Dakar Rally kicks off amid high expectations, storms and controversy

Published On : Fri, Jan 3rd, 2014

Indigenous Aymara and heavy rain threaten to derail the sixth South American edition of the world’s most famous off-road rally.

Dakar Rally kicks off amid high expectations, storms and controversy

A rally car rips through a trail in the Atacama Desert. Photo via Dakar – The Ultimate Rally Race / Facebook

The smell of burnt rubber will engulf the streets of Santa Fe, Argentina, on Sunday as the emblematic and controversial Dakar Rally begins a 14-day, 5,000-mile odyssey through three countries, over the Andes and across the Atacama Desert to the port city of Valparaíso.

That is, if the smell is not washed away by torrential rain which has jeopardized the beginning of the iconic race since the new year brought storms and inclement weather to what was a drought-stricken area.

Once it emerges from the soggy roads of Argentina, the 35th edition of the off-road race — held for the sixth consecutive time in South America — will snake first north then east through Bolivia and Peru before making a comparative beeline through the deserts of Northern Chile down to the finish line in Valparaíso.

But despite high expectations among government officials and tourism operators, many indigenous groups, environmentalists and archeologists are concerned the high-octane adventure could irrevocably damage fragile ecosystems and ancient relics.

Despite the full endorsement of President Evo Morales, who is Aymaran, other members of that indigenous community have promised to block the Bolivian leg of the competition. Held on Jan. 12 and 13, for the first time in Bolivia, the rally will wind through the Salar de Uyuni — the highest salt flats in the world. Morales hope the race will draw attention and tourists to this unique area, but some locals fear the crowds and off-road vehicles will damage flamingo breeding grounds.

Similar concerns have been raised in Chile regarding the geoglyphs and remnants of the Inca Trail scattered across the Atacama.

“The 500 vehicles passing through the archeological sites cause total destruction,” Paola González, vice president of Chile’s Archeologists Association, told Santiago’s Radio Duna.

Chile’s National Monument’s Council (CMN) has also voiced severe concern about the effects of the Dakar Rally. The council cites the National Monuments Law 17.288, which aims to protect archeological and paleontological sites in the country — the destruction of monuments is an offence under Chilean law and can carry penalties of imprisonment.

Meanwhile, the director of the country’s tourism service (Sernatur) in the Antofagasta Region of Northern Chile, Miguel Quezada,  said the event would be crucial in launching the area’s international profile.

“Dakar is not just a sporting event, it is a platform to introduce our region to the world,” he said.

Citing similar concerns to those raised in Bolivia and Chile, Ecuador rejected the offer to co-host this year’s rally in 2013, with its country’s Tourism Ministry stating that it was “not suitable for the country,” in particular the impact on archeological and paleontological sites.

Etienne Lavigne, director of the Dakar Rally, has moved to defend the event and claimed before the start of this year’s tour that the organization takes all necessary measures to ensure the care and protection of the environment.

The official Dakar Rally website also states that the route is devised in collaboration with the Argentine, Bolivian and Chilean authorities to ensure each country’s heritage is protected.

“In preparing its route, the Dakar has always devoted particular attention to preserving archeological and paleontological sites considered as sensitive,” the website reads. “In Bolivia, the Ministry of Culture and Environment has reviewed and approved all the routes suggested by the organisation and in Chile, the main contacts will be the CMN and the Environmental Ministry (MMA) and regional bodies.”

Chile’s National Institute of Sports insists that the Dakar routes do not pass near any historic sights — a claim the Archeologists Association flatly rejects.

“The Dakar rally has affected more than 200 archeological sites,” a spokesperson for the Archeologists Association told The Santiago Times. “The Atacama Desert is a natural reservoir of Chile’s cultural remains, some of them dating back to 1,500 B.C.”

By George Nelson ([email protected]
Copyright 2013 – The Santiago Times

About the Author

George Nelson
George is the Deputy Editor of The Santiago Times and writes on social issues, art, and sport. He has worked as a freelance reporter in the U.S., UK, and Argentina for publications including the Buenos Aires Herald, Argentina Independent, and Vice. Contact him at [email protected]