Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
Strengthening Capacity to Manage Ecosystems Sustainably for Human Well-Being

Integrated Assessment of the Salar de Atacama, Chile


The Salar de Atacama is located in the Antofagasta region in northern Chile, at 2,300 meters above sea level and with a surface area of 320,000 hectares. It is 10 kilometers long and 60 kilometers wide in its central part. This ecosystem is part of the group of salares (salty wetlands) in the Andes mountain range, which are recharged by groundwater and springs coming from the higher lands.

Lead institution

RIDES, Recursos e Investigación para el Desarrollo Sustentable. RIDES is a newly created research center based in Santiago, Chile. Its main goal is to develop applied research to contribute to sustainable development in Chile and South America.

Contact information:

  • Hernán Blanco
    Recursos e Investigación para el Desarrollo Sustentable (RIDES)
    Andres de Fuenzalida 22, Ofic. 801
    Providencia, Santiago
    Tel: +56-2-2317565
    Fax: +56-2-2318716

Focal issues

Two main issues will be the focus of the assessment in its primary stages: water and tourism. Water is a 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. It is also an attractive development alternative for most local inhabitants. There will be a great emphasis on user engagement at all levels.

Ecosystem services being assessed

  • Water
  • Tourism
  • Biodiversity
  • Mining
  • Agriculture
  • Livelihood of the Atacameño ethnic group
  • Astronomical observation and research.

Key features of assessment

The Salar de Atacama is a unique ecosystem in the Atacama desert, the world’s driest desert, at an average altitude of 2,300 meters above sea level. It is a salt deposit of over 3,000 sq km. In spite of the hyper-aridity, the Salar displays a wide range of environments and supports fascinating wildlife including flamingos, llamas and guanacos. There is an active tourism industry, with more than 50,000 people each year visiting the Salar and its surrounding areas. Two mining companies have rights over the nitrates and lithium reserves in one sector of the Salar. Two other copper mining companies have water rights that are drawn from the southern part of the Salar. The vicinity is inhabited mainly by indigenous people (pueblos atacameños) who are scattered in 13 communities in the eastern part of the Region de Antofagasta. They confront continuous water scarcity and have problems with water rights, despite having claims over the land. There is no coordinated effort to provide a systematic and permanent base line for supporting development decisions. Nor is there a public forum to include the local population as part of the decision-making process.

Time frame, budget

This was a candidate assessment during the period September 2002 – January 2003. The full assessment started in mid May 2003 and will finish in September in 2004. The secured funding so far is almost one hundred thousand US dollars. A total of 150-200 thousand US dollars are to be raised.