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[SANTIAGO] Indigenous communities in northern Chile's Atacama desert are to benefit from an agreement to encourage international astronomy organisations to set up observatories there.

The Chilean government has authorised the national science agency (CONICYT) to manage the creation of an international 'astronomy park' in the desert, parts of which are considered sacred by local communities.

The desert's clear atmosphere, high altitude and dryness — it is one of the driest places on the planet — make it an ideal location for radio observatories, which allow astronomers to create images from the radio waves emitted by stars, planets and other astral bodies.

According to the agreement CONICYT signed with the government in February, projects set up in this area will have to support health, education and productive programmes for 13 local communities — most of them from the Atacameño ethnic group.

"These are ancestral lands for us," explains Wilfredo Cruz, president of Toconao village's Atacameño community. "Our families settled here a long time ago and we still have some ceremonial sites and vestiges of our past. The Atacameño people honour Pata Hoiri [Mother Earth] and Puri [water] on these lands."

In the coming years, CONICYT will attempt to attract international scientific institutions to build observatories in the area. Representatives of the local communities will be involved in negotiations between the science institutions and CONICYT, to ensure that projects respect their land.

Two major institutions have already planned facilities in the desert. In 2003, the European Southern Observatory and the US National Science Foundation agreed to build the world's largest and most sensitive radio telescope on 18,000 hectares of the total 45,000 hectares that will eventually constitute the park.

The Atacama Large Millimeter Array will capture radio waves from space using 64 giant microwave receivers.

Since 2004, the European Southern Observatory has provided US$124,000 each year to boost Chilean astronomy and foster regional and local development.

According to Aldo Barrales, deputy chief of the regional office for indigenous affairs, in 2005 part of the money will be used to build two aqueducts in indigenous villages and to improve both the health emergency system and the dental services in rural area of San Pedro de Atacama.

Cruz suggests that agreements with other scientific institutions coming to Atacameño lands could provide "job opportunities for our people, funds for agricultural or ecotourism projects, or the right for the communities to manage scientific tours to the observatories".

Cruz adds that negotiations between local communities and national agencies are an acknowledgement of the rights of indigenous peoples to participate in decisions related to their interests, especially when they deal with the conservation of biodiversity, natural resources and their ancestral lands. 

“There is a common need both from scientists and local communities to protect the area," says Leonardo Bronfman, astronomy advisor for CONICYT. "For the indigenous communities this project is welcome because it respects their natural resources and archaeological sites."