It could be one of the driest places on earth – a brutal, alien landscape where life seems impossible.
But Chile’s vast Atacama Desert is a unique and fragile ecosystem that experts say is threatened by mountains of garbage from around the world.
Mounds of discarded clothing, a graveyard of shoes, and row upon row of scrapped tires and cars blight at least three regions of northern Chile’s desert.
“We’re not just the local backyard anymore, we’re the world’s backyard, which is worse,” Patricio Ferreira, mayor of the desert city of Alto Hospicio, told AFP.
The Atacama, with its awe-inspiring, otherworldly beauty and expansive salt flats, has also been transformed by intensive copper and lithium mining.
Carmen Serrano, head of environmental NGO Endemic Roots, said most people see the Atacama just as “bare hills” where they can “extract resources or line their pockets.”
– ‘Lack of global awareness’-
Chile has long been a transshipment point for used and unsold clothing from Europe, Asia and the United States, which is either resold throughout Latin America or ending up in desert dumps.
Spurred on by the world’s insatiable appetite for fast fashion, this chain funneled over 46,000 tons of used clothing to the Iquique Free Trade Zone in northern Chile last year.
Packed with chemicals and biodegradable for up to 200 years, activists say the clothes are polluting the soil, air and groundwater.
The contaminated sites are sometimes even set on fire.
“The material is highly flammable. The fires are toxic,” said lawyer and activist Paulin Silva, 34, who has filed a lawsuit in the country’s environmental court over damage caused by the piles of trash and clothing.
“It seems to me we need to find those responsible,” she said, standing among the discarded items that she said were “dangerous, an environmental hazard, a hazard to people’s health.”
Used cars are also pouring into the country from the free trade zone. Many are exported to Peru, Bolivia or Paraguay, others end up in cemeteries stretching for miles in the surrounding desert.
Stacks of abandoned tires are also scattered across the desert.
Mayor Ferreira bemoaned a “lack of global awareness, ethical responsibility and environmental protection” by “the world’s unscrupulous”.
“We feel abandoned. We feel that our country has been sacrificed.”
– A “very fragile” ecosystem”-
For more than eight million years, the 100,000 square kilometer Atacama has been the driest desert in the world.
Rain is rare and absent in some parts.
The driest part is the Yungay district in the city of Antofagasta. Scientists have found extreme forms of life here, microorganisms that have adapted to a virtually waterless world, high levels of sunlight and scarce nutrients.
Scientists believe these microorganisms may hold secrets to evolution and survival on Earth and other planets.
NASA considers Yungay District to be the most similar landscape on Earth to Mars and uses it to test its robotic vehicles.
While it doesn’t rain much, large banks of fog sweep across the desert, allowing some plants — and some of the world’s hardiest lichen, fungi, and algae — to grow.
Numerous colorful wildflower species bloom in above-average rainfall in a spectacular display that takes place every five to seven years, most recently in 2021.
It’s an ecosystem that’s “very fragile because any change or decrease in rainfall and fog patterns has immediate consequences for the species that live there,” said Pablo Guerrero, a researcher at the Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity and a desert expert on cactus.
“There are cactus species that are thought to be extinct due to pollution, climate change and human settlement”.
“Unfortunately, we’re seeing this on a large scale, with a systematic deterioration in recent years.”