The Atacama Mining Desert as a Landscape of Enrichment, Migration, and Geopolitics

Andrea Westermann

The Atacama Desert in Chile is a store of mineral resources that has been emptied over centuries-long booms of silver, saltpeter and copper mining and which, for decades now, is being emptied ever more rapidly. At the same time, it is a perpetually growing archive of collected societal pasts. Its extreme dryness and salty soil conditions ensure the preservation of objects and bodies. The desert is a site where materials accumulate but also history accumulates, including fantasmatic histories and stories: „Atacama Desert, you have accumulated the saltpeter mines and have kept the walls and the iron/ Here both everything and nothing under the sun remained/ Despite all the light/ everything is cold like an ice floe“. These are the lyrics „Canto a las Salitreras,“ a long poem about the Atacama Desert as a store of raw materials – a lyrical genre unto itself that also includes desert and saltpeter novels. In fact, the synthesis of ammonia at the beginning of the 20th century, which was developed by the German chemical industry, completely destroyed the Chilean nitrate industry by the mid-1950s. As a consequence, the literal ruins of about 170 saltpeter mines are scattered across the landscape today. This ghostly presence of past life goes together with the mirages or Fata Morganas often thematized in Atacama sources and Atacama stories; it also goes together with the forgotten or covert histories of national and international political persecution that took place in the desert. Phenomena of entanglement like this can be found repeatedly in the history of the Atacama Desert.

The dual framing of the Atacama Desert as a store of raw materials and as an archive makes it possible for us to reconstruct societal actions in extreme environments. Joining science and technology studies to social history, this project explores the geological, political, and geopolitical knowledge of people who lived in the Atacama Desert—people who migrated there and joined the indigenous labor force en masse, making a living in an unlivable region, and engaging in politics there too.

The research project is supported by studies in Chilean history and profits from the currently flourishing anthropological microstudies on (mining) communities in northern Chile, as well as from their macro-historical counterparts, that is, from raw-materials-focused studies on geopolitics and international relations. The project’s results will be presented in essays.

Related Publications

Andrea Westermann. "Migrations and Radical Environmental Change. When Social History Meets the History of Science (Review Essay).” NTM. Zeitschrift für Wissenschaften, Technik und Medizin 27.3 (2019). [Recommended Autumn Reading 2019 from the Editors of the Journal of the History of Ideas Blog] Available Online

Andrea Westermann and Onur Erdur. "Migrant Knowledge: Studying the Epistemic Dynamics that Govern the Thinking in and around Migration, Exile, and Displacement." GHI Bulletin Supplement (2020): 5–16. Available Online

Andrea Westermann. “Migrant Knowledge: An Entangled Object of Research.” Migrant Knowledge, March 14, 2019. Available Online