Atacama Desert Project

LOA BASIN_MS_75-73_1Location map indicating the intersection of the Loa River with geologic West Fault where most porphyry copper deposits are found. II Region, Chile

Atacama Desert Project
A geo-forensic analysis of environmental violence in the Atacama

Forensic Architecture (FA) will investigate a series of environmental conflicts in the Atacama Desert in Chile — as an extreme case — in which nature and politics are re-organised around resource extraction. Working in coordination with local NGOs, FA will undertake fieldwork that can provide material and spatial evidence in support of indigenous communities of the Loa basin whose way of life and means of subsistence is endangered by the operation of copper mining companies. Dispossessed of water, the most basic resource in the driest desert on earth and suffering from increasing environmental toxins, these communities have been slowly disappearing in the wake of ever-expanding mineral extraction. In addition to fieldwork, FA will also document the history of mineral exploration in the northern areas of Chile, particularly at the intersection of the Loa basin with the West fault, a geological line around which Chilean porphyry copper deposits emerge. The Loa basin, the ancient water source for indigenous communities, is now being depleted by the extensive use of water for copper exploration. In placing a  particular focus on Chuquicamata — the largest open-pit copper mine in the world – and the central vortex around which a complex system of mining infrastructures emerge, the research will demonstrate how the specific geology of the Atacama Desert is key to understanding not only territorial conflicts currently taking place, but more importantly, the long history of structural violence to which local peoples have been subjected. 

The Atacama Desert

1Expansion of ʻTalabreʼ tailings pond. Image Godofredo Pereira, September 2013

For the past two centuries mining companies have surveyed and explored the northern part of the Atacama. During the 19th century sodium nitrate became an important commodity and origin of a booming business and multiple mining settlements. So important were these territories that they eventually became part of Chile, conquered to Bolivia and Peru during the Pacific War. This of course also implied an aggressive process of “chilenization” of local indigenous communities and the re-formulation of existing territorial organisation. Although nitrate lost most of its profitability in the 1930s, leaving behind a trail of abandoned mines and contaminated sites, copper extraction was already, at that time, a source of enormous profit and would quickly becoming the main motor of Chile’s economy. One of the earliest large-scale copper explorations, the Chuquicamata mine, has been a locus of ongoing dispute between national interests and international corporations. Owned by the US Anaconda Copper Company, It became the primary symbol of Allende’s 1971 copper nationalisation process exemplifying the nation’s claim for economic independence. It is thus impossible not to link the process of nationalisation and Allende’s declared support for indigenous territorial rights, with the 1973 coupt d’etat that ended such processes and implemented processes of “pacification” in their stead. 

From this moment on, a drastic policy shift took place on the part of the military junta with the intention of fully reverting the nationalisation of copper. One of the most radical legal mechanisms introduced was Law 18097 (1982), named ‘Orgánica Constitucional de Concesiones Mineras’, that allowed the privatisation of mining resources together without state control of their destination or use. Moreover, the owners of private concessions benefited as well from the privatization of water supplies without being subject to any additional taxation. Such appropriation of water by copper companies was further promoted by the water code of 1981 allowing for the separation between land and water rights. This has primarily affected indigenous populations without registered legal rights to water, and dispossessed them of the possibility to cultivate their lands. As a central resource for indigenous communities and mining operations, water has became a central object of conflict and the very means by which this conflict in the desert takes place. Moreover, the extraction of water for mining purposes has also enhanced its scarcity making the lives of indigenous communities even more financially difficult. If the dramatic environment produced by the draining of the water-table was not sufficiently challenging, the toxic smoke from copper smelters, the pollution from chemicals, dissolved metals or acids, and the low maintenance standards of tailing ponds and dams has resulted in extensive soil and groundwater contamination.

Given that the extreme conditions of the desert further exacerbate the environmental violence to which its inhabitants have been subjected, in the current era of accelerated climatic transformation, the Atacama has become a paradoxical scenario: a contemporary El Dorado that reflects not only the quest for the underground frontier but also the conflicts behind global resource exploration and the disregard for human rights that often goes hand-in-hand with such territorial calculations 


2Landsat 7 ETM+ image indicating areas where groundwater is potentially contaminated by tailings pond. Images extracted from the report “Impact of tailings pond Talabre to the community of San Francisco de Chiu Chiu” (September 2013)


FA’s research in the Atacama will be coordinated with local partners with whom it will collaborate. Specifically the production of material and spatial evidence in support of legal claims against CODELCO that are being brought about by the indigenous communities of the Loa basin and the Consejo de Pueblos Atacameños. Based on comparative satellite image-analysis of Quillagua, Chiu Chiu and other locations along the Loa basin over the last 40 years, FA will produce empirical evidence illustrating how the appropriation of water resources and environmental pollutants have affected these populations over time, demonstrated by a dramatic decrease in agriculture, which is a key indicator of the impact of mining operations on the basic means of survival. 


4Images extracted from the report “Impact of tailings pond Talabre to the community of San Francisco de Chiu Chiu” (September 2013)

Furthermore FA will produce spatial analysis and documentation on the Loa region of the Atacama as a unique paradigmatic condition. It will focus on the intersection of the West Fault mining belt with the Loa basin, as a historical and specific geological location that has both generated and exaggerated water conflicts between mining extraction and indigenous populations. Particular focus will be given to the history of Chuquicamata copper mine due to its political and symbolic relevance to Chile. 

5NDVI analysis by Jim Norton (GISCorps) indicating a clear decrease in vegetation in the last 40 years. Atacama Desert Project, July 2013. 

Finally, FA will create an online website whose purpose will be both to document the long history of dispossession suffered by local indigenous peoples, as well as to provide a platform where current human rights violations can be detailed and environmental reports uploaded, producing, in effect , an archive that can be utilised by multiple future claims.

6Soil samples were taken from San Francisco de Chiu Chiu to verify the presence of contaminants. September 2013. 

Short clip evidencing the expansion between 1973 and 2013 of the salt-flat Talabre, used by copper company CODELCO as a tailings pond. The ‘false colour’ composite background images enhance the vegetation areas of Chiu Chiu and Loa river in tones of red and brown. Areas of vegetation surrounding Talabre on the NE side are visible until circa 1985. 

ATDP_7Comparison of area between Chiu Chiu and Talabre in 1973, 1993 and 2013. By using a 3-4-2 spectral band combination the presence of vegetation is enhanced in a ‘natural colour’. The image evidences the increasing proximity of the tailings pond and the disappearance of large areas of grasslands on the NE side.

ADP_11Mapping of mine waste using Landsat 8 OLI images, by evidencing the presence of jarosite, which is a result of oxidised pyrite, typically found in copper mining rock waste. On the plots from USGS spectral library 06 we can see how jarosite reflects spectral band 4 (0.63-0.68m), and acid mine drainage from waste rock piles and tailings reflects band 6 (1.56-1.66m). Thus the RGB band combination 6-5-4 (SWIR-NIR-Red) evidences in reds, blues and magentas the massive mining waste areas around Chuquicamata copper mine.

ADP_12NDVI analysis of Chiu Chiu and Chuquicamata copper mine based on Landsat 8 OLI images from September 2013. The Normalised Difference Vegetation Index is a ratio between spectral bands NIR and RED, ranging between -1 and 1, where 1 represents the maximum of healthy vegetation (tropical forest) and 0 barren soils with no moisture. However negative values typically represent either water or extremely acid areas with no organic matter, which can be used to map mining waste areas. Green was attributed to values above 0.2, typically the minimum to indicate vegetation in desert areas, and pink was attributed to negative values. In this way different soil reflection in enhanced, contrasting Chiu Chiu and the river Loa with the expanding mining areas.