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Bolivians to block Dakar Rally?

2014-01-03 10:59

CROSSING THE SALAR DE UYUNI: Aymara Indians in Bolivia fear Dakar competitors and fans will damage the white surface of the Salar de Uyuni. Image: AFP

VICENTE L. PANETTA

Aymara Indians are vowing to block 2014 Dakar Rally competitors from Bolivia's high-altitude salt flats, where President Evo Morales is hoping the world's toughest off-road race will boost tourism.

Organisers of the race, which starts in Rosario on January 3 2014, are permitting only motorbikes and quad bikes near Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world. Cars and trucks will take a more direct route from Argentina into Chile on January 12 and 13.

TOURISM BOOST

While some Aymara back the race, others fear crowds will leave rubbish and the racers will carve deep marks into the shiny white surface.

Morales, an Aymara, wants the brief Bolivia leg to bring attention to one of the world's most remote and beautiful places.

The Salar de Uyuni is 3600m above sea level and stretches over more than 11000 square kilometers. It's a breeding ground every November for South American flamingos, and the briny water under the lake's hard surface has high concentrations of lithium, which is mined for batteries.

Rain is expected during the Bolivia leg, which could leave a sheen of water over the crusty surface and create what seems like an endless mirror. The liquid also could moisten the salt, raising chances that heavy equipment will break through hard layers that have built up over thousands of years.

Cars commonly cross the salt flats, with SUVs carrying tourists and pickups supplying salt harvesters and lithium operations. They generally avoid the lake when it's covered with water, which is why racing cars and trucks will detour.

ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUE

Dakar Rally chief Etienne Lavigne said: "It's a precipitous route, there could be water on the surface of the salar, and there's only one lane for all the vehicles, which doesn't allow for cars and trucks."

The organisers did not respond to requests for comment on the environmental issues.

Bolivia's environment and water minister, Jose Zamora, said his agency was preparing an environmental permit and will protect the area's natural beauty. Meanwhile, the government also was sending troops to keep close watch over the race.

A total of 438 drivers from 52 nations are competing in the rally, which covers about 9000km, crossing the Andes and Atacama Desert before finishing in Valparaiso, Chile, on January 18 2014.

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