top of page
Decolonising the Modern Wastescape

Exploring methods for recovering the abandoned landfill of Alto Hospicio by applying radical indigenous knowledge [1]

by Francisca Pimentel

Abstract: Modernity established a desacralising understanding of nature, allowing the exploitation, privatisation, and transnationalisation of natural resources to pursue extensive industrial development, simultaneously increasing the production and disposal of waste. Alto Hospicio, an ancient field of indigenous transit, is a desert land in Chile where rubbish, landfills, and informal settlements coexist together. Their friction and confrontation are a continuous manifest against capitalist slavery, which finds here a blind spot where to hide its waste from surrounding cities. This article is the result of a design exercise based on the older rubbish dump of the city, constrained by the urban fabric and open-air sports pitches. An abandoned walled ground, apparently inactive, whose latent decomposition expels gases with silent yet catastrophic consequences for life. As a manifesto of resistance from capitalist apathy, the design questions modern waste approaches, evaluating new methods to face technical challenges, and re-learning traditional indigenous structures to reclaim the landfill as a new collective garden. An alternative to reconcile our detached relationship with nature, re-introducing colonised ecological indigenous knowledge.

All Images


Capitalism has made economic growth possible through an urban-industrial metabolism which, through the exploitation and privatisation of natural resources, has increased the consumption of products and, consequently, the production of waste [2].

Therefore, it is not surprising that news such as the so-called Clothes Cemetery in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile shakes the population to remind us of the effects of the Anthropocene and the profound subalternity relationships on this and other localities [3]. The media exposure partially revealed the rubbish problems in the nearby town of Alto Hospicio, which hides a much cruder and long-standing reality, which emerges from time to time, but whose impact seems to be transitory and buried under the placebo effect of global capitalism. Indeed, despite the dangerous consequences for the environment, rubbish has been considered a progress symbol, required for our development [4]. 



Confronting this reality requires a brief review of the history of waste and its consequences. As recapped by Laura Smead, in the chapter History and Reality of Waste [5], the first recorded landfill was located on the island of Crete (1500 BC), where rubbish was deposited in large earth-covered pits. This policy was gradually replicated in other regions, designating collectors on the city's outskirts, and prohibiting waste dumping in streets and public spaces. However, this primary approach was limited to the definition of artisanal disposal sites but was far from understanding the sanitary problems related to the agglomeration and decomposition of waste. According to Smead [6], it was not until the second half of the 19th century that the first systematic waste management plans were implemented, which organised waste collection, and programmed burial and incineration. Still, the formulation of sustainable practices only came to the fore in the 1980s [7]. It was oriented to reduce the biodegradable content of municipal solid waste (MSW) and to reuse methane gas —released during the decomposition process— for electricity generation. 

However, the application of such measures is structured in a centre-periphery relationship that goes beyond their geographic-spatial location and refers to the ethnic, racial, class, and cultural aspects that determine the final disposal and management of our waste [8]. This dichotomous centre-periphery relationship is the expression of the "modern colonial world-system and its capitalist economy" structure [9], whose application to the overproduction of waste establishes what I call coloniality of waste, and which is expressed in four aspects: (1) the modern conception of waste, (2) the definition of disposal areas, (3) the application of sustainable measures and waste recovery, and (4) the closure of landfills.

First, the massive exploitation of resources and over-production of waste is evidence of a progressive objectification of nature and a mechanism that has impoverished the territory, city and community life, in pursuit of anonymous mass production, without quality or attributes. Contrary to the ancestral human-nature reciprocity, which uses waste as part of a natural and interrelated cycle.

Second, the world-system of global capitalism is structured by formulating dominant central regions that accumulate capital by exporting extractive and polluting activities to the periphery [10]. As an ideological and political axis of domination, this logic is replicated locally in Chile, displacing MSW from capital cities to vulnerable territories. As a result, the landfill [11] becomes a segregating element that oppresses the bodies and lives of those around it, exposing them and their territories to the most severe environmental degradation. Disarticulating, in its path, forms of community life.


Third, although proper waste management and recovery are fundamental for sustainable development, such practices are mainly applied in central regions, while in the periphery, a large part of MSW is still dumped in low-standard or illegal landfills, leading to profound and multidimensional environmental and social impacts [12].

And fourth, the tension around the landfill emerges not only during its formulation and lifetime but also during and after the ending of its activities. Even if the use of sustainable strategies might seem obvious to us today to ensure its appropriate landfill closure —including the remediation of these spaces into urban parks or golf pitches—, the end of many of them is still developed under an inadequate environmental management plan, which is aggravated in the side-line of the city [13]. 

In Chile, solid waste production reached 8,177,448 tonnes in 2018 for a population of 16,883,086 inhabitants, which represents 1.19 kg of waste per inhabitant per year [14]. This is deposited in 124 active disposal sites throughout the country, of which only 30 correspond to sanitary landfills [15]. These sites continue to be perceived as residual areas that should be hidden, some of them abandoned by local health authorities without facing the severe loss of natural ecosystems and without considering the rights of those who live near them. Although there is a national plan for waste valorisation through recycling, composting, co-processing, and reduction of hydrobiological resources, its implementation is mainly concentrated in the Metropolitan Region [16], while poorer communes continue to deal with inefficient waste management, assuming it with resignation. 

The problem is that the rubbish refuses to disappear and become invisible, and Alto Hospicio —as has become evident over the last few months— is a clear example of this.



Alto Hospicio is a desert land where rubbish, rubbish dumps and informal settlements coexist. The city is located in desertic northern Chile, next to the capital port of Iquique. Both are detached by the coastal mountain but connected by a single main road which collapses at peak hours since most of Alto Hospicio’s source of employment is in Iquique, thus transforming Alto Hospicio into a dormitory suburb and backyard of Iquique. Despite the distance, Alto Hospicio has quickly become a highly populated residential area of immigrant industrial workers due to the low cost of rent and land. 


Initially, this territory was a place of exchange between indigenous peoples from the coast and the interior until the expansion of the Inca domain and the subsequent arrival of the Spanish colonisers encouraged the exploitation of this land to extract silver. With the decline of mining production, the region became a transit area for freight trains carrying minerals from the saltpetre offices to the port of Iquique and vice versa. The first inhabitants of Alto Hospicio were Aymara families who arrived during the 1950s to establish their agricultural and livestock plots [17]. However, due to the high rental costs of Iquique, these were gradually replaced by large land takeovers and autoconstruction, mainly by low-income, indigenous and immigrant groups. In response, the government implemented new social housing and urban infrastructure policies to curb the high rates of poverty, unemployment, and crime.

Inefficient waste management has marked the development of Alto Hospicio since its foundation. Poor control of MSW and limited environmental awareness have facilitated clandestine dumps —cluttering squares and waste sites within the city [18], and a series of unsuccessful experiences related to the design of three landfills. Designed and built-in 1990, the first landfill site Bajo Molle (1), was created by the Municipality of Iquique to house its waste. The early encounter between the urban fabric with the site forced its closure in 2000, committing Iquique to a twice-yearly gas emission control until 2020. However, this was not conducted correctly or periodically [19]. In response, a concrete perimeter wall was built as a reactive measure to protect and prevent the community's free access, and to regulate (without success) the proliferation of the informal camp that since 2007 was installed on its edges, taking advantage of its abandonment. In its place, the El Boro landfill (2) was designed 12.6 km far from Bajo Molle to receive the waste from both cities. However, the current proximity between El Boro and the urban fabric harms the population, forcing both municipalities to consider the future of the landfill and the creation of a new one, called La Perdíz (3), on the outskirts of the city [20]. In addition to these, there are multiple illegal dumps scattered on the empty land, inside and outside the city. 

The friction and continuous confrontation between the city and the rubbish is a latent manifesto against capitalist slavery, which finds in Alto Hospicio a blind spot —on the back of Iquique—where to hide its waste. This choice is not an innocent one. Iquique designed Bajo Molle under the logic of moving rubbish to a space out of sight, displacing it to an open field far from the city (regardless of the indigenous and vulnerable population already settled close to that territory), and its closure only confirms this conception. Thus, the closing of the landfill was "solved" by hiding the rubbish under a concrete carpet and a perimeter wall, designed with minimum sustainability standards. Accordingly, the problem has been approached statically and aesthetically, without considering its temporal dimension and multidisciplinary impact, to the point of completely lacking official information related to its use, history, and current and future implications. This sort of urban island —which due to its residual nature, has encouraged the accumulation of micro-dumps around it — configures a complex landscape of degradation whose geometry is determined by the hybrid compaction of waste, soil, and concrete on the original topography. 

It could be said that the historical accumulation of rubbish has shaped a quickly readable hill, whose apparent inactivity is only a mask that hides an organism in continuous decomposition and, therefore, in constant transformation. Additionally, a series of pipelines criss-cross the land, releasing methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere without any control and monitoring. Unfortunately, the problems associated with the landfill are not the only ones seriously affecting the area. While much of the commune has access to drinking water, the camp next to Bajo Molle has no access to this service and must be supplied daily by water lorries [21]. Furthermore, the widespread distrust of drinking water quality has led to bottled water purchasing and excess plastic waste.



A review of Alto Hospicio's regulatory plan (1996) shows that the Bajo Molle site is defined as an "Area of Equipment and Park", suggesting a desire to remediate and transform the former landfill into a public space integrated into the city.


Taking this as a starting point, and based on what has been studied above, Bajo Molle will support an intervention proposal that will seek to decolonise this space and integrate it into the city as a new community garden for cultivation, leisure, and research. The design will combine contemporary strategies to deal with technical problems such as gas and leachate emissions, and traditional structures. 


Through the revaluation of indigenous architecture, it is possible to reaffirm the community's sense of belonging, creating a social, political and identitarian space to question and confront the control of nature as a product of global capitalism [22]. Through the selection of three different compositions of traditional indigenous architecture —all related to the manipulation of land and water —the project plays with their characteristic features by rescaling and assembling them in situ, shaping a resilient landscape that explores the boundary between nature in arid climates and our anthropocentric ways of life. These include the development of terraces over trash topography and fog capture methods during winter mornings —when a dense fog (so-called Camanchaca) moves from the sea to the interior land, covering the hills near the coast—, to reclaim land and water use for the community and offer relief from extreme urban and climatic conditions. Unlike the current situation, where gases are released into the atmosphere without any control, landfill gas will be collected and piped underground to a central collector, recycling the existing underground pipe network [23]. 

A fog traps network is set up over the territory to serve as reference points and store the collected water [24]. Its use aims to generate a circular economy that allows the cultivation and maintenance of low water-consuming species and charity. Proper water management is fundamental to achieving a balance with the land and a sense of community and collective identity in facing the impact of an extractive state that perceives our natural resources as infinite and marketable. The fog trap module —whose tripod structure adapts to the topographical changes of waste decomposition and earthquakes— provides a refuge to interact, play, relax and gather around the activity of harvesting, transforming into educational spaces to convey issues of environmental crisis, water, recycling of materials and recovery of contaminated urban spaces through open workshops for the surrounding community and schools.


This educational role is crucial, as socio-environmental recovery begins with not destroying our territories and valuing natural resources through local entrepreneurship and environmental education. In other words, understanding these components as pedagogical objects suggests the potential of indigeneity to work in symbiosis with nature, confronting the hegemony of modernity-neoliberalism that has commodified and profited from our natural resources, dumping its waste on the territory. 

In nature, everything works as an interrelated system: what is a waste for one is a resource for another, creating a natural cycle to sustain our ecosystems [25]. Therefore, like indigenous communities, it is urgent to learn from this internal metabolism to improve our waste management and understand waste as an opportunity. In this sense, the proposal is not only reactive (remediating a space that is already environmentally affected) but also preventive, by encouraging, through its educational role, the recycling of materials that can be useful for the maintenance of the garden. In this way, workshops will teach the community how to make products from rubbish and debris, producing raw materials for the project and their own homes. 



The proposed scenario is defined as a manifestation of detachment from capitalist slavery to humanise waste treatment in nearby urban contexts and awaken a sense of ownership and family collectivism. Although this theoretical project-related exercise has taken the old Alto Hospicio landfill as a reference point, there are 124 active MSW disposal sites in Chile. Many are located in disputed areas, directly coexisting with indigenous populations and natural ecosystems. In this way, this first approach sought to recognise the value of indigenism as a geopolitical potential to restore uncolonised modernity and reconcile the ephemeral relationship between man and nature, confronting the hegemony of modernity-neoliberalism that has commodified and profited from our natural resources in the name of progress.

[1] This text is an excerpt from the author's thesis for her master’s degree in Architecture and Historic Urban Environments, "Decolonising the Modern Wastescape: Exploring methods for recovering the old landfill of Alto Hospicio by applying radical indigenous knowledge to cater the local community", The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, 2021.

[Image 1]

Overlay of active disposal sites in areas of distribution of the main indigenous peoples before the arrival of European settlers (in grey). 


(1) Sanitary landfills

(2) Landfills


Source: image by the author (2021) based on SUBDERE. Actualización de la Situación por Comuna y por Región en Materia de RSD y Asimilables. Chile: Programa Nacional de Residuos Sólidos, 2019.

[2] Fernández (2011), p. 10

[3] The news, widely reported nationally and internationally, exposed the clandestine clothing warehouses in the Atacama Desert as a side-effect of fast fashion.

[4] In Chile, the local newspaper El Mercurio de Valparaíso pointed out in 1957 that the population had to accept (with patriotism) pollution as an inevitable sacrifice for the country's development.

[5] Smead (2017), p. 57-63

[6] Smead (2017), p. 60

[7] Smead (2017), p. 60

[8] Aníbal Quijano reformulated the centre-periphery conceptualisation to refer to the colonial power relationship between dominator-dominated. See Quijano (2008), p. 11-20.

[9] Mingolo (2008), p. 230

[10] Quijano (2008): 188 and Fernández (2011), p. 16

[11] By landfills, I also include Sanitary landfills

[12] Smead (2017), p. 63

[13] In Europe, there are 150,000 old and abandoned landfills, equivalent to 300,000 hectares. See Sustainable Use of Former or Abandoned Landfills Network (2018).

[14] MMA (2020), p. 485

[15] SUBDERE (2019), p. 13

[16] MIDESO, 2015; MMA (2020), p. 508-528

[17] Guerra and Corvalán (2016), p. 6

[18] The problem of micro-dumps has been tackled by defining a network of public spaces and squares which, due to a lack of vegetation, street furniture and design quality, have failed to curb the pollution of the urban fabric.

[19] Alto Hospicio Environment Officer (2021). To a large extent, many problems are due to Iquique building the dump in the territory that would later become Alto Hospicio. Its administration has generated a series of problems between the two municipalities. It was only in 2017 that the consultancy "Estudio de Suelo Terreno Ex Vertedero, A. Hospicio" was developed to determine the soil quality of the land in the camp adjacent to the Bajo Molle landfill and its impact on its neighbours. See SERVIU I Region (2021).

[20] Municipality of Alto Hospicio (2020)

[21] Although the municipality subsidises 1,000 litres of water per month, its transport and storage is duty of the villagers.

[22] Watson (2021), p. 11-27

[23] Any intervention should ensure continuous air monitoring to avoid impact on public health. In addition, it is suggested to evaluate the use and transformation of methane gas into electrical energy to maintain the garden, improve the efficiency of the fog catcher, lighting and supply electricity to the surrounding settlements. Notwithstanding the above, it is proposed to harness solar energy in an arid context by adding a solar panel to each structure, whose energy will illuminate these points at night, transforming the fog catchers into night lamps.

[24] Both the water —collected by the fog catchers— and the gas are operated separately to avoid cross-contamination.

[25] Fernández (2011), p. 12


[Image 2]

Bajo Molle landfill.

Paulina Sandoval (2021)

[Image 3]

Landfills in Alto Hospicio.

(1) Bajo Molle

(2) El Boro

(3) La Perdiz

Image by the author (2021)

[Image 4]

Evolution of the urban fabric around Bajo Molle.

Image by the author (2021) elaborated based on google earth screenshots.

[Image 5]

Bajo Molle´s immediate context

Image by the author (2021)

[Image 6]

Micro-landfills around the landfill. 

Image by the author (2021)

[Image 7]

(1) Perimetral wall 

(2) Topsoil 

(3) Middle layer of sandy clay

(4) Lower layer of clay

(5) Waste

(6) Subsoil

(7) Gas vent

Composition of the Bajo Molle landfill.

Image by the author (2021)

[Image 8]

(1) Bund wall (stones and earth)

(2) Path

(3) Crop field

(4) Fog trap

(5) Overground Tank

(6) Water channel (irrigation system)

(7) Local farmers

(8) Community manufacturing process 

(9) Community manufacturing process (material selection)

(10) Gas tap for regular inspection

(11) Gas pipe

Gas (red) and water (blue) piping. Materiality is an element integrated into the functions of a garden in warm countries. Thus, the project plays with two different expressions: the massiveness of the earth, which represents the landscape and the nature of the place, and the lightness of the textile, which represents the ephemeral nature of light, shadow, and water in this desert valley. 

Image by the author (2021)

[Image 9]

(1) Canopy’s shade

(2) Fog trap

(3) Tensioned cable

(4) Timber structure

(5) Fabric mesh

(6) External ring

(7) Water collector

(8) Tube collector

(9) Overground clay pond

(10) Overground tank

(11) Irrigation system

(12) Quinoa Cultivation

(13) Fabric handicraft

(14) Clay vessel handicraft

(15) Solar panel

(16) Light bulb

The project considers time as one of the essential elements of the garden, exhibiting the process of growth, seasonal temporality and impermanence in its constructed elements. The mud patina cracks and dissolves in the same way that the mesh is torn by the insistent blow of the coastal wind. Its maintenance and restoration become a collective investment that seeks to strengthen the local community. 

Image by the author (2021)

[Image 10]

The western border houses a new garden for the adjacent communities. The visual exhibits the growth, weathering, and seasonal temporality, showing water as a gathering haven.

Image by the author (2021)

[Image 11]

The east border integrates into the city through terraces and bleachers. The visual displays the weathering, seasonal temporality and large communal gatherings.

Image by the author (2021)


Interview between author and the Alto Hospicio Environment Officer (08 May 2021).


Fernández, Ramón, El Antropoceno: la expansión del capitalismo global choca con la biosfera (Bilbao: Virus, 2011). 


Guerra, Claudio and Corvalán, Manuel. “Reconfiguración Socioespacial en Alto Hospicio, Gentrificación y desplazamiento por Capitales Étnicos”. SERIE (IV-4B). International Congress Contested_Cities, Eje 4: Gentrificación, 2016. [link]


Ministerio de Desarrollo Social y Familia - Gobierno de Chile. Proyectos de Valorización de Residuos Municipales (Chile: Ministerio de Desarrollo Social y Familia - Gobierno de Chile, 2015. [link]


Mingolo, Walter, 'The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Colonial Difference' in Moraña, Mabel, Dussel, Enrique and Jáuregui, Carlos (ed.), Coloniality at Large: Latin America and the Postcolonial Debate (Latin America Otherwise) (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2018).


Ministerio de Vivienda y Urbanismo - Gobierno de Chile, Diagnóstico de la Gestión De residuos de la Construcción y demolición en la Región de Tarapaca (Antofagasta: Ministerio de Vivienda y Urbanismo - Gobierno de Chile, 2018) [link]


Ministerio del Medio Ambiente - Gobierno de Chile, Tercer Informe del Estado del Medio Ambiente 2020 (Santiago de Chile: Ministerio del Medio Ambiente - Gobierno de Chile, 2020) [link]


Municipalidad de Alto Hospicio, Actualización Plan de Desarrollo Comunal de Alto Hospicio 2012-2016 (Alto Hospicio: Municipalidad de Alto Hospicio, 2016) [link]


Municipalidad de Alto Hospicio, Plan de Desarrollo Comunal de Alto Hospicio 2017-2020. Planificación y Proyectos (Alto Hospicio: Municipalidad de Alto Hospicio, 2020) [link]


Quijano, Anibal, 'Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America' in Moraña, Mabel, Dussel, Enrique and Jáuregui, Carlos (ed.), Coloniality at Large: Latin America and the Postcolonial Debate (Latin America Otherwise) (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2018).


Quijano, Anibal, ‘Colonialidad y modernidad/racionalidad’, Perú indígena, vol. 13 nr. 29 (1992) pp. 11-20. 


Subsecretaría de Desarrollo Regional y Administrativo - Gobierno de Chile. Actualización de la Situación por Comuna y por Región en Materia de RSD y Asimilables (Chile: Programa Nacional de Residuos Sólidos Subsecretaría de Desarrollo Regional y Administrativo - Gobierno de Chile, 2019) [link]


Smead, Laura, 'History and Reality of Waste' in Hanif, kara, Asensio, Leire and Georgoulias, Andreas (ed.), Architecture and Waste: A (Re)Planned Obsolescence (New York: Actar Publishers and Harvard University Graduate School of Design, 2017).

Watson, Julia, Lo_TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism (London: Taschen, 2021).


Online References


Municipalidad de Alto Hospicio, ‘Construcción Nuevo Relleno Sanitario Mancomunado’, Mercado Público. (accessed 29 November 2021). 


SERVIU I Región, ‘Estudio de Suelo Terreno Ex Vertedero, A. Hospicio’, Mercado Público. (accessed 29 November 2021). 


'Sustainable Use of Former or Abandoned Landfills Network' SUFALNET. (accessed 2021)


Published in Issue 2022

Ghost Dimensions


Explore other articles in this issue:

Of Ghosts and Orphans
by Adi Bamberger Chen

Disappearing Ecosystems
by Lavenya Parthasarathy

by Stefan Gruber

Invisible Strings
by Martin Alvarez

Rathbone Market as Intangible Heritage
by Kleovoulos Aristarchou

The Ghost of European Cities Present
by Sophie Schrattenecker

Venice, Behind the Curtains
by Neha Fatima

Re-Measuring Lost Li-Long
by Longhua Gu

Rome Dimensions
by Fanny Ciufo
bottom of page