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Harvesting fog

May 31, 2010

Falda Verde: How do villagers living in the world’s driest desert grow vegetables? We jump on a bus and head up the coast from La Serena to Copiapó to find out.

Copiapó was at the heart of the nitrate boom that began with the export of bird shit (guano) and progressed to nitrate mining in the 1800s. It was clearly a highly profitable industry judging by the grandiose buildings framing the main Plaza de Armas square. The British influence is also evident – the town hosts South America’s first railway line and, unusually for Chile, the line is still operational.

Desolate mining town in the desert

After an uncomfortable night in a residencial that Nick is convinced is in fact a brothel, we rent a car and continue northwards up the coast following the Panamerican highway. Volcanic rocks and variously shaded sands stretch to the Pacific on our left and the Andes on our right. We pass desolate former mining towns, wallowing in their own pollution, and the occasional deserted off-season holiday beach resorts – I’m not sure which is the most depressing.

Chañaral used to be an important port

Eventually we reach Chañaral, a small town that seems positively bustling after the bleak places we’ve passed. The town is on the edge of the vast Pan de Azucar, which despite the name, is a salt pan, not an icing-sugar beach.

Chañaral in the desert

With much of the mining industry now concentrated in a few megamines, owned by large multinationals, the smaller copper mines have been abandoned as uneconomical, leaving unemployment and poverty in their wake. Chañaral was once an important port town, servicing three substantial copper mines; now it is a small fishing town dealing with poverty and the mass exodus of its working-age generation to the cities.

The smart church in Chañaral

A small cooperative of ambitious townsfolk are not content to let the desert sands swallow their future without a fight. They are turning a tidy profit in perhaps the most unlikely venture here: agriculture. In the hills outside Chañaral, the desert farmers are harvesting the fog out of the air and sprinkling it by drip-irrigation over the uncompromising sand to grow everything from aloe vera to tomatoes, grapes and olives.

Falda Verde: the fog catchers are at the top of the hill there

At the top of a hill in Falda Verde, seven rectangular nets made from nylon mesh, stand proud against the wind, in a near-permanent ocean fog, as if waiting for players to begin a tennis match. Droplets of moisture from the fog coalesce on the nets and percolate down to collectors. The water is channelled down a pipe to a storage container in the sheltered valley below. There, greenhouses and aloe plantations are watered from the fog using drip irrigation. The fog trappers are so efficient, that a square metre of net can produce 1.6 litres of water each day.

The fog catchers (closer)

Aloe vera at Falda Verde watered by the black drip irrigation pipes

“We sell each aloe vera leaf at the local supermarket for 2000 pesos ($3.80) and we have 50 aloe vera plants at the moment, so we’re making good money,” beams Hugo Streeter Cortez, a fish butcher who is part of the fog-catching cooperative.

“It’s made a huge difference to our lives having this water to grow plants,” he adds.

Hugo Cortez is part of the fog-catching cooperative

It rains from never to once a year in the Atacama desert. In some places, scientists have calculated that it hasn’t rained for 30 million years. Hugo and his fellow farmers have an excess of water. It’s a pretty brilliant scheme, which was invented in the 1990s by a Canadian called Robert Schemenauer, and tried first as an experiment in El Tofo, near to Elqui. The project was a huge success initially, with the villagers of El Tofo reaping bountiful water harvests. But when I visited El Tofo, there were no nets to see: the villagers dismantled them years ago and now rely on government tankers to supply their water. That project failed – depending on whom I talk to – “because the villagers are fishermen and so were not really committed to agriculture”, “because the nets required a lot of expensive maintenance and the water had to be expensively treated to remove the excess oxygen”, “because the villagers are lazy and the government tanker is free”, “because the villagers weren’t properly involved in the project and anyway it was only a research experiment.”

A typical caleta (fishing village) on the edge of the Atacama desert

Whatever the truth is, having seen for myself the success at Falda Verde, it’s a big shame that not everyone who could is benefiting from such a simple yet effective scheme. The nets won’t work everywhere, they need fog and wind, which is why they are so suitable for coastal Chile and places with similar conditions like Peru and Namibia.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. May 31, 2010 3:37 pm

    you guys are awesome…:)
    zenrainman

  2. richscrase permalink
    May 31, 2010 4:30 pm

    Is the aloe vera eaten?

    • Gaia permalink*
      May 31, 2010 8:53 pm

      Hi Rich, no apparently not. It’s used in body lotions, for medicinal applications to help heal cuts and burns, and they also use the mashed-up fibres as a construction material.

  3. May 31, 2010 7:04 pm

    Thanks Gaia, another great post. Only downside of reading your blog is that it exacerbates my wanderlust and wandering just isn’t possible at the moment. I really would love to visit South America, though.

    Did a double take at ‘it hasn’t rained for 30 million years’ – ricket ought to be really popular there!

  4. June 1, 2010 4:09 am

    Gaia,
    2 great friends in Concepcion, Chile you must meet…are you getting there? Will send you contacts if you are going there

    • Gaia permalink*
      June 1, 2010 11:29 am

      Already been there! Shame. We’re heading northwards across the continent now.

  5. June 1, 2010 9:08 am

    “ricket”? Cricket, obviously!

    • Gaia permalink*
      June 1, 2010 11:29 am

      No cricket here, but football EVERYWHERE!

  6. attila permalink
    June 3, 2010 2:46 am

    “… the water had to be expensively treated to remove the excess oxygen” Ha ha hi hi ha! Would have been cheaper if first of all they would not have burned the water. Then would it have not had too much oxygen inside.

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