Exploring the Yareta of Northern Chile Through the Archives

Posted by Amanda Lotspike – MA Candidate at CLACS

To write a story of the yareta is to start from its partial absence in the Chilean altiplano. It’s a hard thing to do. The yareta demands attention; it grows “like a tortoise—big and green”[1], a plant with almost animate qualities despite its resolute grounding in the Andean volcanic belt. Thriving at altitudes of twelve to fifteen-thousand feet above sea level, the yareta is more than a single cushion shrub. Hundreds of tightly wound, waxy succulent leaves make up the flat surface area of its circular outcroppings—bulbous growths that take on the appearance of carpet moss from far away. At eye level, a heavy resin (yaretawaqa or “tears” of the yareta) smudges its bright green surface, while dried yellow flowers collect in small pockets where the slopes of the yareta rise and fall.

The yareta, photo taken by author.


This summer I’ve set out to learn of and from the history of the yareta (its abundant growth, extraction and decline) in the Norte Grande of Chile. From stories of the “king” of the yareta (a Bolivian entrepreneur who led commercial exploitation of the species during the mid-twentieth century Chilean mining boom) to its representation in the writings of award-winning poet Miguel Urrelo Valdivia, I have explored the ways in which the yareta exists beyond its material presence (as a poetic imaginary, an heirloom, a divine resource and finally, a warning call).

In this series of blog posts I will highlight a few of these stories. First stop: the library at the National Service for Geology and Mining and the National Archive of Chile.

In a document written by Dutch geologist H.J. De Wijs for the mining company Mantos Blancos in 1943,[2] the landscape of the North (described for the sole purpose of prospective foreign investment and commercial exploitation of the region) takes on an almost poetic quality. De Wijs writes of deposits of “flowers of sulphur” in the volcano of Tahapaca and “lens-shaped beds of dark-colored caliche…with streaks of virtuous bright yellow.” In Puquios these appear as “fragments of bleached volcanic rock that are partly impregnated with vitreous sulfur.”

Mount Ollagüe. Source: Joaquín Sánchez R., “Informe Geológico Preliminar de las Azufreras del Volcan Ollagüe, Provincia de Antofagasta, Chile,” October 1968, File 1572, Biblioteca del Servicio Nacional de Geologia y Mineria.


Published only three years after a warning of “abusive exploitation” of the yareta was sent to the Intendent of Antofagasta,[3] the document by De Wijs writes of “an abundant growth of yareta” as a marker of value for potential mining sites (primarily a source of fuel for mining operations). Yet hints of its decline appear in the section on Mount Ollagüe: it is nonetheless “exceedingly scarce in the Ollagüe district…[with] prices of up to Ch$ 500 per ton.”

A second document, authored by Froilán Silvia and Reinaldo O. Börgel[4], a Chilean geographer working with the Military Institute of Geography, points to this scenario as a sign of progress. A “reduction in ground-cover vegetation” (of paja brava, tola and the yareta) is seen as an almost natural ordering of the acquired land. The authors write of “suelos incultos” in Bolivian territory as sign of its “salvaje naturaleza” and a connection with the land gone awry. This is contrasted with Chile, whose overworked soils and absence of natural vegetation “señalaba la presencia de una política”—of order and progress.

Briefly explored here, these two documents give a sense of the ways in which the growth and decline of the yareta follow a much larger and more complex history of the post-War of the Pacific period. Tracing the “corrective measures” of the land, as Silvia and Börgel write, we might see the ways in which chilenización worked to reshape material culture just as it sought to reshape the identities of those who resided within its borders.


[1] Carolina Villagran, Ciencia indígena de Los Andes del Norte de Chile: Programa Interdisciplinario de Estudios en Biodiversidad, Universidad de Chile. Santiago de Chile: Editorial Universitaria, 2004, 134.Bottom of Form

[2] H.J. de Wijs, “Report on South-American Sulfur Deposits, File 8357, 1943, Biblioteca del Servicio Nacional de Geologia y Mineria.

[3] Letter from Juan Rivero Vivado to the Intendent of Antofagasta,12 September 1940, Box 218. Archivo Nacional de Chile.

[4] Froilán Silvia and Reinaldo O. Börgel, “Descripción geográfica de la zona fronteriza chileno boliviana. Sección B: Sector Ollague-Pisagua,” File 4036, n.d., Biblioteca del Servicio Nacional de Geologia y Mineria.

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