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Dakar Rally runs into angry detractors in Chile

Text by: Yann BUXEDA
5 min

As the Dakar Rally snakes its way across South American deserts, activists in Chile are denouncing the negative impact of the world’s most famous off-road vehicle race on precious archaeological sites.


The race has seen its share of controversy ever since it was launched in France 35 years ago, and its shift from European and African terrain to a South American backdrop in 2009 has only created new disputes.

This week, as fans gathered to see the race rumble through Argentina’s barren northwest, one prestigious Chilean archaeology group saw its complaint against the Dakar dismissed by the country’s Supreme Court in Santiago.

It was the only legal challenge before the courts in Chile, where the motor race is scheduled to finish on January 18, but the row between the competition’s organisers, local authorities and angry activists looks set to drag on.

'Destruction with impunity'

Critics deplore the heavy carbon emissions of the competing 4x4 cars and motorbikes, as well as the damage caused to archaeological sites in the regions crossed by the Dakar Rally.

Paola Gonzalez, vice-president of the College of Archaeologists of Chile, a non-profit dedicated to protecting the country’s landmarks and leading the campaign “No al Dakar”, told FRANCE 24 that over 250 sites classified as historic monuments have been damaged by the international race in the past six years.

An ancient geoglyph in Chile's northern desert allegedly damaged during a previous Dakar Rally.
An ancient geoglyph in Chile's northern desert allegedly damaged during a previous Dakar Rally.

“In Chile, a national monuments law considers this a punishable crime," Gonzalez told FRANCE 24. “Nevertheless, the destruction with impunity of our national heritage continues.”

Gonzalez, who laments the loss of what she calls the country’s “non-renewable memory,” says part of the problem is a legal stalemate between two official government institutions in Chile.

“Under normal circumstances, the Council for the State's Defence (CDE, its acronym in Spanish) would prosecute those responsible for the destruction of national monuments."

“But the problem is that the Dakar is co-organised by Chile’s National Sports Institute [and the French company Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO)]. The CDE is powerless to act because it cannot turn against another public entity,” the archaeologist said.

Enough safeguards?

Contacted by FRANCE 24, ASO rejected claims by the Chilean archaeologists' group that the race is responsible for damaging precious historic sites.

“In Chile, as in every country we race through, we abide by a simple rule: we completely comply with local legislation," said ASO’s Grégory Murac, the director of relations between the Dakar and host countries.

“The process is also straightforward,” Murac continued. “First, we suggest a racecourse to the countries involved. They study it and make recommendations, which we accept. Once this is done, we go there with experts appointed by local authorities to conduct a study of the entire racecourse.”

Murac said that reports are prepared for each stage of the race, with appropriate safeguards taken well before drivers ever start their engines.

Gonzalez retorts that the “safeguards” are laughable since the Dakar has so far been allowed to regulate itself. “In the end, archaeological sites are ‘protected’ by two metal rods linked by a band of coloured plastic,” she fumed.

But ASO’s Murac said the archaelogists have failed to provide evidence to back their claims, a view shared by the Chilean Supreme Court when it dismissed their lawsuit earlier this week.

Ecuador says no

Despite this outcry against this year’s Dakar, many observers also counter that the race is a valuable opportunity to promote Chile’s economy and its image abroad.

Gonzalez is quick to dispute this point as well.

“The financial benefits that come with the Dakar are relatively limited. Every year Chile spends 4.4 million euros just to host the race. And there are additional costs related to the logistics of the competition that go beyond that sum,” she noted.

The 2014 Dakar route crosses through Argentina, Bolivia and Chile.
The 2014 Dakar route crosses through Argentina, Bolivia and Chile.

Indeed, some South American countries have passed on the opportunity to host the Dakar. Ecuador, which considered hosting several special stages in 2015, declined the offer last year citing environmental concerns and high costs.

As in Chile, several citizen groups in Argentina are starting to organise opposition to the competition. Seven Argentinian environmental groups in November 2013 petitioned the Santa Fe province legislature to support a bill that would outlaw the race in the region.

Meanwhile, the hashtag #bastadeldakar (#nomoredakar) has been launched by activists on the social media site Twitter.

However, despite the growing opposition, the Dakar does not appear to be under any serious threat in the near future.

High-ranking ministers in both Argentina and Bolivia have recently hailed the “hard work” of local organisers in bringing the Dakar to their countries, and the benefits of highlighting their countries' landscapes and cultures to global audiences through the race.

Even in Chile, the Dakar is likely to speed ahead. President elect Michelle Bachelet, who won elections late last year, first welcomed the the Dakar in 2009 with open arms.

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