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Category: People

The Geoglyphs of Chug Chug: A History Written on the Land

Journeying north from the Chilean capital of Santiago, there is a point, perhaps passing the town of Copiapó, around 27° S, when the vegetation stops and the desert begins in earnest; arid, parched, the land strewn with rocks and rubble. It is an unworldly landscape, one that at first sight would appear to deny the very possibility of human life, but that nonetheless has been inhabited by humans for many thousands of years. Passing the Tropic of Cancer, now around 22° S, as the plane begins its descent into the oasis of Calama, the mining capital of Chile’s Norte Grande, I have a bird’s-eye view of the land, of its terracottas and arenaceous yellows, of the whites of the salt flats, the die-straight roads that cut across the land, the tops of distant volcanoes shimmering in the heat; a mirage, a landscape suspended in time. Touching down on the tarmac, the contrast between the solid black and the buff land from which the runway is carved sticks in my mind.

Later that night, leaving the city of Calama behind us and heading into the unknown, the contrast returns to haunt me, the beam of the headlights illuminating snatches of the empty space around us; vast, menacing, uncertain. The nightlights dance demonically in the distance behind us, flickering orange and red: Calama and the neighbouring town of Chuquicamata, home to the world’s largest open-pit copper mine, its voracious appetite fed by multiple rows of pylons running in parallel to the road.…

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Chile, the Land and Its People: A Dialogue

In Tristes Tropiques (1955), the French anthropologist Claud Lévi-Strauss remarked on the difference between the landscapes of Europe and the Americas. As Europeans, he observed, whose relationship with the land has been a long and gradual process, we are ‘unacquainted with virgin nature since our landscape is manifestly subservient to man.’ Crossing the Atlantic, however, the situation is different: while there no doubt remain areas—and vast ones at that—where it is possible to appreciate the pristine nature alluded to by Lévi-Strauss, when ‘development’— here understood as the large-scale colonization and industrial usage of the land by humans—had taken place, it had done so to a faster rhythm and on a much larger scale. ‘Either,’ Lévi-Strauss wrote, ‘nature has been so ruthlessly mastered that it has been turned into an open air factory’ or it has been ‘sufficiently inhabited by man for him to have had time to lay it waste but not long enough for slow and continuous cohabitation to have raised it to the dignity of a landscape.’

Examples abound:  Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass (2013), a fascinating meditation on indigenous wisdom and the natural environment, devotes an entire chapter to exploring the toxic legacy of nineteenth century industrial expansion that continues to blight the Onondaga lake, while Koyaanisqatsi (1983), the fruit of a collaboration by filmmaker Godfrey Reggio and composer Philip Glass, documents the disconnect between the people and the land in the United States during the apogee of twentieth century consumer capitalism.

The lesson is clear: as the pace and scale of development grows, the potential for degradation increases exponentially.…

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