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Chilean Archaeologists and Environmentalists Fight Dakar Rally

Archaeologists and environmentalists say the annual off-road race Dakar Rally destroys key historic archaeological sites in Chile. Above, the race in Iquique, Chile in 2012. Credit: Fredi Bach/ CC by 2.0

SANTIAGO, Jan 9 2013 (IPS) - Archaeologists, environmentalists and the National Monuments Council are battling the Dakar Rally, an annual off-road race, in northern Chile, an area with a rich archaeological and natural heritage that has already lost dozens of sites key to understanding Chilean and South American prehistory.

The rally begins in Chile on Wednesday. Official figures say that the past four rallies in South America have destroyed more than 200 archaeological sites in the country’s north. At risk in many cases are geoglyphs – figures on hillsides and plains – that are being studied by scientists, as well as paths called the Inca Trail, residential remains, lithic workshops and cattle trails.

“Large pieces that articulate our understanding of prehistory are disappearing, and every time one of these sites is destroyed, it is a book that is burnt,” archaeologist Paola Gonzalez told IPS. “In Chile we have just 500 years of Western history documented by chronicled or written accounts, but there are another 20,000 years that are understood by studying these remains,” she noted.

“Due to climatic conditions, the Chilean desert is a privileged place for the conservation of these archaeological remains,” she added, calling the destruction produced by Dakar “tremendous”.

In this southern country, under the Archaeological Monument category of the National Monuments Law, 17,288 archaeological and paleontological sites in the country are under state ownership. The destruction of monuments is an offence under Chilean law and carries penalties of imprisonment, fines and administrative sanctions for public officials who facilitate their destruction.

The thirty-fourth edition of the Dakar Rally, which originally ran between Paris and the capital of Senegal and was moved to South America under allegations of a lack of security in Africa, began Jan. 5 in the capital of Peru, with over 3,000 competitors from 53 countries.

The fifth crossing on South American soil moves to Chile on Jan. 9, moves into Argentinian territory, then returns to Chile, where it culminates on Jan. 19.

Participating in the event, which is run by the company Amaury Sport Organisation, are 459 vehicles, including 189 motorcycles, 155 cars, 75 trucks and 40 quad bikes, according to organisers.

Dakar Rally director Etienne Lavigne said before starting this year’s edition that the organisation has taken all necessary measures for the care and protection of the environment, and to prevent damage to the archaeological heritage in the three countries that make up the tour.

For its part, the government’s National Institute of Sports, organiser of the event in Chile, insists that the Dakar Rally does not pass near “archaeological remains”.

The College of Archaeologists, however, says, “This is blatantly lying to the people of Chile.”

“What we are seeing is that year after year there is a huge destruction of archaeological sites in each version of the Dakar Rally,” emphasised Gonzalez, vice president of the organisation.

She said that Chilean law explicitly states that all activities that may affect sites under official protection must be included in a system of environmental impact assessment.

But she said that so far no baseline has been established, as an archaeological assessment is called, and that effective measures of protection or compensation have not been implemented.

The situation led the National Monuments Council (CMN) to request intervention by the official State Defence Council.

The document, signed by the executive secretary of the organisation, Emilio De la Cerda, warns education minister and CMN president Harald Beyer that with the running of the Dakar Rally, “the effect on archaeological and paleontological sites is evident in the Atacama Desert area, which is rich in evidence of this kind”.

In the public office number 5216/12, to which IPS had access, the state agency says that “from 2008 to the latest version of the rally, the National Monuments Council has demanded archaeological and paleontological previous assessments (baselines) from the National Sports Institute, under whose coordination the body runs the Chile Dakar Rally”.

It adds, “Until now, the requirements set by the CMN have not been met, confirming the effect each year on archaeological and historical heritage.”

Luis Mariano Rendón, coordinator of Ecological Action, told IPS, “There is no doubt about the seriousness of the Dakar Rally in Chile” and criticised the fact that “the judiciary as well as the governments that promote it have decided to look the other way”.

Rendón was commissioned on Jan. 7 to bring an injunction seeking to divert the course of the competition in Chile to roads suitable for motor vehicles passing on a large scale, as happens in the Dakar competition.

“Some people think that in the desert there is nothing, but in many areas of the deserts are extremely fragile life forms where, for example, there are wonderful phenomena like the desert bloom, which occurs in the Atacama desert, the driest in the world,” the environmentalist said.

He added that beyond the damage to heritage or nature generated, the Dakar Rally “is a promotion for the use of 4×4 vehicles, a huge publicity that is done on a global level” whose goal is “to encourage the consumption of these vehicles, which have the greatest impact in terms of road safety and involve absolutely frivolous and wasteful consumption of fuel”.

For Gonzalez, meanwhile, it is urgent to stop the Dakar Rally and prevent further destruction of the historical heritage of Chile and South America. A meeting is planned for joint action with archaeologists and environmentalists from Peru, the expert revealed.

In Chile, the initiative already has the support of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and critics of the rally have not ruled out resorting to the International Court of Justice if local courts do not respond.

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