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Atacama Desert, a sensitive ecosystem, turned into a dustbin

Mountains of used clothing, discarded cars and tires from around the world pollute the vast Atacama Desert in northern Chile, an ecosystem in a delicate balance that has become the planet’s dumping ground. Amidst landscapes mesmerizing in their beauty and austerity, these patches of debris appeared in different parts of the desert, an area of ​​more than 100,000 square kilometres, highlighting human contempt for this corner of the planet Is. “They are the scoundrels of the world who come here to dump their garbage (…) We are no longer even a local backyard, but the backyard of the world, which is worse,” said Patricio Ferreira, mayor of Alto Hospicio, 1,800 miles from Santiago. km north, 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 make the 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 (the value of the product, plus transportation and insurance). Earnings have increased by more than 50% since 2018. Thousands of used cars also arrive in Chile through Zofry, most of which are left-hand drive, which has been adapted here. A large proportion of these cars are re-exported to Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay, but many are dumped in the streets and hills of the Atacama. 8,400 cars have been removed from the streets at a municipal warehouse in the Los Verdes sector north of Iquique. – Lack of global awareness – The fragility of the desert and the people living around it prompted Pauline Silva, a 34-year-old lawyer, to file a lawsuit against the Chilean state for the environmental damage caused by the mountains of clothing and garbage. “I felt like we had to find those people,” she explained to AFP, standing on a hill of discarded used clothing in the La Pampa sector of Alto Hospicio. There are discarded shirts and blouses—some brand new and with tags—from children’s clothing, pants, or shoes. Also the piles of tyres, in a post-apocalyptic image that have been created by frequent illegal land seizures in different areas of this commune and which today is one of the poorest in Chile. A quarter of its roughly 160,000 residents do not have access to drinking water. “There are a lot of migrants, a lot of poverty, a lot of drug addiction, and there is nobody 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, they also found huge dumps of all kinds of goods, including shoes. “It is not a product of Alto Hospicio or the people of the north of Chile. It is a problem of lack of global awareness, lack of moral 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 buried by burning, creating an additional environmental problem due to the toxic fumes. “We cleaned up once and they are contaminating us in another area. The issue is how do we eliminate the cause of this problem. What does the world do with it? What does Chile do with it?” asks the mayor of Alto Hospicio. For lawyer Silva, allowing the existence of these mountains of garbage and clothing is the responsibility of the Chilean state: “There is a duty of vigilance,” she affirms. Mauricio Oviedo, chief judge of Chile’s First Environmental Court, where the trial is being processed, calls for a comprehensive solution to the disposal of the clothing. “It seems to me that the entire Chilean state, together with other departments (…) should look at this problem in a systematic 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 occurrence, with its driest area receiving less than 20 millimeters of annual rainfall. “It is a type of desert in which the level of precipitation is really low. There are very few hyperarid deserts on the planet,” explains Pablo Guerrero, a botany academic at the University of Concepcion and a researcher at the Institute of Ecology. Biodiversity. In some areas near the coast, the effects of haze have enabled the development of an ecosystem that is “very fragile”, where various types of cacti have already become extinct, as a result of pollution, climate change and human settlements. “Cactus species are considered extinct. Unfortunately, this is something that is seen on a very large scale and with a systematic decline in recent years,” says Guerrero. But there are other sources of risk to the desert: large copper and lithium mining, very intensive use of scarce water, and waste emissions. They “see the desert only as a mining area, where minerals are exploited and where they can extract resources or line their pockets,” complains Carmen Serrano from the organization Rice Endemicus in the city of Antofagasta, known as It is considered the mining capital of the world. , “It’s not the awareness that it’s a desert that’s not so much a desert,” he says, over a mountain of garbage at the former La Chimba dump, officially closed but where trash continues to pile up. PA/PB/LTL/DB

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