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Exploring Dryland Strategies for Resilience – Atacama, Northern Chile

Desert Flowers

Recently we had a whirlwind tour of Atacama in the north of Chile, the driest place on earth. This was a learning experience rather than teaching – in this hostile and vulnerable landscape that has been occupied for thousands of years we find strategies for building resilience.

In November 2009 we were invited by Daniela Martinez and Claudio Pereira of the new organisation Permaculture in the Desert to run a weekend Introduction to Permaculture workshop. At first we were a little apprehensive about our ability to provide useful ideas and strategies to desert people, but we took this as an opportunity to learn as much as we could about desert ecosystems and the people that live there. At first a seemingly hostile landscape has revealed its beautiful and friendly face to us. This is an inspirational place. We are just as unconvinced as the locals that this dry salty place can be greened. But there are remarkable signs here of resilience. And while many of them remain completely dependent and vulnerable the desert people of Chile have much to teach the rest of us about living lightly.

Atacama is apparently one of the driest places on earth, and according to NASA may have been dry for some 40 million years. In some places the desert is sterile, and comparable to the moon in terms of life. NASA has taken soil samples south of Antofogasta that contained no life. Despite these adversities parts of the Atacama have been occupied by humans for thousands of years.

Antofogasta by the Sea

We arrived by plane to Antofogasta – hot, windy and dry – and quickly caught a bus to Calama. The dry barren landscape all around was perplexing, a vulnerable industrial city on the edge of the sea. This mining centre, founded on extraction has been here for two hundred years or so, fueling an industry. The extraction has moved from guano to potassium nitrate to copper and the provision of services to the mining industry. We shouldn’t beat around the bush; this home to some 300,000 people is a completely unsustainable city inherently vulnerable to change.

The road to Calama is busy 24 hours with trucks of sulphuric acid and consumer products moving back and forth, and busses full of workers. A train rumbles past every few hours loaded with some metal or nitrate. Some 50% of the Copper from Chile leaves these shores for yours from Antofogasta. I am reminded about the lorax, just before the last tree had been cut. This is an industrial landscape, connected intimately to millions of households all over the planet. Someone is getting rich, but the fragile desert environment and thousands of people are being exploited and poisoned. Atacama brings home to roost the reality of a globally connected extraction culture at climax.

Calama the Town in the Middle of Water

We arrive in Calama late in the afternoon, from the bus we see a patch of green in the distance against a backdrop of red and brown desert as the sun sets. We stayed at 2400 metres above sea level for a night, in Calama, meaning "town in the middle of the water". The river Loa, Chile’s longest, flows from the slopes of the volcano San Pedro, runs through the city, then curves north through the desert. Once upon a time this place would have been an abundant watering hole in the middle of dryness. In Google Earth you can see some revealing images of the landscape and the river system that tell us a lot about the patterns of this landscape. Calama with a population of 143,000 is certainly one of the driest cities in the world with average annual precipitation of just 5mm.

Lolo, a student who traveled 1500 kms from the desert to El Manzano once a month for 8 months to attend our design course in 2008, gave us a bed for the night. We were entertained by Felipe and Carolina, talking late into the night, they share stories of life here and their families, tell us about the mining town up on the hill that has been closed because people were being poisoned by arsenic. The air water and soil in this city is contaminated by it. We are later told by a mining executive that this was not the case, the city was moved because the mining operation has grown so much that the town had to go. Who to believe? We ask the locals many questions, gathering as much information as we can about climate and water, soils and wind, cultivation and communities. We are given conflicting stories; "rain… never", "once a year in January.. the main street gets flooded and full of mud", "it hasn’t rained for a long time", "it rains every year in january, a lot of rain", "its just a few spits of rain". We are not sure who to believe. 

We rise early in the morning, and resisting the temptation to stay, feed the dog and pack Lolo´s little red truck. We stock up in the mega mall with water and fruit and head out through the desert for San Pedro de Atacama. 

San Pedro de Atacama

As we drive a plume of dust rises high into the air in the distance, some kind of mining industry in the middle of nowhere. It seems every part of this place has been scraped and dug. There are signs of water everywhere, but none to be seen; rivers and bridges, erosion and dry cracked clay flats… and dust devils appearing on the side of the road, vanishing just as quickly. I am expecting San Pedro to be an uncomfortable dry and dusty place. As we drop over a ridge and down into the valley a broad landscape emerges in front of our eyes, Los Andes fading into the distance in the south. There are big volcanoes in the distance, one of which is Licancabur we later learn, over 5000 metres above sea level. There are big brooding clouds high in the mountains in Argentina, but the entire mountain range is snowless. The valley looks dry from this distance, no life to be seen. I have NASA’s data in my mind as I survey the surrounding desert – no life detected… not even a drop. The geology is exposed, a patchwork of colour, layers upon layers, stratas of rock, crumbled and folded, twisted and worn, layers of lava, and pyroclastic flows.    

San Pedro is a small community, an oasis, with a population of about 4000. The climate is obviously very dry, and with an altitude of some 2400 metres, daytime temperatures are mild year round with 25-30 degrees celcius in summer and 18-25 in winter. At home in New Zealand in spring at this altitude we find a lot of snow, perhaps some lichen… but here we can find lemons. We are closer to the equinox, above the tropic of capricorn, in what, with a little water, might be more sub-tropical. The nights are cold and temperature drops quickly, routinely below zero and as low as minus 10 in winter. They say this place receives almost no rainfall, and the locals tell us that rainfall is reducing, but that it does rain normally in January, sporadically, a mosaic pattern.

The water has a naturally high level of arsenic, much higher than the recommended levels safe for human consumption. We are retold a story by a local woman that the irrigation water arrives from the mountain in two streams. High in the catchment the water is sweet and life giving, but it curves around a large salt deposit and accumulates a higher concentration of salts. There has been talk for many years about diverting the river around the hill to reduce the salt problem, a big engineering solution.The reality is that the locals have been irrigating with salty water for thousands of years. With a rising population, pressure on irrigation water has risen, and today locals have 1.5 hours of irrigation by channel every fifteen or twenty days. They inundate small paddocks of alfalfa to feed their crops.

Desert Food Forest

There are three or more hardy desert legume trees that are growing everywhere; Prosopis tamarugo / Tamarugo, Prosopis chilensis /Algarrobo, and Geoffroea decorticans /
which all produce sweet edible seeds. These trees provide the main canopy species in the oases and are used for construction fuel and fodder. We are told that the best way to make them germinate is to feed them to pigs, and to take their excrement and bury it in a hole to wait for moisture. We find many fruiting species underneath this canopy in places. There are three or four species of adapted pear species which produce small sweet pears. Quince and Pomegranate are everywhere, peaches and grapes, some citrus, no avocado or olive to be seen. We meet Macarena who takes us on a tour, first to her site where she plans to build a house, and then to a friend on the edge of the city.

Here we encounter what appears to be a 200 year old food forest, with seven layers of food producing species from the canopy of legumes to a rich dense groundcover in the shade and root crops. There are many of the elements of a permaculture system here, but in need of some rearrangement and reconnection for functional diversity. In the valley of Jerez we find an amazing oasis in a canyon with a fast flowing stream, full of life and green. The emergent tree here is poplar, spaced widely, with big old fig trees and legumes making up the main canopy. The valley is divided into small parcels, under lock and key, where people from the village co-manage to produce their own fruit. This place is inspirational. If complex polycultural systems are possible here in such an extreme environment, then we can do it almost anywhere. For more information watch the Permaculture Research Institute’s Greening the Desert, where they had it easy compared to Atacama.

Corporacion Gen

After a few days in San Pedro we return to the coast and deliver a public presentation "Hope & Despair" in the university. We hope that we inspired a few more people to participate in the permaculture network. The next day we traveled back out into the desert to the site of Corporación GEN to start an Introduction to Permaculture Course. Corporación GEN started in the 80’s with a group interested in environmental sustainability and social networking. One of the remaining associates gave us a brief history of the organisation and its efforts to create an education centre just out of Antofogasta.

The site is around 30 hectares – a speck of green in a shimmering desert. They rely on a water supply from a pipe that brings fresh water from Bolivia. A recent leak in the pipe that flowed for a few weeks carved a one metre deep river channel that now divides the site in two. With a monthly consumption of 300 cubic metres they pay a hefty price for this lifeline. The team has established a small area of legume and Shinus molle to create a shaded and sheltered garden with various small homes, animal systems and gardens. As they all begin to age and get tired they are looking for a succession plan, to engage more young people in the project to continue the process. This place is an example of what is possible with limited resources in an extreme environment. They have applied basic strategies that are really common sense. Once again we find that with a little redesign, new elements, and the integration of existing elements like animals and compost/mulch systems productivity could be increased and maintenance decreased. 

In the shade and shelter we join with new friends committed to a simple way of living. We share food and join in important conversation about the future of our communities and strategies for building resilience back into our communities. Together we explore the reality of the current global crises as a crises of culture, one that we choose everyday. We overview the design science of permaculture as a tool we can apply now of we choose. We learn the basic principles of permaculture, and the process of design. With a new understanding of desert systems we explore various dry land characteristics and strategies. Together we discuss the realities of an extraction culture in a vulnerable desert landscape. We realise that it is not so much the ecology that is our challenge, for it is possible to live here. We already know how to design, build and live in resilient communities and need only look back a few hundred years to draw lessons from a vibrant desert people. Sure they didn’t have a perfect life, probably a hard existence, but they certainly knew that over consumption and contamination of water would wreck havoc on their future. 

Thank you Atacama! We look forward to seeing you all again in April 2010 for a Dryland Permaculture Design Course in San Pedro de Atacama. We hope that this event is a catalyst for integration and the beginnings of a transition initiative in the north. See you soon.

For more information about the design course in April please contact Grifen Hope; contacto (at) or visit the website
The Permaculture Design Certificate course is a prerequisite to participate in the Applied Permaculture Design Diploma and in action learning degrees with Gaia University.


  1. Am pleased to here that your group are interested in “Dryland Permaculture in the Atacama Desert !! I was collecting and testing shrubs,trees and ground covers for salt tolerance and moisture holding capacity through northern Chile back in the 1970’s and was most impressed with Geoffroea decorticans as an excellant multi use tree for permaculture.I am most interested is securing rooted plants ,clean seed or clean rhyzomacous root stock, for a permaculture test for my Borrego Desert plantings. I look forward to interested parties early reply.

  2. Ronald,
    You can obtain seed for G. decorticans from or B & T World Seeds. I’ve ordered several times from Chileflora and they are very professional with exceptionally reasonable prices. I planted 2 G. decorticans in Bakerfield, CA but one died when ground squirrels ate the roots and made basin watering difficult. The second is doing well in its 3rd year with drip irrigation in full sun. Another place to view G. decorticans is at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

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