (Contreras 2002 and TVN 2006 reporting). In recent years contestation has taken the form of administrative and judicial battles over water extraction. In response, mining companies have developed extensive indigenous community relations teams (although the extent varies from company to company). The differences in scale between mining and community usage are immense. For its Minera Escondida copper mine, BHP has legally registered rights to extract crude water at 1600 l/s, while the Atacameño indigenous communities of Peine and Socaire have legal rights to 65.6 l/s and 135 l/s, respectively (Babidge 2016). Regulatory agreements to ‘protect, constitute, and re-establish’ water rights for indigenous communities after reforms in the mid-1990s only apply to resources directly related to agricultural and daily household use (Yañez and Molina 2011, Barros 2011[2009]). As Babidge notes (2016), “It has proven much more difficult for Atacameños to gain legal recognition of ownership over water sources in the expansive indigenous territories associated with customary pastoral movement.”

Theoretical approach

A CPG approach impels us to study how the ecosocial conditions of the Salar de Atacama are both the product of biophysical (e.g. ecological, hydrological, geological) and social processes (e.g. global political economy of resources, State policies towards indigenous peoples, water speculation, racialized discrimination against Atacameños, clientelism). We write as a team of researchers, lawyers, and students working in support of the Comunidad Indigena Atacameña de Camar (Atacamaño Indigenous Community of Camar) in their environmental monitoring, legal claims, criminal lawsuits, and community-based development. We are particularly interested in how CPG’s transdisciplinary approach can be operationalized to cross-fertilize pedagogies with local communities and reinforce indigenous knowledges to navigate the turbulent legal, political, and tactical waters surrounding mining operations in their own terms, hence dismantling the colonial mindset and reification of extractive technoscience. Thus our concern here is not only with the technical framing of pollution or mined landscapes (Holifield and Day 2017), which is among the issues of concern among critical physical geographers, but also with the interconnected and wider social and ecological processes beyond scientific discourse and the spatial politics of knowledge production.

Our team attempts to resist combining physical and social science methodologies solely in the hope of finding novel academic insights or publishing in new ‘transdisciplinary’ spaces but rather as part of an active process of cultural and territorial defense against mining extractivism in Chile and throughout Latin America. We paraphrase the calls of Chilean feminist scholar Nelly Richard that the colonial and patriarchal legacies which shape research practice demands action-oriented scientific commitment:

The material conditions of exploitation, misery and oppression which patriarchy deploys in order to double its efficiency in producing inequality in Latin America demands from us…more activism than discourse, more political commitment than philosophical suspicion, more testimonial condemnation than arabesque deconstruction (Richard 1996, in Finn and Hanson 2017).

Further, we explore how the scientific practices of geology, hydrology, soil science, and geography in the Atacama Desert have functioned historically to support institutional racism against Atacameño, Ayamara, and Quechua peoples, invisibilizing indigenous communities organized around oases of water, pastures, the collection of firewood, and trans-Andean exchange practices, in order to open the desert to continued rounds of resource extraction. Race is a key axis along which the Chilean State has historically exploited minerals in the desert, serving to separate and objectify landscapes and their human occupants while also shaping how the material fallout is distributed. Long described the ‘despoblado de Atacama’ (Molina 2006), colonial actors characterized the desert as an uninhabited and uninhabitable land.

Darker-skinned Atacameñan communities in northern Chile

unwillingly perform… the classic biopolitical trope with which States traditionally contextualize, exoticize, make visible and finally capture postcolonial poverty, reducing it to the terms of a historically scripted chromatography, cyclically erasing and then inscribing the Indian in “special” property registers… (Barros 2016)

Applying M’bembé’s (2003) concept of ‘necropolitics’ to mining extraction in the Atacama, Barros describes how the state facilitates resource politics that “appear to be ‘the work of death’, where sovereignty is expressed as ‘the right to kill’. The extractive industry hence ‘cannibalizes’ oasis life, draining and substituting it with ‘lighter’, pre-packaged culture to be shown, just like t-shirts on the miners’ barely skinned bodies (Barros 2016, 185-186).”

While extractive industry drains the desert, the extent of corporate social responsibility strategies grows and the global discourse in which lithium is characterized as a core component of a collective carbon-neutral future grows ever louder. Studying how racial categorizations constitutes ‘scales of shared interest or common good…to justify the exploitation of a place of landscape…[and] the physical conditions and impacts associated with exploitation in the name of the common good’ (Holifield and Day 2017, p. 277) is thus a crucial space for CPG scholarship.

Kathryn Yusoff (2018a) eviscerates this universalizing project of contemporary Anthropocene discourse and the history of ‘white Geology’ in general, arguing that an apparent common interest in material wealth disguises how the

championing of the collective in geology under the guise of universality or humanity is actually a deformation of the differentiation of subjective relations made in and through geology. This is how the codification of geology (as land, mineral, metal, gold, commodity, value, resource) becomes the historical basis of theft, actioning a field of dispossession in which the language of containment is used to materially organize extraction, where violence is covered in the guise of liberating surplus wealth from people and the earth” (Yusoff, 2018a, p. 107)

We aim to think alongside Yusoff and our Chilean colleagues to better analyze the dynamics of racialized lithium and copper extraction in the Atacama Desert, to understand how “the Anthropocene produces a geophysics of anti-Blackness enacted through sets of material and psychic relations in the designation of property and properties”, and to work collectively with Atacameño peoples to battle geology’s historic “refusal of responsibility in the mapping of pasts and futures of geology [that] leave the present unchecked” (Yusoff, 2018a, p. 107).

Critical Physical Geography in Action

In the following section, we briefly describe two attempts at using CPG in the arena of territorial defense and water rights in support of the Atacameño community of Camar, with implications for community resistance in zones of resource extraction more broadly.

Extraction and science in the desert: Tracing environmental indicators

Reviewing documents of early European explorers, the Chilean State and USGS surveys during the early 20th century helps us to situate the corporate sustainability strategies, green capitalism, and lithium optimism of the Anthropocene in its historical and racialized contexts. As mines now acknowledge environmental damages and take into account indigenous livelihoods, they also maintain control over and invisibilize the moral and socio-economic terrain of continued extraction. Analyzing the nascent intellectual documents that support colonial forms of extraction through and against contemporary bureaucratic environmental impact assessments (which, themselves, are an important site of contestation) is key towards developing collective pedagogical strategies for counter-narratives and strategic interventions in the Salar de Atacama. Yusoff’s (2018a) reading of Katherine McKittrick informs our work as she aims to

re-imagine geographies of dispossession and racial violence not through the comfortable lenses of inside/outsides or us/them, which repeat what Gilmore (2007, 241) calls ‘doomed methods of analysis and action,’ but as sites through which ‘co-operative human efforts’ can take place and have a place (McKittrick 2011, 960). These Anthropocene sites in which various forms of fossilization are being enacted – mining, extraction, waste, extinction – are all geosocial sites of coproduction in which shared histories unfold with deeply unequal power relations (Yusoff 2018a, 62).

As early as Darwin’s exploits, European interests and a fledgling Chilean state sought to characterize the geology of the Atacama Desert for mining. A few decades after the HMS Beagle docked in Europe, William Newton (1896) published an article on the origins of nitrate in Chile that explicitly linked mining to resolving agrarian soil fertility crisis in Europe. This sparked a series of geological and technical debates during the coming years about mining and profitability, all omitting mention of Atacameño, Ayamara, and Quechua inhabitants despite the devastation that nitrate mining would wreak upon their bodies and precarious migrants’ alike. Newton naturalizes the brutality of mining and attempts to quell farmers’ disdain for ‘artificial or chemical manure’ by noting that nitrate is “in reality the concentrated fertility of the thousands of square miles of land between the watershed of the Cordilleras and the coast line of hills” (Newton 1896, p. 10). About 90 years later, George E. Erickson’s detailed study for the USGS on the “Geology and Origin of the Chilean Nitrate Deposits” describes the Atacama as a “barren landscape” (Erickson 1981, p. 10) without a single mention of indigenous inhabitants or livelihoods. Not to be outdone, a 2017 technical report by Wealth Minerals, prepared for its Atacama Lithium Project regarding the availability and profitability of lithium exploitation in the northern part of the Salar de Atacama is explicit in their disregard for the long history of Atacameño peoples in the region. The project budgets $50,000 to pay contractors for a total of 14 days to “help community access (road grading etc.)” that will purportedly “build positive corporate image” and “establish positive image with locals” (Hiner 2017, 30). In a report that lays out a plan for the exploitation of lithium upon 46,200 hectares of occupied Atacameño territory, this is the only mention of its indigenous occupants.

The latest round of environmental impact assessment studies submitted by companies to Chilean authorities in order to extend extraction into the foreseeable future, demonstrates how soil science is also mobilized to cast the region as barren. Despite the almost total absence of commercial agriculture in the region (save for threatened Atacameño highland pastures), all four companies have adopted USDA agricultural classification guides to analyze the potential negative effects of mining in the desert. They use an 8-class guide that separates soil according to erosion susceptibility, arability, physical structure, and response to fertilizer and tillage management (see Figure 2). The criteria have been copied directly from those developed by the USDA Soil Conservation Service in the late 1950s (Soil Conservation Service 1961, 5-9) and included in County Soil Surveys throughout the US. It is noteworthy that in the original document, commercial farming and profitability are expressly discussed as among the major assumptions behind the classification scheme (Soil Conservation Service 1961, 4).

Fig 2. Application of USDA agricultural classification guides to the soils of the Salar de Atacama by BHP’s Minera Escondida.

For example, in the Monturaqui groundwater aquifer (where BHP’s wells are located), the report states that due to restricted drainage and high salinity content, most soils are classified as VIII, not appropriate for agriculture, whereas two are classified as VII, very poor for agriculture (p. 3.3-72, chap. 3.3 Soils Baseline, Minera Escondida). The result of classifying soils according to these agricultural parameters is that the company is able to declare that their “effect upon soils in this area does not generate the elimination of conditions sustaining species of any nature.” It is in these areas that Atacameñan communities have historically developed different uses such as grazing, collecting plants and flamingo eggs in the nearby lagoons.

All four environmental impact statements also solely use physico-chemical properties to analyze the soil, omitting biological processes from its evaluation. There is evidence that the presence of bacteria in sodium soils can impact plant growth, probably due to the increase of carbon from microbial biomass (e.g. Vimal et al., 2017). Also in hypersaline soils researchers have found a diversity of bacteria is essential for maintaining ecosystem services (Zhao et al., 2018). Plants such as Schoenoplectus americanus and Baccharis juncea that are able to survive in the extreme saline conditions of the Salar, likely establish relations with rhizosphere bacteria to regulate the amount of salt that can enter the plant during transpiration but these relations have yet to be researched. Although soil quality has historically been associated with agricultural productivity, there is a need to define its capacity to absorb and recycle water, minerals, and energy to reduce environmental degradation and sustain the productivity of plants and microorganisms (Silva and Fay, 2012). The use of USDA metrics to define the soil as unprofitable (and therefore not worthy of conservation) also obscures the ancestral and ongoing uses of soils in the region by the Atacameño communities that do not register as legitimate uses according to metrics strategically established thousands of miles from zones of extraction.

Works such as Engel Di-Mauro’s (2014) Marxist critique of ‘soil quality’ measurements that justify specific agricultural and development interests and Van Sant’s (2018) history of the US cooperative soil survey and its role in reproducing white nationalist state power have begun to explore how geology and soil science are intricately linked to racialized forms of exploitation and we hope to internationalize and contribute to these perspectives. Understanding how the production of knowledge such as soil science is historically and politically produced provides legal arguments to counter if not completely contain the expansion of mining while at the same time building systems of environmental indicators that inform indigenous-led strategies of resistance/insistence. In our practice, research priorities are co-developed by communities and researchers and environmental indicators are evaluated using the best available, independent scientific knowledge. Scientific work is directed by the Atacameño cosmovision and intuition and demands of the communities, creating a cyclical process of accountable research that is located in specific time and place according to specific political demands.

Strategic surveillance of lagoon ecosystems, water extraction, and mining expansion

We are also working with the community of Camar on a suite of geographical methods to accurately survey lagoons that have been damaged by water extraction since the early 1990s. After several field visits and informal interviews with residents of Camar, we identified lagoon areas throughout the eastern border that appeared to be qualitatively deteriorating (e.g. oral histories of lower numbers of bird species, accounts of algal blooms) or diminishing in size. We have been using Landsat 5, 7, and 8 satellite data to calculate the surface area of a) bodies of water, b) surface moisture (NDWI), c) vegetation cover and quality (NDVI) for the summer (March) and winter (August) between 1990 – 2018.

The central body of the Barros Negros and Chaxa lagoons decreased and the Burro Muerto Channel that linked them disappeared (see Figure 3 for map of entire lagoon system). The “Cola de Pez” (fishtail) overflow from Barros Negros also almost entirely vanished. Interannual variations in precipitation cause the water levels and surface humidity to fluctuate but the channels, crucial to interchanging water and nutrients among the lagoons, are gone. In Figure 4 below, we demonstrate the change in lagoon dynamics in 1995 (when SQM started mining operations), 2005 and 2015 during the month of March.

As vegetation and extent of the lagoons in the harsh conditions can vary largely depending on the amount of precipitation[1], we compared if the changes in vegetation cover and lagoon surface area were due more to precipitation variability or a function of long-term changes over time. Our preliminary data suggests that vegetation cover and lagoon surface area were uncorrelated with precipitation while significantly and negatively correlated with time. This suggests that the development of mining in the region has indeed impacted the lagoon systems independent of climatic variation.

Fig 3: Map of the lagoon system of the Borde Este of the Salar de Atacama lying within the territorial limits of the community of Camar. Note the interconnectedness of lagoon systems based on a series of small canals.
Fig. 4: Map depicting lagoon surface area (blue), surface humidity (purple), and vegetation (green) in March of 1995, 2005, and 2015 in the Barros Negros lagoon system of the Borde Este, Salar de Atacama lying within the territorial limits of the community of Camar.

Mining companies in the region have historically studied the lagoon ecosystems as ecologically and hydrologically separated, without consideration for human and animal uses in these spaces. After studying the environmental impact assessments for each company, we discovered that each mine analyzes its own predicted impacts without taking into account the very likely synergistic impacts of each of the other operations on the surrounding water table. Based on the large quantity of extraction wells in the region, the interconnectedness of the broader Salar de Atacama aquifer, and the hyper-arid conditions, it is highly unlikely that the operations do not have a cumulative effect on water balance (J. Selker, pers. comm., April 6, 2019). Furthermore, Zaldivar and BHP claim that the Peine and Tilopozo lagoons are hydraulically separated from the Borde Este, and thus water extraction conducted by the companies do not impact the territorial demands of the Camar community (see Fig. 1 for geographical location of lagoons in relation to extraction wells). This claim, based on the supposed impermeability of bedrock separating the southern and eastern aquifers of the Salar de Atacama has little scientific evidence to date and is being actively studied by hydrologists on our team.

The integration of community-identified ‘hotspots’ that have economic and cultural significance, satellite data, and basic statistical tests represents a mode of scientific inquiry that is leading to novel research findings on lagoon hydrology in the Salar de Atacama as well as providing actionable information for affected communities. Further work will include ground-truthing satellite data by conducting ecological and ethnobotanical surveys, the use of consistent drone monitoring as ‘counter-surveillance’ to study rapid and smaller-scale changes in lagoon processes, especially where entry is (often physically and illegally) barred, and the continued critique and exposure of methodological flaws used by the company scientists.

Conclusion: Data and corporate social responsibility as clientelism and condescension

In this piece, we have begun to sketch how one might apply CPG to local struggle over resource extraction in ‘sacrifice zones’ characterized by highly unequal power relations shaped by the (bio)(geo)political invisibilization and disregard for indigenous communities and their territories. CPG assists in understanding how large companies with State support have gained control over resource use in the Atacama Desert, advancing and utilizing scientific research that produces specific assumptions of race, value, and time-scale (the co-production of social power and scientific knowledge has also been well-explored elsewhere by STS scholars, e.g. Latour 1999, Jasanoff 2004). We are finding that the attention that CPG (and traditions of political ecology) pays to local dynamics, the production of spatial territories, and political constitution of ‘natural’ processes, is a key tool for developing strategies of territorial defense when combined with community oral histories regarding historical land-uses, ethnobotany of the Salar, and their interactions with the mines.

Contemporaneously, communities are flooded in a sea of data as computerized models are flaunted as a new step towards company transparency. Corporate social responsibility plans tout the arrival of sustainability science in which mining is part of an economic and ecological ‘win-win’ for all sides. (One need only look so far as SQM’s most recent environmental impact assessment, which claims that mining expansion will bring absolutely no negative impacts for the nearby residents.) In a form of clientelism dating back centuries, mining interests are infused with the material and cultural reproduction of the Atacameño communities. Rural communities, where agricultural and trans-Andean trading lifeways have been disrupted, remain disconnected from urban centers. With the Chilean state largely absent, there is a high dependence upon the “opportunities” and “benefits” that mining companies can bring. Mines provide social services, agricultural tools, school buildings, trucks, and other material comforts.[1] They collaborate to sponsor musical festivals, organizing busing routes between the dispersed communities (see Fig. 5). In the wake of recent flooding in February 2019, SQM quickly operationalized equipment to repair roads and reconnect homes to electrical and water grids. The most stable and best-paying employment for miles around are jobs in copper and lithium mines. In this context the mines play a paradoxical role, serving the functions of a non-existent State while eroding the social fabric of the Atacameño communities.

Fig. 5 The incursion of mining interests in the cultural expression of Atacameñan communities in the Salar de Atacama. The “Carnaval Familiar de Peine” (Peine is an Atacameñan community of several hundred residents in the Salar) featuring singers and entertainment, is sponsored by three of the four mining companies operating in the region: Albermarle, Minera Escondida, and BHP. Photo credit: Alex Liebman, 2018.

By studying the historical and political configuration of soil and geologic sciences, the use and adoption of particular environmental indicators, and the material processes impacting livelihoods and ecological processes in the Borde Este, we aim to contribute to Atacameñan efforts to improve living conditions in their communities and the Andean ecosystems directly impacted by mining in the region. Exposing the racialized history of geology and geography in the Atacama desert and its explicit links to the territorial valuation of nitrate, copper, and lithium that exclude indigenous peoples also contributes to understanding forms of “geopower” (Yusoff 2018b). Challenging the symbolic, cultural and reifying capacity of geological science is to see how ‘geopower’ is a

product of subjugating relations as well as geopolitical consideration and capitalization rather than to reinforce and reiterate the “naturalization” of colonial dispossession of land and minerals. This historic analysis extends concern for the contemporary subjects caught in dehumanizing geological relations that deform the earth in various ways (which is recognized in the Anthropocene) and that deforms subjects (which is not explicitly recognized) (Yusoff 2018a, p. 106).

Water, land, and mining struggles in the Atacama Desert are articulated to the ways in which the contradictions and crises of the Anthropocene will be ‘solved’, how life will be valued and prioritized, how technological approaches to global warming may reproduce centuries of colonial core-periphery relations predicated upon racial exclusion. This has direct material implications for communities such as Camar struggling against mining, as well as broader lessons for scientific modes of inquiry in rejection of racialized forms of dominance and destruction.


Babidge S  (2016) Contested value and an ethics of resources: Water, mining and indigenous people in the Atacama Desert. The Australian Journal of Anthropology doi: 10.1111/taja.12139
Barros, A. (1997) Pachamama y desarrollo: paisajes conflictivos en el Desierto de Atacama. In Estudios Atacameños 13: 75-94. doi
Barros A (2008) De las castas y la pobreza indígena en Chile. Estudios, Anales de Instituto de Chile, Vol. XXVII, 213-262.
Barros A (2011[2009]) Titularidad y subjetividad de las aguas nativas chilenas en el marco del Convenio 169 de la OIT y la declaración de la ONU sobre los derechos de los pueblos indıgenas. Actas de Derecho de Aguas 1:197–218.
Barros A (2016) Water justice, mining and the fetish form of law in the Atacama Desert in Brunnegger, S. and K-A Faulk (eds.) A Sense of Justice Legal Knowledge and Lived Experience in Latin America. Stanford University Press. pp . 171-200
Blaikie P (1985) The Political Economy of Soil Erosion in Developing Countries.
Essex: Longman.
Bridge G (2009) Material Worlds: Natural Resources, Resource Geography and the Material Economy. Geography Compass 3(3): 1217-1244.
Brulle RJ and DN Pellow (2006) Environmental Justice: Human Health and Environmental Inequalities. Annual Review of Public Health. 27: 103-124.
Bullard RD and GS Johnson (2000) Environmental Justice: Grassroots Activism and Its Impact on Public Policy Decision Making. Journal of Social Issues 56(3): 555-578.
Carney J (1993) Converting the Wetlands, Engendering the Environment. The Intersection of Gender with Agrarian Change in The Gambia. Economic Geography 69(4):329-348.
Clark TD (2006) Canadian mining in neo-liberal Chile: of private virtues and public vices. In: North L, Clark TD, Patroni V (eds), Community Rights and Corporate Responsibility: Canadian Mining and Oil Companies in Latin America. Toronto: Between the Lines.
Contreras JP (2002) Norte de Chile: Conservación de humedales altoandinos para un desarrollo productivo sustentable. Revista Ambiente y Desarrollo XVIII(2-3-4)
Crampton JW (2001) Maps as social constructions: Power, communication and visualization. Progress in Human Geography 25, 235-52
Engel Di-Mauro, S (2014) Ecology, Soils, and the Left: An Eco-Social Approach. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. ISBN: 978-1-137-35821-9
Finn JC and A Hanson  (2017) Critical Geographies in Latin America. Journal of Latin American Geography. 16(1): 1-15
Garretón MA and R Garretón (2010) La democracia incompleta en Chile: La realidad tras los rankings internacionales. Revista de Ciencia Política (Santiago) 30(1):115-148.
Giraldo OF (2018) Ecología política de la agricultura: Agroecología y posdesarrollo. El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. ISBN: 978-607-8429-51-6
Gordon T and JR Webber (2008) Imperialism and Resistance: Canadian mining companies in Latin America. Third World Quarterly 29:1(63-87), DOI: 10.1080/01436590701726509
Hiner JE (2017) 43-101 Technical Report on the Atacama Lithium Project, El Loa Province, Region II Republic of Chile. Report, Wealth Minerals.
Holifield R and M Day (2017) A framework for a critical physical geography of ‘sacrifice zones’: Physical landscapes and discursive spaces of frac sand mining in western Wisconsin. Geoforum 85:269-279.
Jasanoff, S (2004) Ordering knowledge, ordering society. In: ed. Jasanoff S (ed) States of Knowledge: The co-production of science and social order. London: Routledge, pp. 13-45.
Kelley LC (2018) The politics of uneven smallholder cacao expansion: A critical physical geography of agricultural transformation in Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia. Geoforum 97:22-34.
Latour B (1999) Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Boston: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674653368
Lave R, MW Wilson, E Barron, et al. (2014) Critical physical geography. The Canadian Geographer 58(1): 1–10.
Mbembe JA (2003) Necropolitics. Public Culture 15(1): 11-40.
McKittrick K (2011) On Plantations, Prisons, and a Black Sense of Place. Social and Cultural Geography. 12(8): 947-63.
Molina RO (2006) El despoblado de Atacama: Diversidad ambiental, evidencias históricas y etnográficas de su poblamiento. Actas del XVII Congreso Nacional de Arqueología Chilena, Sociedad Chilena de Arqueología y Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia: 1415-1428.
Orellana M (2018) Chile – Mining and Minerals.,Chile Country Commercial Guide., accessed 4/2/19.
Newton W (1896) The origin of nitrate in Chile Geol. Magazine (3):1-10.
Pourrut PM and AL Núñez (1995) Agua, ocupación del espacio y economía campesina en la región atacameña : aspectos dinámicos, 1st edición. Antofagasta: Universidad Católica del Norte.
Richard N (1996) Feminismo, Experiencia y Representación. Revista Iberoamericana 62 (176-177): 733-744
Robbins P (2012) Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction, 2nd Edition. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Schuurman N (2000) Trouble in the heartland: GIS and its critics in the 1990s.
Progress in Human Geography 24(4): 569-90
Silva CM and EF Fay (2012) Effect of Salinity on Soil Microorganisms, in Soil Health and Land Use Management, ed. Dr. M.C. Hernandez Soriano, ISBN 978-953-307-614-0,  InTech, Available:
Soil Conservation Service (1961) Land-Capability Classification. Agricultural Handbook No. 210. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Tricart J and J Kilian (1979) L’éco-géographie et l’aménagement du milieu naturel. [Eco-Geography and Natural Resource Management] Paris: François Maspéro.

Van Sant L (2018) “The long-time requirements of the nation”: The US Cooperative Soil Survey and the Political Ecologies of Improvement. Antipode doi. 10.1111/anti.12460

Vimal SR, Singh JS, Arora NK and S Singh (2017). Soil-Plant-Microbe Interactions in Stressed Agriculture Management: A Review. Pedosphere 27(2): 177-192.

Waite TA, SJ Corey, LG Campbell, A Chhangani, J Rice and P Robbins (2009) Satellite sleuthing: Does remotely sensed land-cover change signal ecological degradation in a protected area? Diversity & Distributions 15(2): 299 – 309.

Yañez N and R Molina (2011) Las aguas indígenas en Chile Santiago: LOM Ediciones.

Yusoff K (2018a) A Billion Black Anthropocenes. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Yusoff K (2018b) Chapter 12: The Anthropocene and geographies of geopower, p. 203-216 In: M Coleman and J Agnew (Eds) Handbook on the Geographies of Power. Edward Elgar Online Publishing,

Zhao S. et al.  (2018) Soil pH is equally important as salinity in shaping bacterial communities in saline soils under halophytic vegetation. Nature Scientific Reports 8:4550.  DOI:10.1038/s41598-018-22788-7

[1] One remarkable and hopeful story, is that the Atacameño, with legal and scientific support, managed to negotiate a 3.5% royalty on lithium sales to be paid to the 18 communities surrounding the Salar, by US lithium and “specialty chemical” producer Albemarle. This unprecedented achievement has enabled the Consejo de Pueblos Atacameños to scale-up its monitoring and I&D programme with 0.5% of the said royalty earmarked for that sole purpose (2 million USD per year). A downside is that the newfound riches have also produced rampant corruption (as elsewhere in Chile), with only a few indigenous leaders striving to contain its dire consequences.

[1] Annual precipitation varied largely over the study period, with maximums of ~ 100 mm in 2001 and ~170 mm in 2017. Average annual precipitation in the Salar de Atacama is 42 mm per year.

[1] The term ‘sacrifice zone’ was originally used during the Cold War to describe places destroyed by nuclear fallot but has gained prominence in recent years to signify how “the health and way of life of communities— often low-income or minority—have been permanently sacrificed for some other interest, whether the “common goods” of security or development or simply the private interest of short-term profit” (Holifield and Day 2017, 269). We find this to be useful analytic for the Salar de Atacama due to the term’s focus on race and class dimensions, the irreversibility of eco-social change underway in the Salar, and its inclusion of the ways in which zones are commodified, developed and/or securitized and the rhetoric deployed.

[2] Critical physical geography is the “critical attention to relations of social power with deep knowledge of a particular field of biophysical science or technology in the service of social and environmental transformation …  Its central precept is that we cannot rely on explanations grounded in physical or critical human geography alone because socio-biophysical landscapes are as much the product of unequal power relations, histories of colonialism, and racial and gender disparities as they are of hydrology, ecology, and climate change” (Lave et al., 2014: 2-3.)