The first European to cross the forbidding waste was Diego de Almagro, the Spanish conquistador, in 1537. From then until the middle of the 19th cent. it was largely ignored, but with the discovery of the use of sodium nitrate as a fertilizer and later with the invention of smokeless powder using nitroglycerin, the desert had a mining boom. Although the southern half of Atacama belonged to Bolivia, the companies exploiting the deposits were Chilean. Differences arose, and in the ensuing war (see Pacific, War of the), Chile won the entire area. When synthetic nitrates were developed after World War I, the boom collapsed. Economically, the Atacama is declining, as reserves are depleted and the desert expands southward into once arable land. In more recent years solar and wind energy projects have been developed in the region, and lithium deposits have been exploited.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Latin American and Caribbean Physical Geography