Chile’s threatened forests

E-mail Print
By Jimmy Langman
Photos by Bastián Oñate

Editors Note: The following is from Issue 18
Gone are the days of big multinational timber companies targeting Chilean forests. The last big threat along those lines was the Trillium company of the United States, whose vast forest holdings on the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego Island were bought up by New York investment back Goldman Sachs in 2002 and converted into Karukinka park.
There has been a significant expansion of parks and protected areas over the past two decades, and the passage of the Derecho Real de Conservacion in 2016 has established important new legal protections for conservation on private property in Chile.
Ever since 2003, when the California environmental group Forest Ethics convinced Home Depot and other wood importers in the United States to change their buying practices, Chilean forestry companies have eagerly embraced environmental certification of their operations.
Yet, notwithstanding all of these gains, Chile’s native forests continue to degrade and disappear.
The Valdivian Temperate Rainforest Ecoregion of Chile and Argentina extends from the Maule region in central Chile to the Aysen region in the south, and from west to east includes the eastern slope of the Andean mountain range in Argentina. And scientists have categorized this area as one of the world’s 35 “biodiversity hotspots” — places defined as having a high percentage of endemic flora but just 30 percent or less of its original natural vegetation left. 
A 2016 study by forestry researchers at the Universidad Frontera in Temuco and Universidad Austral in Valdivia, found that although the highest rates of deforestation in the Valdivian rainforest occurred between 1970 to 1990, the forests have continued to be cleared and degraded at an elevated rate over the past two decades. Since 2000, Chile is losing on average 30,000 hectares of native forest each year. Nearly one-third of that forest loss is occurring in the Araucania region alone, and if current trends continue apace in that region the study’s authors say it “could lead to the complete deforestation of areas outside of national protected areas.”
Ten years ago, Chile launched its native forest law to tackle that kind of problem. After 16 years of languishing in Chile’s Congress due to intransigent disagreements and lack of political will, the then center-left Michelle Bachelet government pushed through the congress a bill that, while not addressing everything hoped for, was hailed as a major advance. Now, looking in the rear-view mirror, its once proponents say the law was seemingly set up to fail almost by design.
“The bureaucracy of this law is so terrible that forest owners are not interested in applying for the subsidies it offers for sustainable management,” said Jennifer Romero, executive director of the Valdivia-based Agrupación de Ingenieros Forestales por el Bosque Nativo (AIFBN), a national group of forestry engineers concerned about native forest protection in Chile.
Are native forests better protected than they were, say, 20 years ago? “For native forests, not much has changed,” responds Fernando Raga, who was president of CORMA, the Chilean forestry industry association, the past eight years until April 2018, when he became executive director of INFOR, a governmental office that conducts forestry research. 
Globally rare forests
 “Anyone who hasn't been in the Chilean forest doesn't know this planet,” the poet Pablo Neruda once wrote.“ Indeed, Chile’s forests contain a treasure trove of biological richness.
In the Southern Hemisphere, temperate forests are found in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Millions of years ago, in the Eocene era, Chile's native forests were once joined with these other southern temperate forests as part of a vast supercontinent scientists call Gondwanaland. Even today these Gondwana forests still have similar characteristics and are each dominated by Nothofagus and Podocarpus trees. When the supercontinent split, Chile evolved into a biogeographical island, isolated by the Atacama desert to the north, the Andes mountains to the east, and the Pacific ocean to the west. That isolation is a key reason why 90 percent of the flora and fauna in Chile’s forest are endemic, found nowhere else.
Worldwide, temperate forests represent just 16 percent of forests, and temperate rainforests are especially rare, originally covering just 0.2 percent of the Earth's land area. Today, most of those temperate rainforests have been destroyed. Southern Chile is home to one of the world's last two extensive temperate rainforests, the other extends in varied conditions from northern California to British Columbia and southeast Alaska.
Chile's evergreen rainforests have one of the world's largest concentrations of biomass, producing between 500 to 2000 tons of organic matter per hectare. Chile's forests host 123 different tree species, 57 percent of them endemic, and mostly dominated by southern beeches such as coihue and roble (Nothofagus), manio (Podocarpus), and broadleaf trees like the ulmo (Eucryphlia) and laurel (Laurelia). Chile's far south includes sub-antarctic, boreal forest dominated by the coihue and lenga (Nothofagus). Scientists say 80 percent of all plants and animals on land live in forests. In Chile, 6 out of every 10 species are either threatened or endangered, such as Chile's national emblem species, a native deer called the huemul, which is on the borderline of extinction.
The vast tracts of old-growth remaining in southern Chile include some of the world’s oldest trees. Two of the most extraordinary species are the alerce (Fitzroya cupressoides) and araucaria (Araucaria araucaria). Both have protection status in Chile as natural monuments, but there continue to be cases of illegal logging. In 1993, an alerce was dated at 3,620 years. The alerce is the second-oldest species on Earth, only California's bristlecone pine is older. The araucaria, nicknamed "monkeypuzzle" because of its tangled branches which swirl around its tree top, are found in the central coastal range and high in the Andes. They can live more than 2,000 years and botanists say its ancestors date back 200 million years.
Clear cut on the Biobio River.Clear cut on the Biobio River.
A history of destruction
Government figures say19 percent of Chile’s total land area is covered by 14.4 million hectares of native forests. About three-fourth of these forests are privately owned, and the majority are in the hands of approximately 50,0000 medium and small landowners. A few years ago, official reports coming out of the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF), Chile’s public-private organization which manages both the countries forests and park system, actually noted an increase in the country’s forest cover. The trick, though, was in their definition of a forest — areas that were considered shrubland ten years ago have been re-categorized as forests.
The reality today is that Chile’s native forests are either going up in smoke because of an increasing incidence of forest fires, severely degraded (often “high grading,” cutting the best and leaving the worst) to meet the rising demand for firewood or clear-cut completely to convert lands to other uses, such as agriculture, livestock ranching, or exotic tree farms to feed a growing pulp and paper industry.
Historically, native forest loss began to quicken in Chile in the mid-1800s when large numbers of immigrants from Europe settled in southern Chile. They burned and cleared immense areas of forest to make way for agriculture, livestock grazing, and towns, and under the flag of development and agricultural expansion those practices continued through the middle of the 20th century.
A new phase in deforestation took root in 1974. That’s when the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship sold off at below-cost prices publicly-owned forests and processing facilities. The Pinochet regime also devised Decree Law (DL) 701, which offered attractive reimbursement for 75 percent of the costs of planting trees. These subsidies, made available in the country for nearly 40 years, up until 2012, were almost entirely used for financing the forest industry's tree farms featuring non-native pine and eucalyptus trees. During the first two decades of this government largesse, 80 percent of the subsidies went directly to Chile’s three largest forestry companies. Today, the country has more than 3 million hectares of tree plantations, contributing the raw resources for about 97 percent of forestry exports, Chile’s second-leading export.
Chile’s forestry sector is an economic success story, but it also has been a leading driver of forest destruction. One study on land cover changes due to tree plantations, found that by 2007 more than 42 percent of the entire coastal range of the Maule and Biobio regions of south-central Chile was occupied by tree plantations. Of these plantations, less than 7 percent were set up on agricultural lands, the far majority involved first clearing natural forests to make way for tree farms.
Environmental groups have dubbed tree plantations a “green desert” because the uniform, even-aged tree farms destroy habitat for countless species and the practice of clear cutting, the felling of all of the trees on a plot of land, leads to severe soil erosion. Tree farms also have serious social impacts. A recent study of 180 municipalities in Chile by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) found that communities who live near tree plantations are the poorest in Chile, and that the greater the size of the plantation area the higher the poverty rate. Over the past few decades in the Aracuania region, Mapuche indigenous communities are protesting, sometimes violently, over the impacts of industrial plantation forestry. The Mapuche complain that forestry companies have usurped their ancestral land, eliminated their sacred forests, dried up water sources for local consumption and agriculture, and poisoned their communities with herbicides.
At a Temuco public forum in May, Cesar Jara Tripailao, president of the Asociación de Comunidades Mapuche por el Rukamanke, said 32 Mapuche communities are negatively affected by plantation forestry and aimed his ire in part at the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which awards environmental certification to many of the companies operating in the area. “This organization is not complying with its role of certifying good management,” said Jara Tripailao. “They are accomplices to the bad practices of these companies. They are not disclosing the negative impacts that the industry is causing in the area,” he said.
Tree farms also may be sparking forest fires. The higher temperatures from climate change are resulting in drier soils and drought, making conditions ripe for increasing forests fires around the globe. In January 2017, Chile suffered through its worst, most extensive fire in its history. The official tally was 467,37 hectares of forests lost, primarily in the Maule and O’Higgins regions, and nearly half were tree plantations. According to an international study published this past August by scientists from Montana State University, Chile is especially prone to fires.  "Chile replaced more heterogenous, less flammable native forests with structurally homogenous, flammable exotic forest plantations at a time when the climate is becoming warmer and drier," says Dave McWethy, the lead author of the study. "This situation will likely facilitate future fires to spread more easily and promote more large fires into the future."
Central Chile has lost 83 percent of its original vegetative cover, making it the most deforested region in Latin America, according to a 2015 scientific study published in the scientific journal Global and Planetary Change. One of its authors, Alvaro Salazar, a University of Chile natural resources scientist who researches land-atmosphere interactions, says that such rampant deforestation has an equal to or greater role in rising temperatures than that of climate change.
“It would be akin to the human body suppressing its sweat glands and, therefore, the ability to cool by means of perspiration. That would certainly increase body temperature,” said Salazar in an interview with Chilean business periodical Economia y Negocios. “In forested regions, the sweat glands are the stomata (specialized cells) of the countless number of leaves of trees. If we eliminate them, the earth has no way to cool down and therefore the surface temperature increases.”
The last light in the forest. The last light in the forest.
Making a U-turn
There is virtual consensus that part of the solution toward turning things around begins with fixing the native forest law. Of the $8 million dollars annually assigned to implement subsidies for sustainable management of Chile’s native forests, just 6 percent was disbursed in 2011, and by 2015, only 19 percent of the monies were utilized by forest owners. Of the aforementioned funds, less than 2 percent was used for protecting species with conservation threats or restoring forests.
“The mechanisms for subsidies are not very agile, and the law needs more emphasis on restoring protection forests where there are water courses,” are among the criticisms of Antonio Lara, a longtime forestry professor at Austral University in Valdivia. Keenly aware of the gridlock in Chile’s Congress, Lara stresses that these, and other necessary reforms, are possible for the Ministry of Agriculture to implement without seeking amendments to the law.
“It should be possible to improve. The problem is, in Chile, there is little monitoring of laws once they are approved,” agrees Fernando Raga, the director of INFOR, who says the law should not just streamline application procedures but boost the amounts of the subsidies. Raga says the law ought to be more like Decree 701, the Pinochet era program that financed plantation forestry. “It was realistic, practical and with adequate amounts, an instrument designed for the user.”
Rhetorically, Raga adds that tree plantations can have a valuable role in protecting native forests. “If you have increasing demand for wood products, where are you going to get the resources to meet that demand, from plantations or native forests? And if you lower the demand for wood, then you will pass that demand on to other resources a lot less friendly to the environment, like plastics or metals.”
There are a series of other instruments and legislation needed to conserve, restore and protect native forests. Among the ideas being pushed include more resources for government oversight of forestry, either through Conaf or a new entity; stronger fines for forestry law infractions and moving enforcement out of weak local police courts to a higher court; better controls over the sale of firewood and new policies that will accelerate the switch in urban areas toward sustainable alternative energy sources for heating and cooking; and new legislation to enable land-use zoning.
Lara opines the government ought to convoke relevant actors to determine a vision for the future of the country’s native forests and plantations, devising a national forest policy that balances timber production with ecosystem services such as water supply, tourism opportunities and carbon capture. Says Lara, what’s most missing from governmental and private sector actions up to now is a “lack of will.” He says it’s as if they are telling us, “I will do something but in reality I don’t want to.”
Maybe what’s needed is a bit of environmental education. Adriana Hoffmann, the botanist and pioneering environmental advocate for the Chilean forest, once described the richness of a native forest this way: “The great wealth of the native forest is that it is a natural system integrated by numerous organic elements — plants, trees, epiphytes, vines, mosses, lichens, fungi, insects and animals — all of it inserted in a system of soil, air, water, and energy. The interactions between these elements, between the alive and not alive, form a very subtle, flowing equilibrium. For a drop of water to become the tear of an animal there is a very complex process in between.”
A plantation is not a forest, and a plantation cannot replace a forest.