United World Project


Chile: a Green Desert against Poisons

28 June 2019   |   Chile, Climate Change, University of Chile
By Alberto Barlocci.

In the middle of Atacama, the driest region in the world, a researcher has achieved a twofold positive effect: the creation of a green area that absorbs the emissions from a mining industry and the development of a method to curb the expansion of the desert.

Time is running out and the effects of climate change are accelerating, which means that the measures that need to be taken will have to be increasingly drastic. The recent meeting of the C40 – the group that brings together the world’s major cities, where more than 700 million people live – warns that to avoid catastrophic climate effects by 2030, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% and by 80% by 2050. Therefore, innovative proposals in the short, medium and long term are urgently needed.

An interesting proposal comes from Chile, which is certainly not among the worst polluters. On the contrary, it is a leading country in the production of clean energy, especially wind and solar energy. The idea is simple: in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a requirement could be introduced whereby carbon emissions produced by each industrial activity should be offset by the creation of green areas that absorb an equivalent amount of CO2.

Secondly, the desert regions, which are expanding worldwide, should be curtailed by plantations of various kinds, depending on their characteristics. A bit like the “green wall” that is being planted here and there south of the Sahara, to prevent the desert from advancing.

Manuel Paneque, who works in the School of Agricultural Sciences at the University of Chile, is developing a successful model in the mining region of Antofagasta, in the far north of the country. This is the region of the Atacama desert – the driest in the world – which continues to advance southwards, turning previously green areas into a desert. Stopping this is a necessity.

Paneque managed to turn four hectares into a green desert, with the ability to absorb nine tons of CO2 by planting native species of plants, including legumes, peppers and, above all, atriplex: a plant that has a high calories value and, therefore, is also useful for obtaining biomass. Atriplex is part of the amarantaceae family and is also known in Mexico for its ability to survive in highly saline soils. Some species are edible and have a high protein value, around 20-30%. In this project, the plants that best survive the demanding desert climate are then taken to the laboratory to obtain clones and check the degree of tolerance to salt and heavy metals found in the soil of the region.

Paneque explains that it is possible to calculate exactly the emission level of each mining activity, which is almost the only industrial activity in these areas, to make desert areas green, so that they can absorb the Co2 that is produced. Paneque did this in the nearby Minera Zaldivar industry that also provides wastewater from the camp where workers make seven-day shifts, followed by as many days of rest. The water is used to irrigate green areas, thus proving it is worth as a model of circular economy. “My goal – he explains – is to show that this model can be applied in any industry or community. Especially in our country, where we have a chronic lack of water resources.