Greetings from Atacama Desert, Chile!

Socaire ayllo. Atacameño farmers preparing the soil for the potato sowing season (Aug-Oct).
Socaire ayllo. Atacameño farmers preparing the soil for the potato sowing season (Aug-Oct).

I am currently in the Antofagasta region of Chile, specifically at the Atacama Desert Oases, traversing the main ayllos (villages with a traditional sociopolitical organization) of this area. The purpose of this primarily fieldwork is to go over the ayllos at the Atacama Desert Oases looking for places where agriculture and pastoralism are still part of the subsistence strategies among the Atacameños – the indigenous population that has inhabited these Oases since prehispanic times. Given that the research I intend to accomplish for my doctoral dissertation in the future relates to diet, nutrition and genetics associated with ecological and dietary adaptations among two indigenous populations of Chile, to register the communities where traditional subsistence practices persist is a crucial step to start my research.

Despite the high altitude and arid conditions of this geographic area, the populations have efficiently sorted this obstacle by creating a complex irrigation system in platforms located in the ravines. This system date back to approximately 2000 BC, and is still used by the Atacameño farmers. Much of the agriculture platforms were abandoned, and they remain as archaeological relics; however, some of them have survived since prehispanic times and are seasonally exploited.

During the last eight days, I have visited 13 Atacameño indigenous communities: Chiu-Chiu, Toconao, Talabre, Camar, Peine, Tilomonte, Socaire, Río Grande, Solor, Sequitor, Coyo, Machuca, and Caspana, and in the following days I am going to visit other five communities in the upper Loa River Basin. At this moment, one of the main findings has been to note that in most of the communities, pastoralism has been almost abandoned, being practiced only by old men of a couple of families. Llama raising is found in most of the communities; however, it seems that llama herding has been replaced by goat and sheep herding since these animals do not require transhumance migration. Among the communities I have visited, transhumance is not a subsistence strategy despite that in some of them llama herding is an important economic activity. Due to the preeminence of sheep and goat herding, today alfalfa is one of the main crops, although agriculture overall is decaying. In most of the ayllos, agriculture is represented by a few native species and some introduced crops. Among the native crops, different types of corn are quite common in nearly all the communities I have been, and a peculiar variety of potato (a dark purple potato) is relatively popular in Socaire (3500 masl). Fava beans, onions, garlic, carrots, and alfalfa –all of them species introduced by Spanish colonizers- are widespread in most of the domestic gardens. Moreover, in the communities where water is less scarce, fruits such as apple, pear, peach, and cacti fruit, are intensively cultivated.

Socaire ayllo. Fava beans planted in a traditional agriculture platform.
Socaire ayllo. Fava beans planted in a traditional agriculture platform.

Due to the abandonment of traditional agriculture and pastoralism practices is ongoing, now my goal is to recognize and understand the factors that are contributing to this process in each community, and to identify the ayllos where agriculture and a more traditional diet is still found. In addition to visiting and talk to farmers of every community, I intended to meet a government official of the CONADI (National Corporation of Indigenous Development) at the San Pedro de Atacama town; however, I realized here that the office has been closed since April. In the next days, I have planned to meet government officials from the CONADI at the Calama city office to ask for more information regarding the government programs on agriculture and irrigation improvement, as well as to about demographics and sociopolitical organization of each Atacameño community. That kind of information will be very useful to start making contacts with the community leaders (dirigentes) for my dissertation pilot study the next summer (2017).

I wish to express my gratitude to CLACS at IU, and to my Chilean sponsor (Becas Chile-CONICYT) for the funding that have make this fieldwork possible, and also to all the Atacameños who have shared their knowledge and experiences with me. This preliminary fieldwork has a fundamental value to my future research in the area.

Catalina Fernández is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology at IU. 

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