World Rainforest Movement

Chile: Is Community-Based Forest Management Possible in the Context of a Neoliberal Economy?

In Chile, 25 years of implementation of the neo-liberal economy model have had a strong impact on native forests and indigenous and local communities in the South. Over two million hectares of pine and eucalyptus plantations feed a large cellulose industry, geared for export. Over this period, hundreds of thousands hectares of native forests were converted into monoculture tree plantations. An accelerated concentration of land ownership, aided by State subsidies to plantations has led to serious territorial conflicts with the Mapuche indigenous communities, still continuing today. Major projects for hydroelectric dams, highways and cellulose plants have multiplied, together with projects for widespread forestry exploitation with significant private investment, affecting forest territories inhabited by indigenous and peasant communities.

Land ownership and access to natural resources by the communities have undergone considerable changes. At the beginning of the eighties, the community lands of many of the Mapuche communities in the valleys and part of the coastal cordillera were divided into individual properties. In other areas, more isolated and covered by primary forests, the process for regularisation of indigenous lands is still taking place and some communities have chosen community ownership systems, while others are requesting individual deeds and many still live on government lands or on lands of private owners who have never inhabited them.

In spite of the changes, the communities have continued to operate as such, keeping up the exchange of labour, seeds, medicinal plants and traditional knowledge as well as the unity to face threats from the outside. They also maintain diversified use, traditional knowledge systems and a vision integrating productivity, culture and spirituality in their relationship with the forest.

However, their contact with global society has had impacts; the need for income in the communities has been generated, traditional organisation systems have been weakened and there is a marked absence of organisational continuity and a low representativity of the major indigenous and peasant organisations. In some areas, the weakening of these structures, the lack of opportunities and training, and unequal market relations have obliged the communities to destroy their forests to survive.

It was only during the last decade that programmes with support from international cooperation have started to promote forest management and conservation with indigenous and peasant communities. Finally, and as an expression of an international movement, the role of these communities in forest conservation has started to be valued. However, success is on a local scale and changes in mentality are slow in incorporating this new approach among politicians, legislators, public services and universities training professionals and carrying out research.

It is possible that in the medium term, the State will incorporate this approach of community-based forest management and that the university will train professionals and develop lines of research in this area. It is also possible that internationally funded assistance programmes will achieve co-ordination among themselves and with the public services. It is probable that forestry companies and in particular those working with native forests will genuinely associate themselves with village communities. Progress is being made towards community participation in the management of protected wildlife areas. In the medium-term, it can be expected that the National Corporation for Indigenous Development (CONADI) will increase its purchases to return lands to indigenous communities. However, it is worthwhile wondering if the pace of this process is not too slow with relation to the opposite trend of deforestation and forest degradation, inequitable sharing of forest profits and community weakening.

How do we face the inevitable clash of global society, through agents such as transnational companies and enable the communities to find a better standpoint for negotiation, with secure land-ownership and access to natural resources? Negotiation among involved people is a necessary path to be taken, but it requires a certain balance of power, presently lacking, to enable them to operate effectively without negatively affecting indigenous and local communities.

Some changes are faster than we would like, and the conditions to face them very often are not up to the challenge. The responsibility is great for those who have engaged themselves with the communities and the forests on which they depend (as does the rest of humanity). There is no place for divisions, false competence or inefficiency; it is fundamental to work from the grassroots, to have an influence on universities, at national and international political level in a co-ordinated and coherent way. A relationship of collaboration and alliances among the communities, conservationists and eventually, forestry and eco-tourism companies is needed. Creativity in seeking solutions is essential, but beyond this, community empowerment and participation in forest zones is even more important, as they are the first ones concerned by sustainable forest use. For them, community management is certainly desirable and possible, but to make this feasible, in addition to the above, important changes are required in the economic model, presently based on the support of private companies as a development strategy. The problem therefore does not lie in knowing if the communities can manage and conserve their forests –which they certainly can– but in deciding if the State is willing to establish the rules of the game and provide support to make this possible, working in a co-ordinated way with civil society organisations.

By Rodrigo Catalán, e-mail: