The Changing Life of Transhumant Pastoralists in Central and Northern Chile
article written by MRI
03.05.23 | 10:05

In Chile, a country more than 4,000 km long, few things are constant. Its people, climate, and landscape present an ever-changing array of differences. But there is one thing that you can find everywhere you look: the Andes. This massive mountain range crosses our country and, to some extent, determines all kinds of activities that will take part in our beloved strip of land. One of these activities, perhaps the oldest, is transhumant pastoralism.

Contemporary transhumance in the central and northern Andes of Chile starts with pre-Hispanic transhumant practices, carried out with camelid livestock by the Aymara, Colla and Atacameña people, inheritors of the nomadic past of the first human settlements that followed the migratory routes of wild camelids, including guanacos and vicuñas. The knowledge of routes and plants of these cultures was, for lack of a better word, adopted by the Spanish conquistadores, who also had a long tradition of transhumance, incorporating their species and breeds of livestock. Later on, criollos continued with these practices to maintain a tradition and a way of life that lasts to this day.

In this piece, we will soar over three expressions of transhumance found in central, north-central and northern Chile, just to give you a glimpse of the state of this activity in this corner of the world.

Central: Putaendo Valley, coexistence in a mega-drought context

The Central Andes of Chile are part of the Mediterranean ecosystems that cover less than 5% of the Earth’s surface. Pastoralists in this region have developed mobile livestock grazing systems to make the best of the expansive, harsh environment. They keep livestock in the invernadas, lowlands with a more gentle climate, during the winter and spring; then, in summer, they take the animals to the high Andean grasslands, the veranadas, that will offer fresh grass after the melting of the snow, where moisture still allows forage growth.

Over the years, pastoralists have been dedicating more time to secondary rural activities to be less dependent on livestock production, evolving into agropastoralists, who maintain the transhumant scheme and occupation of the mountain. However, several factors pose significant threats to transhumance: urbanization, changes in land use, competition with other rural activities, and especially the mega-drought that since 2010 has affected all the central areas of Chile, including the mountainous regions.

The concept of mega-drought (defined by Garreaud et al., 2017) in central Chile refers to the uninterrupted dry years between 2010 and 2015. The mega-drought began in 2010, with an annual rainfall deficit between 55 and 75% in central Chile, the contiguous Andes cordillera, and even westernmost Argentina. New studies point to the emergence of an upper-ocean warming area (i.e., Southern Blob) as a significant contributor to the mega-drought. Several projections show a decrease in runoff due to climate change in central and southern Chile.

As a result, the productivity of mountainous areas has decreased, leading to significant animal (livestock) losses and contributing to the conflict between pastoralists and wildlife, especially guanaco, causing many pastoralists to abandonment their activity. Other pastoralists look for jobs outside pastoralism to adapt to the harsh times, some becoming agropastoralists.

Nowadays, pursuing coexistence has become an urgent issue in the Central Andes mountain ecosystem, and scientific information is needed to evaluate the baseline scenario of multi-species conflicts in remote and large extension areas. Our NGO (Yastay Foundation) has co-produced territorial information using a transdisciplinary and participatory approach to orient decision-making toward a coexistence scenario between agropastoralists and wildlife in the Aconcagua Valley in Chile’s Andes mountains. We used participatory mapping and explored how the diverging arguments of stakeholders could orient decision-making processes towards ecosystems where multiple species could coexist.

North-central: Elqui river wetlands, or what is left from goat country

Some 400km north of Putaendo, we find ourselves in the Norte Chico of Chile. It’s a semiarid region home to many transverse valleys that go east-west, crossed by a river that gives the valley its name.

The Elqui valley and river have a unique and rich history. La Serena, a coastal city located at the mouth of the river, is the second oldest city in Chile, founded in 1544 by the Spanish invaders, who favoured a site that was close to fresh water and a multiplicity of resources. The valley was inhabited by the Diaguitas, a transhumant indigenous group that lived from the coast to the high Andes and the land that is now called Argentina. Settlers soon made this valley and region the home of many – and massive – herds of goats, mules, and sheep under ever-changing systems of management and domination. Nowadays, the inheritors of these ancestral traditions are the arrieros and crianceros, identity symbols of the agrarian life on the Norte Chico.

The Elqui River, its rangelands and riparian areas and life have suffered immense distress in the last decades, and transhumant families are facing great challenges to keep their lifestyle going. This is the case for DonJulio Ramírez, a criancero from this land, who once roamed the entire north of Chile with his flock, thousands strong. Today, he can barely sustain a few dozen goats on a barren hill, even giving away for free the kids for whom he knows cannot provide a good life.

Don Julio’s case is not unique. All of the crianceros here are restricted to the riparian wetlands for forage, as some high mountain grasslands are no longer reliable enough to be worth the enormous effort to travel there; others simply don’t exist any more, due to a combination of climate change, human-led land degradation, and public policy that fails to address mobility and aims for total sedenterisation.

Even though transhumant families have shown enormous capacity to adapt to working in these reduced areas, they are being pushed to the edge of abandonment by irregular land subdivision, aggregate extraction, mining and industrial agriculture – as we have been able to see firsthand. On the brighter side, all these threats were diagnosed under a recent conservation initiative, which for the first time is taking into consideration the transhumant users of the river wetlands as potential allies.

North: Puna de Atacama, grazing between salt flats, mines and tailings

Collas are, above all things, transhumant people. Since ancient times, they roamed through all the Puna de Atacama, the Andean plateau shared between northern Chile and north-west Argentina, raising cattle and moving people and goods through the altiplano, until the infamous General Pinochet’s dictatorship put an end to these movements in the decades of 1970 and 1980.

Here, veranadas can be located over 4km above sea level. They share space with the great salt flats, in a landscape also occupied with the big mining industries of copper, gold and, more recently, lithium. In many cases, this activity destroys apachetas (sacred stone mounds) and Ayllus, a traditional form of social community from the Andean region. In other cases, it will dry entire vegas and bofedales, both types of wetlands found here, affecting biodiversity and leaving forage sites uninhabitable. As the culture is so strongly transhumant, in most cases it destroys both.

Many Colla families have learned to live with these threats, moving their herds in between the scarce grass left behind the trail of ‘progress’, or even finding employment by mining corporations. Despite this, they know that mining has made their mobility and life more difficult, even excluding them from their own land, bringing Colla people to the brink of disappearance.

Pastoralists and agropastoralists, the arrieros, crianceros, and pastores from Chile are so diverse and live in such complex realities that any attempt to fit them all into a single description seems to fall short. This eclectic body of people has their way of life deeply rooted in relational values with nature. It is common to hear from crianceros from Putaendo that they love the land, or that going to el potrero de arriba (the paddock above, the high Andes) is not (only) about money; there is something else. They seem to see themselves as stewards of the land who value the relationships with their land, so they will work and do what is best for it.

This means that the reduction of mobility has affected the pastoralist system beyond merely the financial or ecological; it has affected the social components of the land. Adaptation measures must address the relational values between pastoralists and their activity (i.e., the land, the livestock, the wildlife, etc). And when relocation, financial compensation, or other adaptive decision-making is planned, this must acknowledge that some elements of the territory are not substitutable for a community.

This article was first published by Pastres and written by Juan Pablo del Valle and Matías Hargreaves, Yastay Foundation. This piece is part of  Greta Semplici’s research project on Latin American pastoralism carried out in collaboration with Pablo Manzano. You can find the original release on the website.

Cover image by Romina BM.