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Human Well-Being and Sustainable Management in San Pedro de Atacama-Chile

Project Summary

The sub-global assessment in Chile was coordinated by RIDES and took place in the municipality of San Pedro de Atacama (SPA), which lies within the world’s driest desert, the Atacama. The municipality encompasses a total area of 23,439 km2, divided into two main geographical units. The western zone consists of the Salar de Atacama Basin, which contains a watercourse system that supports numerous bird species, including three species of emblematic flamingos. The eastern zone consists of precordillera (Andean foothills), cordillera (the Andes), and the sub-desertic steppe of the Puna de Atacama.

The high degree of social complexity (multiple users of ecosystems services) in an adverse physical environment is the main characteristic of this sub-global assessment. Indigenous people, large mining projects, tourism, and part-time residency are primary features of life in the region. Additional relevant groups include radioastronomy projects (ALMA and other similar projects), regional universities, and government authorities. Because of the diversity of ecosystem users, the SPA ecosystem assessment was conducted with a strong participatory component, which aimed for the inclusion of the multiple stakeholders of the region. Therefore, a multi-stakeholder Advisory Committee was formed early in the process to accompany RIDES in the project development.

This project addressed several questions of ecological significance to the region and produced alternative scenarios based on research into these issues. Results indicate that the closed water basin system of the world’s driest desert is highly vulnerable to any water extraction. Water rights are divided amongst the various ecosystems users, but water extraction rights have been granted on average for a higher level than the recharge rate coming into the system. Particularly, extraction rates are higher than calculated recharge rates in the southeast of the basin. Expansion of tourism and mining are contentious issues in the community, and shared vision as to the direction of these development activities was lacking.

Assessment Approach

The assessment was carried out in two stages over a period of 16 months, from May 2003 until the end of 2004. Stage one, the base line, consisted of collating and categorising all available information on each of the ecosystems services identified by the users. Emphasis was placed on identifying the conditions and trends and factors of change for each of the issues researched.

In-depth analysis of water resources, the creation and development of scenarios, and the formulation of responses for sustainable management in SPA were conducted for stage two of the assessment.

Lead Institutions

The lead institution for this assessment was the independent research centre, RIDES (Resources and Research for Sustainable Development) which coordinated this subglobal assessment. External teams directed the technical segments of the base line study. These include Javier Simonetti (biodiversity), Executive Director of the Interdisciplinary Study Programme on Biodiversity at the University of Chile and Paolo Bevacqua (water; hydrogeologyst) of Aquaconsult. Georgina Cundill, of the Southern African Millennium Assessment (SAfMA) assisted in preparation of scenarios and the executive summary. The assessment was carried out under the direction of Hernán Blanco and the coordination of Andrés Marín.

Contact information

  • Hernán Blanco
    Executive Director
  • Andrés Marín
    Project coordinator and researcher
    Recursos e Investigación para el Desarrollo Sustentable
    Alfredo Lecanellier 1945, Of. 2
    Providencia, Santiago, Chile
    Tel/Fax: +56-2-2317565

Other organisations collaborated on this project, including: CONAF forestry agency; Indigenous People’s Development Area; San Pedro de Atacama municipality; and the mining companies in the area. The core funding for this assessment was provided by the MA, and additional financial and in kind support was made available by Minera Escondida Limitada , Compañía Minera Zaldívar and SQM Salar.

Focal Issues

The two main focal issues in this assessment were water and tourism. Water is the central issue to the Salar area in particular, and to the whole municipality of San Pedro de Atacama in general. All other activities (goods and services provided by the Salar) – mining, biodiversity, agriculture, etc. -- are directly related to water quantity and quality. Tourism is an increasingly important economic activity and is also an attractive development alternative for most local inhabitants. Inclusiveness and participation by all stakeholders –through the Advisory Committee- were the primary objectives of the assessment approach, as the ecosystem users are diverse and lacked a shared vision in how ecosystem services should be utilised in the region.

Ecosystems services assessed

Water, tourism, biodiversity, mining, agriculture, livelihood of the Atacameño ethnic group, and astronomical observation and research.

Project Outputs & Results

The issue of tourism, its expansion, and its environmental and social costs is hotly debated in the SPA community. Existing data is inconclusive as to the amount of tourism the water resources of the region can support. Job creation as a result of the tourist industry is an important source of income to local communities, but it also has negative impacts on the environment, people’s quality of life and local traditions.

Analysis developed by the SPA assessment indicated that water consumption by mining does not affect or interfere directly with other consumers in the Salar de Atacama basin. However, lack of agreement on the appropriate direction for mining development and historical conflict is a source of contention between local communities and mining companies. Indigenous communities and related public institutions do not have enough resources, compared to mining companies, to buy water rights.

Knowledge systems in the SPA includes both traditional knowledge held by the Atacameño and new knowledge produced through modern scientific methods, especially archaeological

and astronomical research and observation. Traditional knowledge is threatened in the region, as it is held only by a small number of individuals. Astronomical observation is an important feature in the landscape, with several high technology telescope projects already located there. Infrastructure necessary for these projects may present a threat to ecosystems services.


Three scenarios, developed qualitatively from the base line data, were developed with projections to the year 2025. Each scenario included a primary theme and type of decision-making. These include:

  • Growth and development: Local decision-making and economic growth;
  • Nothing changes: Centralised decision-making and economic growth
  • Surviving in adversity: Centralised decision-making and economic decline.

Results of the scenarios participatory analysis show all stakeholders in agreement that all local groups and inhabitants should be increasingly involved in decision making without discrimination. Recommendations from scenario workshops were multi-fold and include:

  • Strengthening community participation in decision-making;
  • Planning and regulating the use of water, land and natural energy;
  • Implementing strategies to regulate tourism and management to strengthen special interest tourism;
  • Revitalising indigenous culture;
  • Redefining real participation and operation mechanisms in the Indigenous Development Area (ADI) and methodologies for public investment;
  • Encouraging community as a whole to work on conflict management;
  • Integrating companies with local identity into local challenges.


In English

En Español

Also Available from RIDES: Multimedia CD with all the reports, presentations and video made in the framework of the project.


© 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment