World Rainforest Movement

Chile: Made-to-measure trees for the forestry industry

The Chilean forestry sector seems to accept no limits to the expansion of its monoculture pine and eucalyptus plantations. On the one hand it has turned to repression and lies to face local opposition. On the other, it has extended its operations to other countries, such as Argentina and Uruguay, where it has installed plantations, timber industries and pulp mills, thus increasing its impact on other environments and populations.

In addition to the above, it also does not accept the limits imposed by nature and is appealing to biotechnology to make trees with the right characteristics to be able to plant more and obtain greater benefits.

At the present time, Chile leads the development of the biotechnology sector in Latin America, and it may well become the first country to market transgenic trees on a world level and a platform from which to produce and export transgenic pines and technology to the Continent – a dangerous issue.

Although the process began earlier, it started to strengthen in 1999 with the establishment of GenFor as a joint venture between the Fundación Chile and the Canadian company Cellfor. The initial hub of interest regarding genetically modified tree production is to make pines resistant to the pine shoot moth (Rhyacionia buoliana) which is affecting wide areas of monoculture radiata pine plantations, covering one and a half million hectares in Chile. The company hopes to have these pines ready for commercial plantation by the year 2008.

To create this technology, Genfor has established an agreement with the Forest Research Institute (FRI), a research body of the New Zealand Government. The work at FRI is developed on the basis of genetic material from radiata pine, with different lines of selected embryos from Chile being reproduced, in which three proteins with high pesticide levels have been identified. This transgenic pine is obtained by incorporating a Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) gene, similar to the one used in transgenic crops such as maize and cotton.

At the same time, GenFor is also working on the genetic modification of radiata and loblolly pine to increase the level of cellulose and lessen the amount of lignin in the wood. The objective of such studies is to supply the industry with timber that contains a greater proportion of the required raw material (cellulose) and a smaller percentage of what has to be separated and discarded (lignin), thus considerably lowering production costs.

Furthermore, in 2001, the Foundation for Agrarian Innovation (Fundación para la Innovación Agraria –FIA) of the Chilean Ministry of Agriculture, signed an agreement with the International Redbio Foundation, becoming its representative branch in Chile. Its web page has a section on the subject of “Biotechnology in Chile” summarizing its vision of the issue. It states that “Chile has notoriously diversified its productive and export base over the past years. However, its economic development continues to be firmly based on exploitation and marketing of natural resources. In this context, biotechnology appears to be a very useful tool in the improvement of the competitive capacity of productive sectors.” Regarding the forestry sector, it mentions a project which “increases the cellulose content and reduces the lignin content of radiata pine,” adding that “other applications will make it possible to produce better quality trees that are more uniform and have better quality and yields.”

This is not all. According to an entrepreneurial vision, there are many hectares of land in Chile (they estimate at least half a million hectares) that are being “sub-utilized” because the trees used in plantations cannot resist the intense cold prevailing there. To solve this problem, the Forestry Institute (Instituto Forestal – INFOR) and a group of forestry companies are working in conventional genetic selection to produce clones of cold-resistant eucalyptus. According to INFOR “In the pre-cordillera Andes area there are soils that are extraordinarily well suited to the production of Eucalyptus globulus, but they are presently unavailable due to the limitation of the cold, a problem that could be solved with the results of this project.”

At the same time, the Universidad de la Frontera in the south of Chile is studying (with funding from the Fund for Scientific and Technological Development) the possible use of the genes of a small grass that survives in the Antarctic (Deschampsia antartica) to produce cold-resistant trees. Its particular tolerance to low temperatures has given rise to the interest in identifying the responsible gene or genes to apply them to eucalyptus and thus further increase the area to be planted with this species.

Beyond all the problems discussed in this bulletin, caused by the liberation of transgenic trees, all these technological “advances” choose to ignore what is evident: that the large-scale monoculture pine and eucalyptus plantations have caused serious social and environmental problems in Chile and it is more than evident that the plantation of transgenic trees will only make them even more serious.

Article based on information from: “La planta que mueve a la ciencia. UFRO lidera atractiva investigación de Deschampsia antártica”. Eduardo Henríquez, Diario Austral, 8 June 2004 Fundación Redbio:
“El futuro de la industria forestal…hoy”. Bioplanet. Fundación Ciencia para la Vida
María Isabel Manzur.- “Investigación biotecnológica en Chile orientada a la producción de transgénicos”. Santiago, Fundación Sociedades Sustentables, 2003