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As our society slouches relentlessly towards a future of resource-based conflict, Arica may be a taste of what is to come for many of us. Can it also show us a way to manage that future?
The Chilean port of Arica population just under , sits on the Pacific rim of the Atacama Desert. The windswept ridges of the driest wasteland in the world plunge abruptly into the cold ocean current to the south. Barely visible on the eastern horizon, the high snowy peaks of the Andes advance into Bolivia. A long bay curves north from the town towards the nearby border with Peru. Hundreds of masked Chinchorro skeletons, preserved in family groups, appear beneath the foundations of new buildings so often that construction companies are tempted to avoid delays by quickly concreting over the oldest mummies in the world.
Naked rock formations provide ideal testing grounds for interplanetary robot vehicles. No urban light pollution blurs the dazzling constellations. Observatories aim huge telescopes at the sky, gathering increasingly astonishing images and information about the size and scale of the cosmos. The entire extent of Chile lies on a tectonic fault which is driving the seabed under the continental shelf. The Andes are being squashed upwards.
The whole country is under tremendous strain, periodically releasing accumulated tension in shuddering jerks. A deep, mega-thrust earthquake obliterated Arica in , followed by a tsunami that dumped ocean-going liners on top of the ruins. An event of similar magnitude is expected again at any time. Signposts with arrows point to stairways and escape routes, leading to higher ground inland. Arica survives on the edge in more than one sense.
The northern Rio Lluta is salty — good for irrigating staple crops like maize, alfalfa and onions. The southern Rio Azapa, which dries up in the summer, brings sweet water into a lush tropical valley. Malaria used to be endemic, but is now under control. Fruit orchards flourish, beside big, juicy olives and tomatoes. With abundant fish stocks nearby, nature has provided the ideal balanced diet. However, the two countries have reversed their status since the imperial days of the Incas and Spaniards, when Chile was still a penal colony on a brutal southern frontier.