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On Chilean Astronomy and Observatory Conflicts

The following guest post is brought to you by Joshua Tan, who I met on the Equity & Inclusion in Astronomy and Physics Facebook page. Joshua is a FONDECYT postdoctoral fellow at Universidad Católica in Santiago and he earned his PhD was from Columbia University last year. He works with Andreas Reisenegger and Julio Chaname. Recently, Joshua participated in a heated discussion about my recent Decolonize Astronomy essay (otherwise known to TMT supporters as the "anti-TMT" essay). One of the FB posters insisted that I write an article about similar injustices related to the GMT project and other Chilean astronomy projects. I told him that he should not feel entitled to direct my writing interests, but invited him to do the research, write a post and I'd be happy to post it to my blog. As I said in the intro to my Decolonize post, "Thus, I recognize that many will interpret what I write as simply anti-TMT. This is as unfortunate as it is inevitable. The truth is that I am pro-social justice."

While that commenter didn't take me up on my offer, Joshua did put in the work and wrote the following. Thank you Joshua!

The history of astronomy in Chile is in part tied into neo-colonialism, and the problematic character of that can be seen in certain ways in which foreign countries, international and transnational corporations, and wealthy astronomy departments in the West have taken advantage of the preferential treatments they have received from various Chilean governments. Observatories in Chile are all basically foreign-owned and operated, though Chile is a consortium member of CTIO. Connections between the academic astronomy departments in Chile and between their foreign counterparts seem to be growing, but it is important that the astronomy community acknowledge the unbalanced history that comes with this story.

Flag of the Mapuche, via Wiki Commons
Lately, an explosion of new projects and giant segmented-mirror telescopes (GSMTs; observatories that cost upwards of a billion dollars) has made Chile the focus of worldwide astronomical attention. One of these GSMTs is the Thirty Meter Telescope, and for a time Chile was in contention as a possible site, but the decision to build it in Hawaii was made with at least one consequence being that this decision is being opposed by Native Hawaiians (Kanaka Maoli) and allies who see the new project and existing telescopes on Mauna Kea in part as an affront to their indigenous rights. With other GSMTs either being considered or definitely being built in Chile at various stages (ALMA, LSST, GMT, E-ELT, and CTA), a question could be asked, to what extent do Chilean sites have similar issues as the current conflict over the TMT?

The issues with indigenous rights in Chile have a long and sordid history stretching back to the invasion of the Spanish in the sixteenth century and arguably coming to a head with the Chilean Occupation of Araucanía in 1860 where the independent Mapuche people were invaded and had their lands forcibly integrated into Chile. The Mapuche people today comprise 85% of the indigenous people of Chile and the struggle for indigenous rights has resulted in a decades-long conflict known as the Mapuche conflict. This conflict is largely happening south of Santiago and is, as far as I can tell, mostly (but not completely) removed from the northern part of the country where the observatories are. Of course, borderland arguments are false consciousness colonial fantasies, but there does not appear to be any direct connection between the Mapuche conflict and the observatories. This does not mean that such concerns don't exist in the same way that the concerns of certain Kanaka Maoli over the TMT were not recognized by many in the community until recently, but there has not been a lot of work done to answer this question.

Image from the excellent film, Nostalgia for the Light, about the grim geographical connections between astronomical observatories and the gravesites some of the disappeared from Pinochet’s rule. Reproduced from the New York Times
There have been conflicts with workers and Chilean nationals and various observatory projects. One famous story involves the construction of the VLT at Paranal where a clever lawyer figured out that according to Chilean law the site was owned by a military family. He went and found the family and filed suit stating that the government had signed the land over to ESO illegally. The request was for financial remuneration -- the family and the lawyer were perfectly happy to have the observatory be built as long as the money was paid for the land rights use. The suit was either dismissed or settled.

One thing that should be acknowledged is the problematic relationship the observatories had with the military junta that took over Chile in 1973. For the most part, this coup d'etat was considered a matter of "local politics" by many of the foreign observatories who tried to make no political waves in order to keep their special statuses. It is undeniable that Pinochet used the same geographies as where the observatories are located to help cover-up his crimes against humanity. Nevertheless, being neutral in the face of evil is itself a banal form of evil (c.f. Eichmann in Jerusalem).
I would be remiss if I did not mention the seventeen-day strike of the workers on ALMA in 2013 which was resolved apparently to both the union and AURA's mutual agreement. This highlights the rather large footprint that observatories have and can have in Northern Chile where many of the consortiums act as de facto (and in some cases de jure) mining companies -- the corporations who are arguably most guilty of exacerbating worker problems and trampling on the rights of the indigenous. To the extent that these giga-observatories have a lot of resources at their disposal, it is not always possible for people who are working for justice and the rights of the people to distinguish between them.  


Telescopes, Red Stars, and Chilean Skies

Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics

Vol. 39: 1-18 (Volume publication date September 2001)

Reaching for the Stars? Astronomy and Growth in Chile

by Javiera Barandiaran

Mapuche International Link


Markus Pössel said…
While the article focuses on the similarities, as far as I'm aware there are important differences, as well. The first is that Chile actually gets 10% (I believe) of observing time for all those first-rate telescopes, in exchange for the land and the infrastructure. If the Native Hawaiians were to get the rights to 10% of Maunakea observing time, that would change the balance considerably - just as Chilean astronomers are now, Native Hawaiian astronomers would be sought-after cooperation partners.

From two colleagues who do a lot of teacher training in Chile, I know that the Chilean government has also discovered that observing time as a natural resource, introducing astronomy (Earth and the Universe) as a school subject at all class levels [here].

Those same colleagues told me how proud many Chileans they have been talking to are of having the best observing conditions and the best telescopes in their country. Admittedly, that aspect of situation would probably be very different if Chilean observatories had been built on top of key Chilean cultural sites, with similar disregard for culture as shown by some of the astronomers on Maunakea. But since that is not the case, the attitude that has developed is apparently quite different.

I would be interested to learn whether or not Joshuas experiences in this respect are similar, or where they differ.
John Johnson said…
From Josh Tan via email:

Hi Markus,

Comparing the Chileans to Native Hawaiians in this context may be a bit difficult. The agreements made with Chile were made with the sovereign nation and the academic institutions at the level of international diplomacy and the indigenous of Chile are mainly from areas that are far removed from the observatories. As far as I know, the A'ole TMT movement is not calling for a share of observing time, and I'm not sure that even if this was offered it would make any difference to that conflict.

The Chilean 10% is actually less than other "local" agreements that have been made with the Spanish institutions associated with the Canary Islands or the South African Institutions associated with SALT, for example. On the other hand, because there are so many telescopes in Chile and Chilean Astronomy is relatively small in comparison to much of the rest of the world, I'm not sure that the fact that 10% is low by comparison is as problematic as Barandiaran has made it out to be.

I do think that there are ongoing problems with the way Chile has been treated in certain contexts. I would recommend reading Barandiaran for a pretty good overview of this.
Markus Pössel said…
Thanks to Josh for the additional information, and for pointing me to the Barandiaran article.

I agree that the 10% is something where one needs to distinguish more carefully. One key factor is the level of involvement - for SALT, for instance, I would think that the fact that it is operated by South African Institutions, that those institutions contributed some instruments, and that the South African state provided major funding for building the telescope puts it on a totally different footing than a situation in which the state's contribution is restricted to land and infrastructure. I'd also want to make a difference between observatories that distribute observation time between the members of the collaborating institutions (which is, I think, the case with Keck) and those that make it available fairly freely in a competitive process (such as ESO).

I think that Barandiaran somewhat short-changes the IAU's "Astronomy for development" plan. I can't see the 'aid instead of science' attitude Barandiaran attributes to the IAU - from what I know (see e.g. the Strategic Plan), the goal is to bring the science, and to help develop local research communities as well. Also, there's the (pre-university) education aspect - astronomy as a way of building a culture of scientific education at a pre-school to high school level. Barandiaran leaves that out altogether, as far as I can see.
Dan Phillips said…
I would like to address some points in this post that I believe are inaccurate, more nuanced than presented, and in some cases, wrong. It is nice to see Chilean astronomy get some attention, and hope the writer is able to enjoy all Chile has to offer while there. I lived in Chile for four years, and have many fond memories of the people, the landscape, and the observatories.

1. The Mapuche struggle is really happening in southern Chile, and has no history in the international observatories in Chile.
2. ...wealthy astronomy departments in the West...The far corners of the globe are involved in astronomy in Chile, not just North America and Europe, as I presume is intended by 'the West'.
3. AURA is not involved in ALMA, it is AUI. An interesting article about the ALMA strike is found here: which elaborates on the strike and some of the political background of the observatories in Chile.
4. Saying the observatories are basically foreign-owned and operated is naive, take a look at the rosters and see how many Chileans are involved in the operation of the observatories. 'Owned' is perhaps factually correct in that the stuff up on the mountain is owned by ESO or NOAO, or LCO, or NSF, or whoever, but these are not for-profit operations. The for-profit observatories are the tourist observatories that are owned (mostly if not entirely) by Chileans, and apart from being fun places to visit and well run in their own right, they benefit from the mystique of the scientific observatories, where public observing is not practical (other public outreach activities are practical, and are done).
5. CTIO is not a consortium that involves Chile.
6. Chilean PI'ed proposals are given 10% of the time at all the international observatories.
7. ESO, LCO, CTIO where all established in Chile before the coup and the Pinochet regime. The post does not mention that Pinochet is not universally considered a villain in Chile. When you allude to the observatories turning a blind eye to what was going on to not rock the boat, it is an over-simplification of the situation. The observatories employed then (and still do) a large number of Chileans, from across the political spectrum. They provided a safe (non-political) working environment to people that perhaps would have been victims of the regime. One could argue that the observatories becoming politically active could have exposed those workers to retaliation. The article that you reference (Telescopes, Red Stars, and Chilean Skies) addresses some of this. Don't forget, at the time of the regime there was no observatory on Cerro Paranal and no ALMA. The most infamous regime prison was 1,400 km to the north of La Silla, so the geographical connection is not as close as it is today. I am not apologizing for nor condoning anything done by Pinochet, I am just saying the issue is not as simple as it may appear.
8. The largest mining company in Chile is Codelco, which is owned by...the Chilean government...not a foreign corporation. Yes, there are lots of foreign companies making lots of money mining in Chile, and there are ugly aspects to the politics of mining. My observation is that Chileans working for the big foreign companies, and the many Chilean owned companies that support those operations, are very happy with their standard of living. The big foreign companies have far better records when it comes to worker safety than the small scale operations, and much better salaries and benefits for their workers. This is another nuance that it is easy to gloss over by just pointing to the big evil corporations, and trying to draw some kind of comparison between them and the observatories. I do not see any valid comparison.
Josh Tan said…
Hi Markus,

One thing to consider when evaluating the IAU's "development plan", and by means of advocating for Barandiaran's position a bit, is the broader conversation about what "development" means in the context of (neo-)colonialism, foreign aid, and (neo-)liberal economics. The axes of these arguments in the US at least unfortunately seem to me to primarily run between the approaches of Jeff Sachs and those of Bill Easterly. I would argue that both have their problematic outlooks: Sachs being more-or-less a neoliberal champion of the UN's Millennium Development Goals who desires to work as much as possible within the problematic status quo to effect change and Easterly adopting a cynic's position on the basis of an ideological affinity with libertarian economics. I won't belabor the point too much, but the fact that the intellectual arguments surrounding development are happening in this fashion makes me entirely uncomfortable with development as a model for anything. Don't get me wrong: I think there needs to be a systematic transfer of capital/power/control from so-called "developed" nations to so-called "undeveloped" nations, but the paternalistic attitudes associated with development programs are very hard to shake.

Where I think Barandiaran maybe misses the mark is in his evaluation of the scientific potential of Chile. The astronomy community here is growing and is world class. At some point very soon (years timescale), Chilean astronomy is going to demand the respect it has not yet been given by the rest of the world.
Josh Tan said…
Hi Dan,

I appreciate many of your clarifications and corrections. It is difficult to get everything right on the first go. I do take issue with some of your characterizations and agree with others, so indulge me if you may.

1. I'm not sure that there is any hard and fast agreement about to where the northern reaches of Ngulu Mapu extend. Certainly most put the frontier south of the observatories at the Maipo river, but I've seen maps that extend all the way to Peru.
2. Indeed, using 'the West' as a placeholder is linguistically imperialist, and I admit that this is poor choice of wording. Japan, South Korea, and China all have active astronomy programs in Chile.
3. My error about AUI.
4. I would definitely agree that the observatories in Chile could not function without Chileans essentially running the show as a practical matter. As a legal matter however, I think what I wrote is accurate.
5. My error. I was trying to refer to the Gemini consortium.
6. I don't think that my write-up disputes the 10% fact, but please let me know if I erred in this.
7. To say that Pincohet is not universally considered a villain in Chile is a bit of bending over backwards I will not do. The human rights violations that were perpetrated by that government are undeniable facts. I agree that there were admirable things that the observatories did to protect Chileans (read Blanco's memoir), but I do not think this excuses the astronomy community's complete silence on the human rights violations that were occurring in Chile. Whether you agree with the right wing or left wings politicians, systematic killings, tortures, and disappearances are crimes against humanity. I do agree that it might help to clarify that the geographies of where the mass grave in Atacama is located is similar in location if not in time; that's a fair editorial note.
8. It's true that the Chilean government is a big part of the problems associated with the mining companies. The concern of this post is largely with the struggle with the indigenous and, to that end, I think that it is important that we acknowledge the Mapuche conflict is very much intwined with disputes with mining companies in the south. To the extent that there are complaints against the observatories, they are often bundled together with the mining companies and the fact that they are legally mining companies is an interesting wrinkle to consider.

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