Until recently, there was a beautiful waterfall on this river. When I arrived there today with friends, to everybody’s surprise, including the locals, the waterfall was gone! All that was left was a big hole with standing water in it. No cascading waters. Just the bone-dry riverbed where the waters once flowed and fell over the edge.
Locals explained that water being diverted further upstream by the world’s largest open pit copper mine – a mine named Chuquicamata– has caused a serious drop in the river levels, resulting in the vanishing of the waterfall that has been there for thousands of years.
Waters from the Loa River would cascade down here, creating a beautiful waterfall. No more.
Since I got to Calama, I had been really looking forward to that waterfall. I had heard so much about it. For now, it’s no more. Residents hope that with the rainy season that arrives in January, the water levels of the river will again increase and the waterfall will return. This is the desert.
It’s the Atacama Desert. It’s the driest place on Earth. Doubtful it will get so much rain that the river will bounce back enough to bring back the cascade. But I won’t discount Mother Nature. She’s capable of much.
A day on the Loa River with friends
Still, the Loa River was still a bit cold. Some have more tolerance for near-freezing waters than I do. My friends and I only got in up to our waists. The river is born from the snowmelt in the Andes Mountains, which loom in the horizon. The ice-cold water left our legs numb. It’s that cold. But we still enjoyed our lazy Sunday afternoon down by the river.
I have to hand it to Chileans. Well, at least the Chileans in the northern town of Calama. They know how to make anti-government protest and random acts of civil disobedience entertaining. I’ve never had so much fun at a demonstration.
Not that I’ve participated in many protests to know the dynamics, the mechanics and what is to be expected. I have to think back to my college years to recall a demonstration I took part in. It was against a proposal to replace the free-wheeling, free-choice Liberal Artsprogram with a mandatory core set of academic subjects. So instead of entering college and choosing which subjects you wanted to take toward your major, a freshman would be required to take a series of courses in math, science, English and a sprinkling of other subjects before he or she could fully concentrate on subjects in whatever major he or she had settled on.
Minority students saw that as a backdoor strategic move to scrap ethnic studies, such as Black Studies and Puerto Rican studies. Demonstrations decades before had led to the establishment of those departments and students weren’t about to let them go without a fight. I still remember the chant of hundreds of students in front of the administration building: “Core curriculum we say no! Ethnic studies won’t go!!” We lost that battle. All the college administration had to do is wait. Soon, the vocal opponents would have graduated and moved on to real life issues, such as jobs, marriage, kids, a mortgage.
After college I was not allowed to participate in protests or even so much as sign a petition no matter how worthy the cause. I was a journalist and journalists give up certain rights and freedoms other citizens have. Journalists have opinions, certainly, but they must keep them in check if they want to keep their jobs. Of course, journalists who are paid to give their opinion, well that’s a different story.
So this protest thing was sort of foreign to me. As a reporter I had covered my share of demonstrations, but they ranged from peaceful gatherings to the odd guy in a monkey suit chained to a bike rack in front of a federal courthouse.
Music and protest
In Calama, it was all about music. This protest to force the central government in Santiago to give Calama 5 percent of the revenues generated by the copper mines in the region was more like a folk and rock concert than anything else. In between pronouncements and denouncements of the administration of President Sebastián Piñera, bands took the stage and rocked the crowd. The headliners, the Chilean band Sol y Lluvia, had the flag-waving, mostly young audience jumping up and down in unison and singing along. Sol y Lluvia formed in the 1980s and became popular for their brand of music that mixes modern and traditional instruments, but also because of their strong opposition to the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. I really enjoyed this band. And so did the rest of the audience on hand.
Besides the bands, there were cheerleaders doing acrobatic stunts, men and women in strange costumes, jugglers on stilts, flag dancers, loud vuvuzelas left over from World Cup Soccer, and an assortment of other acts that pleased the audience. This was the most excitement I had seen in Calama in the nearly two months I’ve been here.
Freed mayor speaks
Now, I refer to the amassed crowd as an audience rather than protesters because the event evolved into a street festival. Sure, there were some tense moments, but few and far between. At Chuquicamata, the largest open-pit mine in the world, Calama Mayor Esteban Velásquez and several others were arrested and put in jail for several hours after they blocked the entrance to the mine to stop vehicles from entering and exiting in a failed effort to shutdown mining operations. According to eyewitnesses, several of the demonstrators who showed up at the mine around 4 a.m., were forcibly removed by riot police brought in from the town of Iquique, about five hours drive north. The mayor and the others were freed after boisterous demonstrators turned up at the police station to demand their release. Other demonstrators claimed they and others were beaten by riot police at the mine.
Also at the Calama Shopping Mall, which chose to ignore the citywide work stoppage, demonstrators blocked access and refuse to allow potential shoppers to enter. Mall security and police worked out an agreement with the demonstrators to allow the mall to stay open until noon. The protesters agreed and promptly at noon were back at the mall chanting and turning away people who were trying to do some shopping.
Several demonstrators at the mall tried to get me to join them and I pointed out that I was not Chilean and the penalty for foreigners participating in demonstrations in Chileis automatic deportation. The women said they would protest my deportation. Funny.