The Atacama desert, a vulnerable ecosystem turned into a dump

Mountains of used clothing, discarded cars and tires from all over the world pollute the vast Atacama desert in northern Chile, an ecosystem in a fragile balance that has become the planet’s dumping ground.

In the midst of landscapes that captivate by their beauty and austerity, these patches of debris appeared in various parts of the desert, a territory of more than 100,000 square kilometers, highlighting human contempt for this corner of the planet.

“They are the unscrupulous of the world who come to throw their garbage here (…) We are no longer even the local backyard, but rather the world’s backyard, which is worse,” deplored Patricio Ferreira, mayor of Alto Hospicio, about 1,800 km north of Santiago, where tons of used clothing are dumped among the dusty hills that surround the commune.

In neighboring Iquique, thousands of discarded cars and old tires from mining or other vehicles also accumulate. There are so many that they are even used to build walls of informal houses.

Garments and vehicles enter Chile through the Iquique Free Trade Zone (Zofri), one of the most important duty-free trade centers in South America.

Last year, according to the National Customs Service, 46,287 tons of used clothing entered Chile, for an amount of 49.6 million CIF dollars (value of the product, plus transportation and insurance). Revenue grew more than 50% since 2018.

Thousands of used cars also arrive in Chile through Zofri, most with left-hand drive, which is adapted here.

A large part of these cars is re-exported to Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay, but many end up dumped in the streets and hills of the Atacama.

In the municipal warehouse of the Los Verdes sector, in the north of Iquique, 8,400 cars have been removed from the streets.

Lack of global awareness

The fragility of the desert and those who live in its surroundings led lawyer Paulín Silva, 34, to file a lawsuit against the State of Chile for the environmental damage caused by mountains of clothing and garbage.

“It seemed to me that we have to find those responsible,” she explained to AFP, perched on a hill of used clothing thrown away in the La Pampa sector of Alto Hospicio.

There are tossed shirts and blouses — some brand new and with tags — baby clothes, pants, or shoes. Also piles of tires, in a post-apocalyptic image that is repeated in several areas of this commune formed from successive illegal land seizures and which today is one of the poorest in Chile.

A quarter of its almost 160,000 inhabitants do not have drinking water.

“There are a lot of migrants, a lot of poverty, a lot of drug addiction, and there is no one who can coordinate these (defense) actions,” Silva says of his environmental crusade.

In his lawsuit he attached satellite images showing the exponential growth of the clothing dump. In the search, she also found other gigantic dumps of all kinds of items, including shoes.

“This is not the product of the people of Alto Hospicio or of the north of Chile. It is a problem of a lack of global awareness, a lack of ethical responsibility and environmental protection”, answers Mayor Ferreira.

More than half of the used clothing that enters Chile is discarded and ends up in the desert. To hide it, it is burned and buried, generating an additional environmental problem due to toxic fumes.

“We cleaned once and they are contaminating us in another sector. The issue is how we end the cause of this problem. What does the world do with this? What does Chile do with this?” asks the mayor of Alto Hospicio.

For the lawyer Silva, there is a responsibility of the Chilean State by allowing the existence of these mountains of garbage and clothing: “There is a duty of vigilance,” she affirms.

Judge Mauricio Oviedo, head of the First Environmental Court of Chile, where the lawsuit is being processed, pleads for a comprehensive solution to the disposal of clothing.

“It seems to me that the State of Chile as a whole with other departments (…) should look at this problem in a systemic way,” he told AFP.

“Not So Desert Desert”

For at least eight million years, the Atacama has been the driest desert in the world, where rain is a rare phenomenon, with annual rainfall of less than 20 millimeters in its driest zone.

“It is a type of desert in which the level of rainfall is really extremely low. There are very few hyperarid deserts on the planet,” explains Pablo Guerrero, a botany academic at the University of Concepción and a researcher at the Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity.

In some areas near the coast, the influence of the mist has enabled the development of an ecosystem that “is very fragile”, where as a result of pollution, climate change and human settlements, various types of cacti have already become extinct.

“There are cactus species considered extinct. Unfortunately, it is something that is seen in a very massive way and with a systematic deterioration in recent years,” adds Guerrero.

But there are also other sources of risk for the desert: the large copper and lithium mining, very intensive in the use of scarce water and the emission of waste.

They “see the desert as a mining area only, where the mineral is exploited and where they can extract resources or fill their pockets,” complains Carmen Serrano, from the Raíces Endémicas organization in the city of Antofagasta, considered the capital of the world mining.

“There is not that awareness that it is a desert that is not so desert,” he adds, on a mountain of waste in the former La Chimba dump, officially closed but where garbage continues to accumulate.