Drifting down with water A study of the landscapes of the Salar de Atacama

Environmental Architecture’s ongoing investigation intends to challenge the understanding of what is an environment. The methodology of research combines proxy data analysis of the tensions in relation to lithium extraction in the Atacama Desert on global (macro) and local (micro) scales, as well as material evidence collected in the field. It aims to show a fragment of the complex system of relationships, structured by the forces at play in the Salar de Atacama, Chile - the site of MA Environmental Architecture’s research.

In this area of peculiar climatic conditions and extreme fragility of eco-systems, lithium mining exploitation driven by forces operating at global scales of abstraction, collides with indigenous land claims and, more importantly, with an understanding of place which considers a broader, more inclusive perspective on living beings.

In this complex constellation of human and extra-human forces, categorising an environment in its classic terminology recalling ‘nature’ and ‘ecology’ would be fundamentally reductive.

This report takes on the principles of our research practice, and aims to address the question on what constitutes an environment redefining the categories of landscape types through multi-perspectivism and multi-scalarism.

It highlights the competing epistemologies proposing an inclusive way of reading them on the ground, through a topographical-ecological-geological-cultural section based on the case study of Camar.

The context of the Salar:mining

The ‘Lithium Triangle’ is a commercial entity across Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, so defined by the mining companies that exploit in this area between the three different countries, salt pans particularly rich in content of such rare mineral.

The two companies active in the exploitation of the Salar de Atacama are the Chilean State owned SoQuimiCh - in short SQM, which has a long history of mining in the country; and Albermarle, chemical corporation based in the United States. The salt pan contributes to over the 50% of global production.

The same area of the ‘Litihum Triangle’ roughly corresponds to the Puña de Atacama, a territorial entity defined by the remote highlands of the Andean range across the same three countries: Argentina, Bolivia and Chile.

This isolated, remote plateau is inhabited by the Atacameños, indigenous population which settled from ancestral times in the small oases of the highland desert.

Alike the other salt flats, the Salar de Atacama is a depression on the highlands that constitutes the basin of a dried ancient lake. It is a closed basin, which means that the scarce rivers and seasonal streams from the mountain range drain under the soil surface of the salt pan. Lithium mining has been active since the late 1980's.

On the plateau that slopes up to the volcanos in the East side of the salt flat, there is a constellation of 8 villages that forms the indigenous community of the Salar de Atacama. Villages are small, with a population that varies between 50 (Tilomonte) and 2000 people (San Pedro).

Image: North | South section through the salt flat looking East towards the Andean range showing the position of the villages and their reference mountain.

Each village has a ‘field of action’ the lands where the village activities materialise. Such ‘field’ is a disperse portion of territory which goes from the mountain peaks to the salar core. It is recognised according to ancestral uses, such as agriculture and grazing, that are clashing with mining concessions.

Image: North | South section through the salt flat looking East towards the Andean range showing the typical territory of the village.

Above and below

The land is identified with the mountains, the course of the stream, bits of vegetation and the presence of water. It is a vertical perception of the territory that follows the very same path of the other rare and sacred element: water.

Water flows down with the descending elevation, intercepting the different landscapes of ritual, life and functions. It falls from above and disguises its trails below the dry salty ground.

On the left hand side the categorisation of the typical landscapes informed by socio-environmental and cultural criteria; confronted with basics of indigenous cosmology and how it can be related to the territory, on the right hand side.

The image above exemplifies the typical trail of water in its three different states. From the top of the mountains as snow - The Peaks of the Andes, The Highlands. In its thawing it gathers in seasonal streams that dug crevasses and canyons - The Plateau and The Quebradas. The streams are then absorbed into the porous soil below at the salt pan edges -The Alluvial fans.

Water in its form of brine -in highly concentrated salts resulting of geological and tectonic actions over time- gets pumped back on the surface of the salar - The Salt pan core. Brine is the raw material for lithium production. It is this same type of water that emerges to the surfaces drawing salty water lagoons which are the habitat of Andean flamingos, plants and micro-organisms - The lagoons interface.

Lanscapes types. In using this terminology we do not intend to standardise and isolate complex and interdependent eco-systems. In the context of the work, what emerged from the research on the case study of Camar is that such landscapes can be typified with the indigenous perspective on knowledge and culture. These landscapes are typical as representatives of the territorial and organisational structure of each and every village overlooking the salar.

Cerro-Chacra-Campo. The Atacameños revolve their lives in an expanded territory that forms the ayllu - the community and the oasis. They interpret the landscape and make use of the resources available according to different elevations; and this might require to move for tens of kilometres. The three disperse territorial unit that form the ayllu are the cerro - the mountain; the chacra -the terrace field part of the village and the campo -the livestock fields.

To such traditional landscapes of activity it is to add today a contemporary one: the Industrialised Salt pan Core, an agent of transformation acting directly or indirectly on all the interconnected, varied an different levels of the environments.


The Peaks and The Highlands of the Andes

Elevation: 6000-3500 m asl

The mountains are the sacred space which source abundant and rich goods. They are the element that provides and at such thanked and celebrated with rituals. Mountains are the source of minerals, food for animals and human beings, of medicinal plants and water, through rain and snow.

For their elevations they are subjected to weather conditions that are different from ones at lower altitudes and the dry depression of the salt flat. Due to the accumulation of clouds the microclimate is misty and foggy, temperatures are low, it is often windy.

The abundance of humidity allows this level of the landscape to grow a carpet of low vegetation which presents the highest biodiversity among the eco-systems of the salar.

The action of wind on shrubs

Background image: sample collected in the highlands, March 2018

Background image: sample collected in the highlands, March 2018

Rica rica (shrub) and an endemic specie of opuntia (cactus)

Traditional activities in this level include hunting and grazing alpacas and vicuñas, and collecting herbs and medicinal plants.

Despite humidity, contrasting with the peculiar aridity of the rest of the desert, climatic conditions are still extreme and this level is not ‘urbanised’. The only exception are few interstate roads, power lines, and sparse agricultural fields hidden in sheltered spots.


The Plateau and the Quebradas

Elevation: 3200-2500 m asl

Ayllu translates both as community and oasis. It is a territory-based, extended family that forms the basis of productive relations even today and was conceived in terms of common descent from oppositional but complementary mythological ancestors.

This landscape level is composed of disperse parts within short distances, and interpreted as a unit. Again, the distinction between what lies above (plateau) and what lies below (quebrada) is crucial.

Quebradas are canyons eroded with the action of water over time; and water flows in the beds at the bottom of it. Such streams an rivers are the main source of water for the community; they are fed by underground aquifers and snowmelt, and so subjected to seasonal availability.

The plateau is the ground level above the ravines. A sunswept, barren sandy rock-scape composed of layers of volcanic debris.

The presence of water and the shaded space that such rock walls create favour conditions for vegetation to thrive, and flora is luscious in the crevasses: a shelter from the hard sun and dryness of the plateau. Villages are settled in these oases.

Photo-section showing the geological and vegetational structure of the ravine in its natural state.

The permanent habitation space of the village and the terraces field forms the chacra. Agriculture today is still the main source of income together with mining and grazing. The terraces and the water are collective resources managed by and within the ayllu.

Each ayllu has a complex system of canals and regulations to determine times and modes of irrigation.

Some examples of water menagment system

Products of the field are varied and comprise of some produce for trading, like quinoa, carrots, potatoes and corn and some products for subsidence, like tomatoes, garlic and pumpkins.

The cultivation of alfalfa as food for llamas livestock is also common.


Only three types of trees grow in this area: Tamarugo, which is able to reach the underground aquifer with the length of its roots, and so signalling the presence of water. Carob and Chañar, which sweets seeds and fruits are used to make flours and sweeteners.

A carob tree

The Alluvial fans

Elevation: 2500-2400 m asl

The alluvial fans is an idle expanse in the activity field of the community. It is a land to be crossed to find resources.

As space of travel, this area was crossed by the Inca trail, major link of the Empire from Cuzco to what is today Santiago. The trail is now replaced by two main roads connecting the villages of the salar on a North|South axis.

In this landscape level aridity is extreme, and vegetation is extremely rare. The soil is formed of rocks, sands and layer over layer of volcanic debris.

Samples of volcanic rocks and debris collected travelling across the alluvial fans. March 2018
Fragment of igneous rock
Quartz mineral

Background image: Dumped copper ore. Sample collected in March 2018

The water is progressively absorbed underground reaching the aquifer below the salt pan crust. Its presence is manifested only in traces readable in the marks it leaves or in the lone presence of a Tamarugo tree.

In the last 20 years, since the beginning of heavy extraction of brine, the rare vegetation has reduced further due to the lowering of the acquirer table for over-exploitation in lithium mining.

Analysis of vegetation and water surfaces through photo processing of landsat images. 1993|2015. In the 22 years both water surface and vegetation cover have significantly reduced.

white: deep water / snow, off white: shallow waters, green: vegetation.

In addition to overexploitation of water, the road infrastructures are disrupting its course, driving it to accumulate in areas where it would not normally flow.

The phenomenon is causing fragmentation of the eco-systems and the creation of new ones: small new patches of vegetation along the road on the formerly barren land.

Accumulation of water along the road at the foothill of Camar. Landsat 2016

This fragmentation has a particular impact on the landscape level below, the lagoons.


The Lagoons interface

Elevation: 2400-2300 m asl

Visual analysis of the water mirror reduction of the lagoons in the Aguas de Quelana sector, which is part of Camar’s territory. 2004|2016

Collecting samples of soil and microbial fragments in the dried lagoons of Tilopozo, South of the Salar. March 2018

The Industrial Salt pan Core

Expansion of mining operations from 1984 to 2016

Created By
Vanessa Lastrucci


Created with images by LoggaWiggler - "vicuña lama paarhufer"

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