Tourism starting to bleed the Lickan Antay people of the Atacama desert dry

Chile’s Los Flamencos reserve is the country’s first to be co-managed by the state and indigenous people. Yet the Lickan Antay’s existence is still a battle

“Welcome to Calama, the city of sun and copper”, proclaims the banner at the entrance to the city, near the Atacama desert. A little further along the road are tourist signs: “Los Flamencos national reserve”, “Death valley”, “Salt desert”. And then, in rapid succession: “Cosmo Andino Expeditions – The Adventure Begins!”, “Pachamama Bed and Breakfast”. The stage is set: copper mines, unique natural sites and tourism shape this high, plateaued region of northern Chile.

The Lickan Antay situate their villages around oases. The key to their survival is the management of water. Manuel Silvestre Gómez, in his 40s, proudly wears his national reserve guard uniform. He loves to talk about his roots.

“To be a Lickan Antay is to be a son of the earth. Each of us knows who his ancestors are. In town you know your grandparents, maybe your great-grandparents,” he says. “We also know how to stay alive in the most arid desert in the world. We’ve learned how to adapt, to manage water, to create our villages. It’s our land. [Ours] is a culture of survival in a dry and salt flat-covered region.

The Los Flamencos national reserve
The Los Flamencos reserve is the first example in Chile of the co-management of a protected area by the state and indigenous people. The sign warns that access to the area is restricted by law. All photographs: Riccardo Pravettoni Photograph: Riccardo Pravettoni

“Of course, we’ve lost things too. Our language, Kunsa, was outlawed at one point and almost disappeared – we all speak Spanish now.”

At more than 70 years old, Felisa López Ramo still tends her garden, organises the collection of water from the sparse rains, carries water from the river and lives off her modest cultivation. She recalls her youth, before the Pinochet dictatorship, before the mines, before tourism. “We had an abundance here, because we had our irrigation systems. You know, now they want to bring us irrigation systems from Israel. But we have our own systems.

“We know how to grow wheat and corn. We don’t need detergent to wash our clothes: we have small berries that grow here which produce soap. When I was young, we made our own beer and wine for the ceremonies, and we used flamingo feathers. They were used as augurs, or to encourage the mountains, where the water is born. Wherever the water went, life was born. It’s simple.

“Our people were invaded by the Inca, then the Spanish, then the Chileans, the miners. Now, conservation and tourists have arrived. They’re all just passing through. Us, we’re staying.”

Tourism has had a major impact. In 1990, the Chilean government established the Los Flamencos national reserve. Rather than resist the move, the Lickan Antay – who, along with other indigenous peoples of Chile, are among the poorest in the country (pdf) – chose to negotiate and adapt. The national reserve is the first example in Chile of the co-management of a protected area by the state and indigenous people.

It is now seen as a strategic alliance that allows the government and the people to preserve the environment more effectively, and channel tourism. The co-management agreement also allows the Lickan Antay to attract other opportunities for development.

Leticia González-Silvestre was born in Toconau, one of the desert villages of the Lickan Antay. After studying away from home, she has returned with an agricultural engineering diploma.

Leticia González-Silvestre, of the Lickan Antay
Leticia González-Silvestre, a respected member of the indigenous council. Photograph: Riccardo Pravettoni

She says co-management of the reserve has given them employment and training opportunities. The communities have formed a non-profit association to collect and redistribute money earned from the reserve. “It’s a benefit in terms of economics and development, but it’s also a recognition of our culture. We continue to negotiate an increasingly important part of the management, taking advantage of the fact that the government has neither the capacity nor the means to invest more.”

The national forest corporation, Conaf, which coordinates the management of protected areas for the government, says the collaboration allows it to fill a gap in its teams. Alejandro Santoro, Conaf’s regional director, says: “This gives us a constant and broader view of the situation. This way, the Lickan Antay are assimilated like personnel.”

“It’s a positive approach,” adds Ivonne Valenzuela, who is in charge of a Conaf unit dedicated to relations with indigenous communities. “The model we’ve adopted is to engage in contracts with the communities. In this way, they can benefit from tourism while we concentrate on the protection of biodiversity. We work with them on many aspects of the management of the reserve, and on the planning and management of eco-tourism projects.”

But not everyone is happy about the surge in the number of tourists spending time in the reserve, which is now the second most visited in Chile, with more than 300,000 visitors a year (pdf). While some welcome the economic advantages, others are concerned about the establishment of tour companies and agencies that ignore the Lickan Antay’s customs and, in some instances, deny their existence.

The small town of San Pedro de Atacama is a succession of hotels, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and tourist agencies. Nights are festive, the restaurants offer international cuisine and the wisest visitors go to bed early to be ready for their treks to discover the geysers and flamingos of the salt flats.

The landscape around San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro de Atacama lies in a region of volcanoes and salt flats, in an arid high plateau of the Andes mountains. Photograph: Riccardo Pravettoni

“All that interests them is filling the bus and visiting the sites, not experiencing a different way of life,” says Sandra Flores, one of the Lickan Antay, who runs a small tourism company, Caravana Ancestral.

“For us it’s very difficult to know that our existence is negated in this way. And we’re unable to get a foothold in the tourism market. The guides say the desert is empty, that there are no more indigenous people. Sure, we’re not in San Pedro, but we’re everywhere in the desert. We dedicate ourselves to our animals, to farming the land.

“Before the creation of the reserve there wasn’t a single tourist, and suddenly they’re everywhere. We haven’t had the time to react and to learn how to set up commercial establishments. But we exist. And our existence is a constant battle.”

Flores set up her business four years ago. She and several members of the community receive tourists in their homes, share a moment together to talk about their way of life, let tourists take out the llamas, and show visitors a Lickan Antay archeological site. But none of them speak fluent English and the business is not well established.

However, the most serious impact of the tourism explosion has been to put pressure on the precarious water situation. The hundreds of hotels being built in San Pedro guzzle water.

“The hotels wanted to buy land and we sold it to them. Already we didn’t have enough water to farm, and now we have to go to another river to fetch water, one we didn’t go to before,” says López Ramo.

San Pedro de Atacama, a town full of bars, restaurants and tourist agencies
San Pedro de Atacama, a focus for tourism within the Atacama desert. Photograph: Riccardo Pravettoni

Because of the hotels, some of the Lickan Antay who live close to San Pedro say, their usual water source dried up. The community no longer has easy access to drinking water, and is forced to use supplies that have passed through a salt desert, meaning the water is more salinated.

The Lickan Antay have also been forbidden from selling their vegetables and fruit to tourists as they cannot guarantee that their water source is not polluted.

González-Silvestre concludes: “The problem with tourism is that it’s not regulated. It’s like wine: one wants to say, ‘It’s a good antioxidant.’ Yes, but if you drink litres every day, you’re not going to feel good.”

Felipe Guerra Schleef is a lawyer for the indigenous rights NGO Observatorio Ciudadano. Convinced of the necessity for his country to conserve its cultural and natural heritage, he has defended indigenous people in cases where their land rights have been violated and resources exploited. “The indigenous people develop their culture according to the land itself. The sense of ownership is fundamental, and if they want to maintain their way of life, their rights over their lands and natural resources must be recognised,” he says.

The Lickan Antay need to act to protect their natural resources, according to Antonio Cruz Plaza. He lives in Calama, next to a large copper mine, and is director of Consejo de Pueblos Atacameños, an indigenous council. A nearby lithium mine is now for sale and he wants the council to take out a loan to buy it so it can be run ethically, although so far no negotiations with the company have taken place, and no loan has been approved by a bank.

While the thought of a group of indigenous people owning a mine, and profiting from the exploitation of natural resources, may shock some, and is certainly not supported by all community members, Cruz Plaza thinks it is a sensible idea.

“We don’t want confrontation, we want a better life. Our big problem is water. We don’t want them to exploit and affect our water, so we prefer to negotiate where they will set up, ensure that this has the minimum impact on our environment. Our people are culturally rich, but we want to change our reality, to forge our own destiny. Why shouldn’t we have the right to live well too?”

The arid region of the Atacama desert
An arid region of the Atacama desert. Photograph: Riccardo Pravettoni


Marine Gauthier and Riccardo Pravettoni in San Pedro de Atacama

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