World Rainforest Movement

Chile: The infinite thirst of forestry companies

Lumaco (which means “Moon water”) is a community of passage located in a large area of tree plantations and impoverished communities. Very little about it invites you to stay. Lumaco is part of the communes known in Chile as forestry communes. The community’s future vision set out in its 2000-2006 Plan for Communal Development states that it hopes for “a commune where poverty has been overcome, clean and orderly, fruitful and progressive, with development and unity, with expectations, with intercultural and diverse education, with a good quality of life for its Mapuche and non-Mapuche inhabitants.” We will take a brief look at its history.

Lumaco, located in the central southern part of the country was known as the “granary of Chile.” The degradation of decades of intensive agriculture, the economic transformation following the 1973 military coup that implemented the so-called “export model” no longer made agricultural activities socially or economically viable. It was an appropriate context to impose a new productive model. Macro-economic conditions in addition to government subsidies encouraged the development of the timber industry, based on monoculture tree plantations for export.

However, Lumaco, with an area of 111,500 hectares, has suffered important reductions in its population over the past thirty years. While in 1970 it had 16,184 inhabitants, by 2002 there were only 12,792 left, a fact which should be compared with the increase of 68% in the national population in general. Presently, 65 per cent of the population is rural and 70 percent are indigenous Mapuche people. There is a strong migratory process linked to the search for better living and working conditions.

Lumaco also shows high poverty rates, being one of the poorest communes in Chile. Thus 60 per cent of its population are under the poverty line and 33 per cent live in extreme poverty. Relevant social indicators show: 23.7% illiteracy, 26.3 per cent school drop-outs, and an infant mortality rate of 17.5 per thousand. This questions the so-called benefits of the forestry model prevailing in the country.

The expansion of plantations has been an explosive process. In 1988, 14 per cent of the area of the commune had plantations on it, while in the year 2002, this figure reached 52.5 per cent, all this to the detriment of soil for agricultural use and of the native forest. The transformation in ways of using land brought with it as a consequence drastic changes in life, culture and ecosystems.

If we analyze land distribution, we find serious problems of inequality. Fifty percent of the plots occupy 10 percent of the communal area where 80 per cent of the rural community live. In contrast, 10 per cent of the largest plots represent 55 per cent of the communal area. If we were to incorporate the analysis of the quality of the land, this inequality increases even further. Eighty-five per cent of the small properties are located on soils scantly suited to agriculture and that are highly fragile from an ecological standpoint.

As in other areas of intensive plantations, severe environmental impacts may be observed generated by this activity: destruction of the native forest (there is 13 per cent of the original area left) decrease in biodiversity; health problems in the surrounding communities; contamination of water from pesticides and pine pollen, and soil degradation among others. A critical aspect is the disappearance of sources of water in this sector. The rural communities are left with no water supply from the end of the spring until the beginning of autumn. The springs disappear, as do surface water courses, the level of the wells descends and finally the rural communities do not have sufficient water for their agriculture or their livestock or for that matter, for human consumption The Government and the Municipality, faced by this emergency situation, are obliged to allocate a large portion of public funds to distribute and supply water for basic consumption to the families neighbouring the plantations.

In the case of the indigenous community, the effects take on other dimensions, including territorial, cultural and spiritual dimensions, as the deterioration of the natural Mapuche world affects humans living in harmony with spiritual considerations. Structural changes in Mapuche culture change the balanced way of living and of solving problems. .

The loss of territorial space, exacerbated by the strong impacts and environmental degradation caused by the expansion of the plantations, have opened up a conflict between the Mapuche community, the forestry companies and the Government. The processes for land recovery by the Mapuche people as from 1997 have made apparent their precarious living conditions. They have also been an appropriate forum to highlight their historic political demands, both regarding territory and recognition as a people.

Response by the State has been to provide propitious legal and social conditions to enable the forestry companies to fulfil their production goals and continue their expansion. On the one hand, repression and criminalization, on the other, the specific solving of some problems causing the communities to rise and criticise the forestry model. The modification of decree law 701, rerouting subsidies formerly aimed at the large forestry companies towards small farmers and indigenous land owners, and the Origins Programme, of assistance aimed at the indigenous community and financed by the Inter-American Development Bank are a step in this direction. Additionally, local projects are promoted that de-naturalize public incentives and oblige former farmers to reconvert to forestry activities. Thus the strategy for expansion becomes more complex, operating through political and economic blackmail that leaves no alternatives. The obligation of thinking about its survival and future in the framework of the plantations is imposed on the population.

Presently the commune of Lumaco is living in conditions that are contrary to the expectations expressed by the community at the beginning of this article. However, in this area the Mapuche people have shown that cultural safeguarding can become a relevant strategy to face the forestry model, defending their right to think out the landscape and nature from their own criteria and to denounce the presence of forestry companies as an invasion of their territories and ways of life.

Prepared by Lucio Cuenca B. from the case study “Contexto económico y social de las plantaciones forestales en Chile: el caso de la comuna de Lumaco Región de la Araucanía”. WRM – OLCA, August 2005. E-mail:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *