World Rainforest Movement

Chile: The short-lived lies of a “successful” forestry model

Chile is where the “forestry model” introduced into the countries of the South – that is to say large-scale monoculture tree plantations, mainly aimed at producing pulp for export – has been “sold” best.

The 1973 military regime created a framework for the introduction of neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatization and unilateral economic opening up, whereby the forestry sector was developed as one of the pillars of Chilean macro-economy. Forestry activities in Chile come second in importance to copper mining and are among the ten main products concentrating 50 percent of the total value of exports.

What is not said is that although the major forestry companies have contributed to create an outstanding macro-economy, it is also true that they have generated similarly outstanding levels of social inequality and the replacement of native forests by exotic monoculture tree plantations, impoverishing and evicting from their ancestral lands the people who lived there. They have also caused landscape and environmental degradation, in particular affecting water.

So, during the season of the year when there is the greatest demand for labour, in the commune of Los Sauces, Province of Malleco in the South of Chile, the Mininco forestry company gives work to only 19 people from the commune and pays them very low salaries. In a region where wheat once grew and there were native forests of oak, raulíes and lingues, today the exotic plantations of Monterrey pine and eucalyptus occupy almost two thirds of the arable land. The largest timber companies -Mininco, Arauco, Cautín, Comaco, Casino and Tierra Chilena, among others- settled in this predominantly rural commune, where twenty per cent of the population are Mapuche indigenous people. Like in other parts of the country, their enormous profits are expressed in a loss of quality of life for the local people. Thirty-three point eight per cent of the population live in either poverty or dire poverty.

Agricultural activities declined 22 % over the past 10 years, gradually forcing over 1,400 people to migrate to towns where they build poverty belts amid the opulence of the forestry companies. One of the reasons is the lack of water as the plantations have dried up the soil. Every summer the municipality has to deliver water by truck for domestic consumption.

In addition to the lack of water is the problem of agrochemical contamination. The neighbours in the rural sectors of Porvenir Bajo and Porvenir Alto suffer from serious health problems due to plantation spraying by the Comaco forestry company. Agrochemicals, in particular herbicides (glyphosate and simazine), are mechanically or manually sprayed before plantation and at various times during the first stages of growth of the trees, polluting rivers, brooks and irrigation channels.

Maria Martinez lives with her husband on a small property next to a pine plantation and their only source of water is the nearby stream. They use it for family consumption, for the animals to drink and to water their crops. “I have had pains in my stomach,” said Maria with concern. Ten of her twelve sheep died and she is convinced that they were poisoned by pesticides, “because the company has sprayed the banks of the stream.”

The neighbours denounced agrochemical spraying even along the border of the public highway. An irrigation channel running parallel to the highway drains murky waters of a suspiciously white colour and along its edges the vegetation looks burnt. In the summer the forestry trucks come and go at all hours, raising clouds of dust (with pesticide waste) that goes into the houses, damages the grass the animals feed on and makes the products of family vegetable plots inedible.

In Los Sauces there is a reason to fear chemical poisons. In 1997 a woman of 70 and a boy of 14 both died, intoxicated by an anticoagulant rat poison (bromadiolone) scattered by the Bosques Arauco company. At that time, various persons were intoxicated, and domestic animals and cattle died. Later a child died after having eaten wild mushrooms that his family, like many others, used to gather and consume without any ill effects. The father of this child was also intoxicated but managed to save himself. As a discussion started on this issue, the municipality entrusted a study to the Austral University of Valdivia, which indicated that “uncontrolled dispersion of large amounts of toxic substances such as pesticides (herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, etc.) used in agriculture can make normally edible wild mushrooms poisonous.”

In the Mapuche community of Lorenzo Quilapi Cabeton, in the Queuque sector of Los Sauces, most of the young people have emigrated in search of jobs. “We suffer a great deal because of the forestry companies,” says Pilar Antileo. Her family no longer has a vegetable garden, because “you can’t plant without water.” They used to have up to 150 hens that laid eggs”, some for use and some to sell, but now this is impossible because the foxes that the forestry companies released to catch the rabbits [that were affecting the pine trees], also eat the hens.” After aerial spraying various people who consumed wild mushrooms were intoxicated. “A woman, Margarita Espinoza, died and a child of 13 found some dead rabbits and took them home. They eat them and were all sick. The child died and the mother continues to be sickly even now. Another woman, Mercedes Huenchuleo, went up to the hill to look at the animals and smelt a bad smell. She got sick and died. They said it was a heart attack,” said Pilar. There are other cases of questionable deaths that people associate with pesticides.

In the Guadaba Abajo sector, spraying from planes was started three years ago in the Forestal Cautin plantations. Ireni Polma, from the Antonio Pailaqueo community says that her family’s bees died and that since then she has had a permanent allergy on her face.

The most commonly used herbicides in Los Sauces are simazine and glyphosate (Rango and Roundup). The former is sold in Chile with a “green” seal (indicating supposedly low toxicity) but it has been restricted in the European Union since 2002.

It would now seem that the forestry companies are resorting to even more poisons as a hitherto unknown disease is attacking the large monoculture Monterrey pine plantations. It is a fungus that attacks the trees’ needles, drying them up so they look “burnt.” The gradual loss of leaves not only leads to a lower growth rate but also makes the trees prone to other diseases that eventually lead to their death.

The first attacks of “pine needle damage” were detected in 2003 but alarm only spread at the end of last year when from affecting some isolated plots only, the fungus covered nearly 100 thousand hectares. Most of the damaged plantations are located in the southeast of the Biobio Region, Province of Arauco, where half the area is covered with Monterrey pine plantations.

One of the main plantation companies –Forestal Arauco- has already started aerial spraying. This of course has caused various kinds of damage to the communities neighbouring the plantations. Some inhabitants affirm that following the spraying, adults and children showed symptoms of eye irritation, headaches, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Several bee-keepers even affirmed that the fungicides caused the death of almost half their hives.

This is the bitter reverse of the “successful Chilean forestry model”: destruction and environmental degradation, eviction, unemployment, disease and death for the local communities – all this to support the profits of a handful of companies.

The “successful” forestry model has very weak foundations and the lies about its success are short-lived.

Article based on information from: “Chile: ¿un caso modelo? Desafíos en los umbrales del siglo XXI”, (Chile: a model case? Challenges at the threshold of the twenty-first century) Claudio Maggi/ Dirk Messner, INEF1, http://www.meso-nrw.de/modelo.pdf; “Las plantas de celulosa y el sector forestal. Visión de la agrupación de ingenieros forestales por el bosque nativo (AIFBN)” (Pulp mills and the forestry sector. The vision of the association of forestry engineers in favour of the native forest), http://www.ecosistemas.cl/1776/articles-74477_recurso_1.pdf; “Venenos en las forestales” (Poisons in the forestry companies), Revista Enlace, Nº 76, April 2007; “La misteriosa enfermedad que inquieta a las compañías forestales. La otra plaga de Arauco”, (The mysterious disease troubling the forestry companies. The other pest in Arauco), Nación Domingo, by Darío Zambra (http://ln.fica.cl/muestra_noticia.php?id=3010), sent by Lucio Cuenca, e-mail: l.cuenca@olca.cl