A 'fog-catcher' at Alto Patache, northern Chile. Fog passes through the net, condenses and is collected via plastic tubes. Photo credit: Rector Ignacio Sánchez on Flickr.

By Professor Horacio Larrain

Editing by Matthew Owens
Translation by Ginetta Owens-Solari

The Atacama Desert in Chile is the driest on earth where in some areas rain has never been recorded. However, research into fog-catchers, giant nets set up to trap water for drinking and cultivating plants, aims to provide water to local communities. Dr Horacio Larrain, Emeritus professor of Archaeology, gives a frank account of his time at the fog-catching projects in northern Chile and discusses the application of scientific knowledge in the region.

In the following paragraphs, I will try to show that, for an anthropologist or geographer, all genuine new knowledge should end in an actual usage, a particular application for the benefit of humanity. It must not remain in limbo as a mere possibility. Human knowledge has not been acquired to be concealed or hidden; in fact the opposite is true. Goethe speaks of this in his famous quote that I dissect here, scalpel in hand. I apply here the ideas of Goethe to the specific theme of agua de la niebla (fog), fog-catchers and their practical application, issues that we have been studying for the past 20 years in the region of Tarapacá (northern Chile).

What has Goethe to say on this matter?

The great German thinker and poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe coined an immortal phrase which should always guide us like an illuminating beacon in our work as researchers. That is at least what I think today with over 40 years of field experience. Consider his following text:

“Es ist nicht genug zu wissen, man muss auch anwenden, es ist nicht genug zu wollen, but tun muss auch.”

In plain language: “It is not enough to have knowledge, one must also apply it, it is not enough to want, it is also necessary to act.”

This brilliant phrase, little known and even less applied in our country (Chile), will be the subject of our reflections today. Hopefully they may enlighten some minds of young scientists and predispose them to developing a new concept: ‘eco- development’. That is to say, development in situ, building and intelligently using the comparative advantages of their environment, their adjacent territory.

Why this theme?

Not long ago, between the 3rd and 7th of January 2014, we had a workshop, developed as part of a Summer School from Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, in the fog oasis Alto Patache, 65 km south of the city of Iquique. This meeting was attended by architecture students from several Chilean universities and also a group of foreign students from Australia, France and the Dominican Republic. We were asked to explain to this heterogeneous group the origin and development of our fog-catching project, from its humble beginnings in 1997. In the shade of a shelter, saving us from the scorching sun, the 35 of us students and teachers were crammed in to listen to the speakers. Having finished our talk, which was made from a bizarre mix of English and Spanish, an Australian student asked:

“If there are so many obvious advantages to this method of obtaining water, and the volume of water that can be obtained is sufficient, why haven’t they implemented this technology on a larger scale in this country?”

The question was highly logical and also had the effect of rousing the most delicate fibres of the very fabric of our university scientific work in this fog oasis. I outlined a quick response as best I could, as a first step, and I was immediately reminded of that line from Goethe: “It is not enough to have the knowledge, one must also apply it, it is not enough to want to, it is also necessary to act.”

The student, without even realising it had put his finger on it. And this wound started to bleed….

Our most obvious response, typical from university teachers, goes something like this, ‘it is not incumbent upon scientists to apply the knowledge we gain, our concern is only to provide the knowledge and lay the scientific groundwork for others, the specialists, to implement it for the benefit of mankind.’ In other words, we affirm with aplomb: ‘Scientists are the creators of new knowledge, however, the how, when, where and in what ways this takes place, we say smugly,  ‘that’s another matter’, that is to say, ‘that concerns others, not us.’ Whereupon we settle back comfortably, very pleased with ourselves, resting on our laurels and enjoying our lucubrations and reasoning, very happy to have ‘discovered’ something of precious value, worthy of a commemorative plaque. And we believe that our duty as researchers stops there.

Can this be right? Goethe comes to awaken us from our idyllic slumbers, to point out something quite different, much more demanding; something tells us insistently that the task is just beginning: “It is not enough to know, you also have to implement…”

Man muss auch anwenden! This is the imperative task that Goethe points to. But does he also refer to us scientists?

Knowing is not enough

‘To know’, to accumulate ‘knowledge’ is what we’ve done in the fog oasis at Alto Patache to this day since early 1999. And we’ve done it in spades! We have real mountains of knowledge: of the flora and fauna, its climate and variations throughout the year, its geography, geomorphology and dune formations, the archaeology, and entomology. Hundreds of files, floppy disks and now CDs full of data, charts, articles, published pamphlets and pictures. What else are we missing? Maybe a hint of paleo-ecology and another slice of paleo-biogeography to know where and what species were milling around the oasis 15,000 or 20,000 years ago. It’s really very little. Perhaps a little bit of local economic history, or paleo-geography. It follows, then, that almost everything in this oasis that is ‘knowable’ (cognoscibilis), is already there for us, after so many years. ‘Knowledge acquired’! What is missing then? Is there anything else to do?

Are we satisfied with this result?

For some people, probably yes. They have fulfilled their dream: they explored, they prospected, catalogued, measured, classified, and compared. They made beautiful tables and exquisite figures. Databases ‘potentially’ very useful. They graduated with honours and with a wonderful thesis. They excelled in the conferences of their respective scientific fields (Biology, Archaeology, Geography, Geomorphology and Climatology). Some even received awards and honours. But the coastal coves are still waiting for the miracle of water which they certainly have a ‘right’ to, through an ancestral version of jus soli (right of the soil, that is, the territory where they live); the communities of the desert coast are still claiming the fulfillment of our commitments, although unwritten, but suggested and hinted at as an imminent possibility, on multiple occassions.

The words of the Roman Pontiff John Paul II come now to remind us: “The poor cannot wait!”

Some may feel truly rewarded, others  no, among whom I count myself. In truth, I am not personally satisfied with the work done so far here, because, in the illuminating perspective in which Goethe puts us – clearly much remains to be done. We have more than half the way to go. That “anwenden” (= use, employ, implement) is a terribly demanding requirement, which, disgracefully, we have not yet heeded. We could perhaps ask, “but is this our responsibility? Is it not perhaps the responsibility of others?”

I believe that we have failed

In my opinion I think so; we have failed. Because we awoke many hopes among the peoples of the coast. We opened a gigantic floodgate of wishes and desires that we have not yet fulfilled. We have only been content to promise a ‘tomorrow’, that is distant, elusive, nonurgent and long-term. Because we ourselves don’t urgently need the gift, the miracle of abundant water: we have it at home on tap, every day, with the assistance of the state. Had we needed it for ourselves and our families (ex hypothesi) and with urgency, then another course of action would have been taken. Of this we can be certain.

In what have we failed?

Over the past two years, somewhat removed from the direct responsibility of the Alto Patache fog project, I have thought a lot over this point. At the end of the day, I’ve worked in this coastal area of Iquique for 15 consecutive years. In what have we failed? I will try to calmly reflect on this complex, demanding and burning issue. I believe that it is a requirement for ourselves as scientists (i.e. experts in new, useful knowledge to humanity), if that’s really what we are. With loyalty and much humility, therefore, I will briefly explain my thinking as a cultural anthropologist. These ideas spring from the comparison between what has been achieved in the El Tofo and Chungungo cove sites between 1980-1992 and what has been achieved in Alto Patache between 1997 and 2014. My views or statements may not be shared by everyone. But it is my testimony, testimony of a life dedicated to valuing and exalting the cultural heritage of the communities and the staunch defense of their legitimate rights (to the territory, water, basic resources, to their cultural values).

An immediate objection

We will be told, probably, that the objectives of these two projects were very different in both cases. This is very true. But, why did we ourselves change the objectives, changing and disguising them in a very different nomenclature (e.g. objectives, methodology, technical aspects)? We changed the objectives. While in the case of water for Chungungo, from 1982, the emphasis from the outset was on the ‘feasibility study of drinking water’ its achievement in 1992. But it is certain that the studies of Alto Patache projects were of a more innocent scientific interest, more innocuous, certainly much less social and educational: the study of the native biome for the conservation of the species: the study of its climate and its biodiversity. Certainly an exciting and important topic, at a time of accelerated climate change at the global level, on the one hand, and the nearby installation of thermoelectric coal power plants (to the South of Iquique) on the other, made its study and protection imperative ‘to the extent that it is practical’, before the foreseeable impact of pollution.

Why did we change the objectives?

It is worthwhile thinking over the reasons that triggered our new Fondecyt (Chilean source of funding) projects, shifting away from the social and community arena, moving closer to ecological concerns. I aim to focus on these:

The project to provide drinking water from fog, trapped up in the hills of El Tofo by more than a hundred fog catchers positioned between 1985 and 1991 worked like a charm for nearly four years. This was key in the success of gaining the unconditional support of CONAF (National Forestry Corporation) and financial support from the Canadian Government (through the ‘Fogquest’ institution and the Environmental Service). Our small team, based at the Juan Ignacio Molina Institute for Studies and Publications in Santiago, left this project in 1984, when CONAF Region IV took over.

Why did the Chungungo project fail?

It failed, in our view, for four main reasons. First, for climatic reasons. The sudden hurricane winds that knocked over a group of collectors which was not immediately replaced due to the absence of ad hoc mechanisms available by the fishing community of Chungungo (community factor). Second, the lack of tactical support from the nearby municipality of La Higuera, who always felt that the project was strange to them. Thirdly, the retreat of CONAF from the project, leaving its responsibility fully in the hands of the Chungungo community. Lastly, the inability shown by the community to take on this tough responsibility; they had not prepared a task-force of leaders, both social and technical, in anticipation of possible natural disasters. That is to say, they hadn’t created a cooperative community body that could assume said responsibility.

The fishing community knew perfectly well that if problems arose, the municipality water truck would replenish them with the vital element, even late in the day. This certainty seriously distorted the further course of action. The Municipality of La Higuera, an entity that never fully engaged with this pioneering project in the country, for fairly obscure reasons that will one day have to be fully investigated, bears the largest responsibility for this catastrophe, which could well have been avoided.

Sadly, now beggars

Due to this situation, the community of Chungungo, who for a brief time was owner of its own water, went on to depend on the municipal entity on a daily basis for water (a long way away, 65-70 km), so this shameful dependence has been, unfortunately, a veiled but real form of everyday begging. Today they have again become ‘beggars’ to a protective State that assists them, whereas they could have been owners and masters of this vital resource: safe, of excellent quality and plentiful. Such is the fate of non-expert communities when they are not able to cope with challenges for their own freedom and independence, for their own eco-development and ethno-development.

‘You have to apply’ (Man muss anwenden), Goethe tells us. Why?

What does Goethe mean by ‘apply’ or ‘employ’, or ‘use’ (anwenden)? Acquired knowledge is to be used, applied, not stored in bottles of formaldehyde, as lizards used to be in the old museums of biology. What indeed is the point of true knowledge jealously guarded by scientists in their scholarly articles, which only insiders have free access to? All new knowledge should contribute to the progress of mankind, all of mankind. It can and should be used or employed by the humanity of the future for its own benefit. If not, it isn’t strictly human ‘knowledge’. To know something is to involve everyone in a discovery, of a finding. Proud and arrogant – in the words of Miguel de Unamuno– is the scientist who discovers something just for his or her own enjoyment and solace, but hides and buries it away from their peers, especially when they urgently need it, as in this case. To ‘dis-cover’, is precisely to leave in plain view all that was buried, hidden or forgotten.

Discover to use

But Goethe goes further. It not only consists of dis-covery, that is, showing the naked reality; It is necessary to use it, apply it to real life, so that with this new element it is possible to lead a better life. I dis-cover a hidden treasure to enjoy it, sell it, or replace it with a better one. Not to ‘cover it up’ as scientists sometimes do – using a convoluted and cryptic language, intelligible only to a few ‘insiders’, the owners of this vocabulary that allows perfect intellection. Therefore, all discovery must be accompanied by a ‘management plan’ that allows its practical ‘use’ or ‘utility’. Goethe ends his phrase with: “you also have to do something (i.e. to act).” Wanting to do things is not synonymous with doing things. The latter is what Goethe is calling for: We move from to wanting to doing, from mere desire or longing to real action.

Here seems to be the key for the scientist

The scientist worthy of the name is always at the service of a community, of their community. The community financed his studies, all his work and research. It is therefore quite reasonable that the national community asks the scientist about the use and application of the results of their research or non-use or concealment of the same. As in the Gospel parable, light (‘knowledge’ in this case) should be “put on a stand and not hidden under a bushel ” (cf. Luke 8 , 16-18). The purpose of the light is obviously to illuminate. The purpose is to let others know what you know. If not, then why do we know anything? Just to get pleasure from discovering something, secretly locked in my computer?

How could (or should) we have applied or used some of the collected water from the fog-catching project?

Bringing our idea down to earth, that is, of the necessary application of the knowledge we acquired of fog and atmospheric water, I think today we should at least have been able, at the Alto Patache oasis, to bring down some of the water collected from 800 m (over the coastal cliff) to the base of the marine terrace (80 m) by assigning a fraction of the project money to this end. It is one thing to collect water at 800 m altitude, out of sight of coastal residents, and quite another to leave the water a few feet from their homes. Because the latter is what is called a ‘demonstration effect’. The water is there, for all to see. At that point we demonstrate that it is possible to ‘milk the clouds’, producing high quality water for human use.

A retrospective or nostalgic view?

Looking back now (2014) at the enormous deployment of development forces between 1997 and 2014, I’m sure, that had we been able to send down (piped) water to 60 m. altitude (the base or foothills of the coast) we would have been able to quickly gain the interest of the authorities in the Region, the ZOFRI (large shopping mall) or other private organisations in the development of a small production project. This was our greatest wish. We would have, immediately, brought the attention of the nearest villages (Chanabaya or Caramucho, among others), always desperate for water; we would have managed to – maybe – unite factions, now fighting there for power, around a great common project that would have brought a general, unexpected benefit: water.

Maybe everything would have been different!

I am of the opinion that, in this case, the rotation of investigations would have been very different. We failed to provide a visible and powerful ‘demonstration effect’. Even if it had only been a test installation, that is only experimental, it would have caused the desired effect: strong support from third parties for the start of a larger work.

Our sincere ‘mea culpa’

We lacked (or rather I should say I lacked) decisions, boldness and commitment to the surrounding human community. We lacked vision. We lacked, in a word, courage. Perhaps, the failure in the planned water supply of fog to Chungungo cove  (circa 1995-96), a failure certainly not in any way attributable to our team (we had already withdrawn from the project in 1985), negatively influenced – I suspect- our plans and diverted our attention from the neighbouring human community. And to overcome our social responsibility to the human community, we focussed instead on the study of animal and plant biotic communities and the study of fog climates, a task that we have successfully completed.

The task ahead

The moral is obvious. There is an inescapable task at hand and a tacit unfulfilled commitment. It is something so obvious, that if we have already tested the possibility of providing water to nearby communities, we should then exhaust all our efforts to make it a reality and do so as quickly as possible, no matter what. To put it in practice, as Goethe urged us, in my opinion, three fundamental conditions will be necessary:

  1. The concerted effort of human geographers (as well as climatologists or physical geographers) and social anthropologists in the project.
  2. The unconditional support of regional universities and regional companies of prestige to ensure the acceptance of the Community(s) on the one hand, and the continuity of the project over time.
  3. The unrestricted and longtime support of the community and its leaders.  A not easy  task which requires particular attention.

This is a daunting task that undoubtedly rests with the new managers of the Centro del Desierto de Atacama (CDA) at Pontificia Universidad Católica who will be taking over during 2014.

These are the ideas I dare to put frankly on the table of discussion as a result of  my own experience over time as a cultural anthropologist.

The poor living without potable water in coastal Chile  ‘cannot wait’ any longer!


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