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Desert futures

Desert futures

The futures of desert people are increasingly shaped by their dealings with travellers and tourists and powerful neighbours. Small desert communities try to keep what is important to them, and make the most of any new opportunities. In the Atacama pueblos, central Kalahari, Kuiseb delta, and western central Australia, people want rights to land, water or pasture recognised. For some, the desert is now a distant homeland: liberation wars in Angola and Namibia displaced San and Khwe Bushmen, Hambukushu and Afrikaaner farmers. In Chile, pampinos left the Atacama when the nitrate towns died.

Desert futures

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Lirian Ortiz and daughter Micaela, with her husband in the background, in Machuca village, Chile. Lirian and her husband run a small tourist lodge in the village. Photo: Guy Wenborne.

Maria Elena, the last surviving nitrate (salitre) mining town in the Atacama Desert, Chile. Photo: Mike Smith, National Museum of Australia.

'Live with identity': contemporary landrights graffiti in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
'Live with identity': contemporary landrights graffiti in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Photo: Mike Smith, National Museum of Australia

Vivir con identidad

Try to 'live with identity'. Not all challenges faced by desert communities are environmental. In the deserts of southern Africa and Australia, art is a way of keeping a sense of identity - and a new way of making a living from desert knowledge. Pintupi men and women, who walked out of the Australian desert only a generation before, now command an international market for their Western Desert paintings. The development of San and Khwe art, and the fine baskets of the Etsha weavers group, reflect a similar response.

Land rights

As desert people deal with the outside world, rights to land and water become important. In the central Kalahari, the Kgeikani Kweni (First People) organisation opposes government attempts to relocate communities. In the Atacama pueblos, legal recognition of Indigenous groups sharpened a land and identity movement, and concern to protect water rights against mining interests. In central Australia, desert people have claimed traditional land, registered their sacred sites and created 'homeland' communities.

Extreme technology

After 20,000 years, Herbie Laughton Antjalka has no doubt Toyota are here for the long run. Advertisement, Weekend Australian, 1992.

Some responses to deserts are technological and are attempts to overcome the limitations of these extreme environments. New four-wheel drive vehicles with long-range fuel and water tanks, satellite phones, and all-terrain tyres make travel easier, for visitors and locals alike. Better roads and telecommunications make remote communities seem less isolated: you can even find internet cafés in the Atacama. Some technologies make the desert a playground for thrill-seekers from the cities. And yet others, such as the NASA Mars Rover, reflect the fact that these landscapes are so extreme they are used to test exploration vehicles for 'off-world' deserts.

Water futures

Some technologies attempt to overcome the lack of drinkable water. In the Namib and coastal Atacama, fog harvesters can capture water from coastal fogs. The coastal Namib gets 30-180 millimetres of fog but less than 22 millimetres of rain a year. In the Atacama, rivers and springs are tapped at their source, high on the slopes of the Andes. In Australian drylands, bores and wells are used to tap ancient ground-water, using hand-pumps, windmills or diesel-driven pumps.

Joanne Harvey, Australian sandboard rider and manufacturer
Joanne Harvey, Australian sandboard rider and manufacturer
Photo: Dion Wilson

Extreme sport

After travelling hundreds of kilometres on foot or by camel, Saharan traveler Théodore Monod called sand dunes 'that fluid rock on which we float.' The southern deserts are now accessible to urban visitors in a way that Monod could not have imagined. 'Sand never melts' is the motto of sandboarders, the 'new extreme sport' in the Namib and Atacama, with a growing following in Australia. For some visitors, deserts are their playground.