The transformation of the territory and communal water practices in the Atacama Desert, Chile

By Cristian Olmos Herrera [1]


The Atacama Desert in northern Chile is the driest region in the world (Clarke, 2006). Scarce water and a vast territory play key roles in the identities of the region’s inhabitants, called Atacameños, and their communities (Boelens & Gelles, 2005). Since pre-Incan times, water has been a culturally central element shaping, distributing and organising the Andean landscape of the Atacama Desert (Bittmann, Le Paige, & Nuñez, 1978). Hence, life in the region depends on the use, management and conservation of water resources, which form part of the Andean ‘cosmovision’ (Yáñez & Molina, 2011).


The desert also contains the largest worldwide deposits of several minerals, such as copper, nitrate and lithium (Phelps, Atienza, & Arias, 2015), which are governed by the Chilean state and its extractive approach to natural resources. It handed over territorial control from local indigenous communities to private companies (Tecklin, Bauer, & Prieto, 2011). The abundance of minerals in combination with a legislative framework that encourages extractivism by private international companies creates conflicts over water use and over territorial expansion, in which the local autonomy of rural communities is continuously reduced.


Currently, many of the communities near the Atacama Salt Lake are put under pressure by the mining sector which exploits their water resources, both superficial and underground, as well as brine and salts reserves, which are fundamental for the lithium extraction process (Yáñez & Molina, 2008). The inhabitants of the desert utilise the water flowing down from the Andes mountain range for agricultural production by canalizing and distributing it among the community members. Unused water flows further downstream to the Atacama Salt Lake, where it is fundamental for keeping alive the flora and fauna of the desert ecosystem (Figure 1). The indigenous people of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile are increasingly concerned about the deterioration of their traditions, territory and practices related to water, but these concerns are often made invisible by the economic discourses of the mining sector.


According to Sergio Cubillos, the president of the ‘Consejo de Pueblos Atacameños’ (the Council of Atacameño Villages) the inhabitants of the communities of the Atacama Desert identify several environmental changes and hazards within their territory. Commenting on the extension of mining territory, Sergio argues:


“Our communities have seen with concern how the entire Atacama Salt Flat and the high mountain range are under mining concession […] which has resulted in strong mining exploration campaigns, threatening the tranquillity of the communities and ecosystems”.

Figure 1: Movements of water in the Atacama territory

Source: Author based on Hidalgo & Grebe (1988)


Mining is one of the most significant contributors to the water scarcity crisis in the majority of the regions of Chile, especially in the Atacama Desert, where mining companies enter indigenous territories through claiming their water rights (surface and groundwater), while ignoring local rules. At the institutional level, the state agency in charge of managing water is the National Water Directorate (DGA, Ministry of Public Works). This institution grants requests for water rights to mining companies without any charge, and without any consideration for the actual availability of water.


The black areas in Figure 2 display all mining concessions for the exploitation or extraction of resources in the territory of the Antofagasta region, where the Atacama Desert is located. The dotted areas are the rights assigned to exploration. The Chilean Mining Code (Ministerio de Minería, 1983), in its article Number 14, paragraph 1, states that: ‘Everyone has the ability to test and dig in lands of any domain, except those within the limits of a foreign mining concession, in order to find mineral substances’. Hence, it allows the mining industry to explore areas to see what minerals exist and to take control of the water that forms part of that particular mining concession.


In their annual sustainability reports, mining companies frequently promote a discourse of ‘water saving’, referring specifically to the reduced use of surface water in agriculture production, which in turn helps to better distribute water resources among local farmers, particularly in times of droughts. This discourse of ‘water saving’ is pushed through the promotion and introduction of new modes of agricultural production such as drip irrigation systems which are implemented by mining companies through their social responsibility programmes. However, the introduction of these new irrigation systems has not only led to changes in water management but also changes in the social power relations around surface and groundwater. The water that flows in the irrigation canals of the communities goes directly to recharge the Salt Lake, which means that it delivers resources to the mining company itself. In relation to this form of recharging the Salt Lake, Sergio Cubillos states:


“Lithium mining in the Salar de Atacama (Salt Lake) should be understood as ‘water mining’ of the driest desert in the world, due to the extraction of brine made up of 35% salt and 65% water. This means that obtaining a ton of lithium requires 2 million litres of water. Lithium is obtained through evaporation pools, a very convenient technology for the industry, which generates great losses of groundwater through evaporation and puts great stress on a non-renewable water system and associated ecosystems.”

Figure 2: Areas for exploration and exploitation, Antofagasta region.

Source: Author based on IDE Chile, 2017.


According to elderly farmers in one of communities in the Atacama Desert, the social responsibility programmes coming from the mining companies have been mainly driven by economic factors that encourage large-scale agricultural production and monoculture. According to Clara, a traditional farmer, those social responsibility programmes encourage individualistic production techniques, and thereby intensify the lack of solidarity, stimulate competition and increase inequality through a lack of opportunities for smaller scale farmers. Clara states:


“Ultimately, we have adopted new methods of irrigation. The drip and sprinkling irrigation have entered very quickly. The drip irrigation has been adopted by farmers, but that implies an increase of monoculture plantations. The reason is that those irrigation systems are designed for this kind of production, those systems push us to generate widespread plantations. Therefore, from a technological aspect, I see that we are going backwards. The global discourse goes in a different direction than monoculture, it is rather related to polyculture, because that gives us a balance with ecosystems”.


Conflicts generated by the corporate social responsibility programmes of the mining industry have created a complex scenario: Firstly, water flows have considerably diminished by the extension of the plantations. Secondly, there has been a change in surface and groundwater flows, because the water cycle of the Atacama’s salt flat basin, which is essential for the functioning of this ecosystem, has been severely altered both in terms of water quantity and water quality. In addition, concerns arise because of a strong lack of community engagement and a persistent individualistic interest which has been encouraged through neoliberal policies for exploiting resources. Reduced water use and availability do not only threaten the community, but also change the hydrological cycle and access to groundwater.




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[1] Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Geography, Planning and International Development studies, University of Amsterdam.


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