For more than a thousand years, the Diaguita have made Chile their home and thrived as a culture within its borders. Today, they are recognized as a distinct indigenous community living in Chile’s Huasco Valley. They have formed a close relationship with Barrick Gold based on a shared mining history and a common focus for the future.
Barrick Gold’s Pascua-Lama project is located 45 kilometers away from the nearest Diaguita settlement, making them the company’s closest neighbors.
The history of the Diaguita begins around 1000 A.D., when the indigenous group first descended from the Andes mountain range to settle in Chile’s valleys. Anthropologist Franko Urqueta, who was hired by Barrick Gold to study the Diaguita and has since written a book on the culture, says the population flourished between the eighth and 15th centuries, settling in the Norte Chico valleys and growing to a population of nearly 30,000 at their peak.
The Diaguita formed an agrarian-based society, creating an extensive and highly efficient irrigation system able to sustain a large population. The ywere known as walking farmers – moving from the coast to the mountains depending on which climate would give them the best agricultural results. According to Urqueta, the Diaguita were an advanced society that valued art and artisans. Throughout Chile, they were known for their varied and beautiful pottery and weaving. These artisanal traditions continued despite years of submission, first by the Inca empire and then by the Spaniards. Today, less than 1,500 Diaguita remain, making their home in the Atacama Region, specifically in the Huasco Valley. One of the smallest of nine indigenous groups in the country, they are a tight-knit and vibrant community.
“Right from the beginning, we have respected the Diaguita and their ties to the land,” says Igor Gonzalez, president of Barrick Gold South America. “We opened up the channels of communication and invited members of the community to discuss issues, to openly ask questions and to work together with us on the Pascua-Lama project.” Globally, Barrick Gold actively engages with indigenous peoples in the areas where the company operates. The aim is to develop long-term relationships that are constructive and mutually beneficial.
Justa Ana Huanchicay Rodriguez (pictured) is a respected Diaguita Elder and president of the Diaguita Cultural Centre in Huasco Alto. She says the company’s support is helping the Diaguita address their greatest obstacles. “Our main challenge is to preserve our customs, traditions, family names and lifestyle for future generations,” Huanchicay said. “To me, that is our major challenge and Barrick Gold is helping to make that happen.”
Huanchicay came to live with her Diaguita grandfather in the Huasco Valley at the age of 12. She has fond memories of her grandfather working the field, sowing wheat, corn, beans and potatoes. “My grandfather Pedro was not an educated person, but he was very wise,” she said. “He told me the history of our people, the importance of agriculture to our livelihood and how it had to be maintained. Our roots are tied to the soil. Helping us thrive as an agricultural society by providing assistance to farmers is a very important aspect of Barrick Gold’s support for the Diaguita.”
In 2006, Barrick Gold set up the Agro-Forestry Assistance Program in the Huasco Valley. The program recognizes the importance of farming to the Diaguita and the challenges of working the land, particularly during the dry season that hits the region hard each year.
Under the program, farmers receive specialized training in animal health, crops and cattle vaccines. To date 107 Diaguita farmers have taken advantage of the assistance program. Cattle vaccines have been provided to 67 farmers and another 40 have received seeds and technical support to help improve crop yields.
Diaguita artisanal traditions have been passed down through generations. Barrick Gold engaged Diaguita artisans, primarily women, to hold workshops and teach skills such as pottery and weaving to a new generation of Diaguita. More than 120 people have already become certifi ed in a variety of artisanal traditions through these workshops, which involve 60 hours of study. In addition to learning the ancient artistry, participants received commercial training to enable them to sell their work nationally and internationally and earn an income.
Already, Barrick Gold has sponsored these artists to attend several cultural and commercial exhibitions, most recently in Santa Cruz, Chile.
Paula Alcayaga is a 24-year old artisan who uses the art of the yard loom to weave beautiful work. She is a graduate of Barrick Gold’s looming workshop and was recently sponsored to attend the Santa Cruz exhibition. She came away amazed at the difference it made to her income and pleased with the contacts she made for future sales. “The company has assisted us with the recovery of Diaguita artisanal work,” Huanchicay said. “With Barrick’s support, we are able to hold courses in various techniques and later exhibit them successfully. We hope this support will continue.”
After years of struggling for official recognition, the Diaguita were granted legal status as a distinct ethnic group by the Chilean government in 2006. Following passage of legislation by the Chilean Congress in July 2006, President Michelle Bachelet signed into law recognition of the Diaguita people in August, 2006.
Subsequently, Barrick Gold agreed to provide free legal assistance to individuals seeking to gain official status as Diaguita and be eligible for government benefits. More than 20 people sought out this legal support and were later recognized by the government. Today in Chile, approximately 600 people have official status as Diaguita.
Five years earlier, the company also set an important precedent. When submitting its Environmental Impact Assessment for the Pascua-Lama project to authorities in 2001, Barrick Gold explicitly identified the Diaguita as a distinct ethnic group residing close to the project. This marked the first time this designation had been associated with the indigenous group. This key document was reviewed extensively by government and the public and laid the foundation for the company’s future relations with the Diaguita in the Huasco Valley.
Huanchicay says Barrick Gold’s acknowledgement in this way was a stepping stone to gaining official recognition. “Many people helped us to attain this,” she said. “From local authorities to members of the House of Representatives, many people were involved. This includes the considerable efforts of the Diaguita cultural centre in Copiapó and our centre here in Alto del Carmen. Together we all pushed towards the same goal.”
To increase awareness of Diaguita culture, Barrick Gold sponsored the writing of Etnia Diaguita, Urqueta’s book about the known history of the Diaguita. The book is now being used in schools in the Atacama Region and elsewhere to teach the next generation about this distinctive indigenous culture. A documentary film was also sponsored by Barrick Gold to give the Diaguita an opportunity to showcase their culture. The film features first-person accounts from Diaguita from all walks of life, recounting ancestor stories and describing their customs, language and traditional activities. More subtly, the film reveals the determination of a people bound by a shared identity who, with little outside support, have managed to endure. The documentary was screened by members of the community on the second anniversary of the group’s official recognition by the Chilean government at an event in Copiapó in 2008.
“To us, the film is a tribute to our effort and our people,” Huanchicay said. “It is a way for our children to get to know the Elders, speaking in their own words.”
At the packed film screening, members of the Barrick Gold team who had championed the Diaguita cause in the region received a special blessing and thanks from one of the community’s spiritual leaders.
“Barrick’s future in the Huasco Valley and the future of the Diaguita are interconnected,” says Gonzales. “We will continue to ensure this community and the region benefit from Pascua-Lama.”
Franko Urqueta is an anthropologist specializing in the study of ethnic groups in Chile. He studied anthropology at the University of Chile in Santiago and has worked with several ethnic groups, namely the Mapuches, Atacamenos and Coyas. In 2005, Urqueta was sponsored by Barrick Gold to study the Diaguita culture. He discusses his research with Beyond Borders’ editor Nancy White.
Who are the Diaguita? Where do they make their home?
The Diaguita were officially recognized as a distinct indigenous community by the Chilean government in 2006. Approximately 600 people have official status as Diaguita. They live in the Huasco Valley, which is part of their original pre-Colombian territory. In all the other valleys in the northern area, as well as in the rest of Chile, the Diaguita population has disappeared. Some individuals bearing Diaguita names continue to live in the Huasco Valley, but they do not constitute an indigenous group. The remaining Diaguita exist only in the upper Huasco Valley.
Why was the book “Etnia Diaguita” created?
The book was an opportunity to compile the limited pre-existing data on the Diaguita and support further study. It examines past and current culture and some of the challenges this community faces.
What makes the Diaguita culture so unique and so resilient?
A key characteristic of Diaguita people is their capacity to adapt. Throughout their history, the Diaguita came into contact with other groups, such as Incas, Spaniards and then the Republic of Chile, that tried to impose their customs and traditions. By adapting to new authorities, the Diaguita were able to maintain their identity and endure as a people for more than a thousand years.
Some critics claim that the culture of the Diaguita will be threatened by mining above the Huasco Valley? Do you agree?
Most of the people who criticize mining activity in the valley do not live in the valley. They also have very limited knowledge of Diaguita culture. From the beginning, the Diaguita have mined gold. Five hundred years ago, they developed mining activities in this valley – becoming the first miners in this part of Chile. They paid taxes to the Peruvian Inca Empire in gold and were also gifted goldsmiths. The Diaguita population have combined their traditional agricultural and cattle raising activities with small-scale mining. Barrick Gold has introduced itself as a respectful neighbor, aware of this mountain culture and committed to safeguarding its identity.