Illegal logging: the underground exploitation of alerce

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Photo: Bastián OñatePhoto: Bastián Oñate 
By Sofía Navarro and Bastián Oñate
Editors Note: The following is from Issue 18.
Neither the gloom that reigns over the landscape nor the early hour of roughly six in the morning makes us lower our guard during the trip from Puerto Varas to the town of Alerce. There we have arranged to meet with Álvaro Dufournel, administrator of the Entre Ríos farm, located on the imposing slopes of the Calbuco volcano. After meeting at the agreed-upon spot, we follow him to the entrance of the property.
The dense fog that accompanies us dulls the morning colors. We’re all a little on edge. As Dufournel exits the vehicle, he turns to us and tells us that we’re running late, which means what we are about to do will be even riskier: we are about to enter an area of roughly 106 hectares (261 acres) of land that have been taken over by a group of timber traffickers, who for years have indiscriminately cut down the native forest that grows in this area.
With illegal sawmills and roads as steep as the parent rock will allow, trucks amble down the hills loaded with alerce (Fitzroya cupressoides), a tree that is listed as endangered of extinction, and other native tree species of Chile’s Los Lagos region.
It’s said that a dangerous man heads the operation, with a rumored 180 people working for him. Determined, he is willing to pay the price, including jail time and fines in excess of 1,000 million pesos (US$ 1.47 million) that the Chilean state imposes for the illegal logging of alerce. Regardless of what happens to him, he knows that his employees will continue exploiting the forest in his absence.
Photo: Álvaro DufournelPhoto: Álvaro Dufournel
We get into a van that will take us to the spot where a fence marks the boundaries of the property that has been seized, and the silence is deafening. On the way, we pause to pick up one of Dufournel’s employees, someone who knows these forests like the back of his hand as his entire family has a past linked to the felling of alerce here. "We have rehabilitated them," the administrator of the farm jokingly says about the family.
We hop over the fence that marks the “legal” from the “illegal,” and in less than five minutes we start seeing evidence of logging. Like an animal that leaves its tracks, the alerce extractors also leave clues on the forest floor: trash, a lot of trash, tires, beer cans, plastic tarps, bottles, and even shoes.
"When we bought the land we knew that it was mostly occupied by Mapuche communities and this destructive man with his workers. We thought that our main problem would be with the community, but to our surprise our biggest problem is the illegal logging of the forest. We don’t understand how someone could cause so much damage in this way,” explained Dufournel.
As we walked our guides listened for sounds coming from the forest, always alert in case we encountered one of the loggers. We were in a hurry to get to our destination and knew that we only had so much time to do it. We were not only playing with danger but also with the final outcome of a trial that the owners of the land and the group's leader were taking part in. The trial had taken much longer than expected, with visits from the police, demands for illegal timber and countless problems. Altogether, there are three properties that have problems with this contentious character, which is why the decided to take legal action.
"The back of the El Cabrito estate borders with us. It’s a property that contains a lot of untouched forest, but unfortunately 200 hectares (494 acres) of it has been cut down. The head of this network poses as the owner, forcing the timber cutters to pay him for access to the lands. These are humble people in general who believe him and are now involved in the problem,” says Dufournel.
Photo: Álvaro DufournelPhoto: Álvaro Dufournel
Coming to the end of the long road, we stop in our tracks. We’re dumbfounded. The place is filled with wood cut from alerces, and at the top of this small hill that we had to climb so secretively stands what we have been looking for, an alerce more than a hundred years old that has recently been cut down. It is proof that although this species is protected, and logging them is punishable by law, today there are still people willing to fell the ancient alerce for its precious wood.
"The problem here is that the gaps in the law allow this person to continue logging. He has nothing to his name so there is nothing they can seize, and the fines that the national forest service and local police impose he can pay for by instead merely sleeping 15 days in jail,” says Dufournel.
We were running out of time and it was approaching 8 a.m., the time when the men go up the hills to collect the freshly cut wood of this beautiful tree that grows between 1 and 0.6 millimetres a year.
After taking photographs of the evidence, our guides were beginning to look increasingly nervous; they knew that if we were found by the workers it would be impossible to avoid a confrontation. We had to go back down quickly and silently. This was a dangerous situation.
Photo: Sofia NavarroPhoto: Sofia Navarro
If the climb up felt to us like an eternity, the descent turned into a race against time, and the fog no longer hid or protected us. The same tracks that took us to the fallen trees were now taking us out of the forest, the bottles and plastic clearly showing the way, till we finally could make out the fence that let us cross back into safety.
We were now suddenly calm, but sad. It was shocking that in 2018 there are still cases like these, most of which nobody knows about. An ecological and violent deterioration that does not only involve the alerces but affects the entire native forest and biodiversity of the area.
As the fog lifts it also reveals something that we didn't notice when we first arrived: the stumps of thousand-year-old alerces, cut down years ago for the illegal sale of the wood, remnants of what had been a stately forest of native coniferous giants.
We say goodbye to Dufournel and his workers, but not before being spotted by the leader of the illegal alerce traffickers at the entrance of the Entre Ríos property. He rightly looked at us with suspicion, as we had managed to get through his barriers and take with us the evidence of the indiscriminate logging.
Photo: Rodrigo DíazPhoto: Rodrigo Díaz
Later, Jorge Aichele, the regional director of CONAF, emphasizes that because of its designation as a protected species the living alerce is untouchable, its logging is forbidden, as well as any alteration to the environment where it is located. “The importance of this specific case is not only the cutting of the alerces that were found on the property, but the indiscriminate felling of the native forest in general, species that have great ecological value," said Aichele, bemoaning in particular the inexistence of a management plan to work the forest in a sustainable way.
However, the truth is that the exploitation of the alerce trees and native forest is far from being a recent problem. It is just one of many chapters of alerce destruction in the modern history of southern Chile.
Postscript: Centuries-old exploitation
On the road between Puerto Montt and Puerto Varas, a huge tree trunk hides amongst weeds and other greenery. Here sits “The President’s Chair”: a relic of the history of colonization and exploitation of the surrounding Valdivian ecosystems, a remnant of distressing times gone by.
This old felled tree is a lahual, or alerce. According to legend, it was used as a chair by President Montt (it is still unclear which, as three members of the Montt family held the presidency throughout the family’s long history in Chilean politics) after it was cut down in the middle of the 20th century, ending its more than 3000 years on the planet.
Between 1850 and 1860, Vicente Pérez Rosales, the politician and diplomat charged with directing the colonization of portions of southern Chile, gave the order to burn large swathes of these long-lived species between Puerto Varas and Puerto Montt. Why such wanton destruction? The new settlers needed farmland and wood for the construction of their new homes.
At present, it is estimated that 40 percent of the original area in Chile covered by alerce forests still stands. The alerce is the longest-living arboreal species in the country, and the second-oldest in the world after California’s bristlecone pine. Individual alerces can live for more than 3,600 years. Today, they are found in fragmented populations in the Cordillera de la Costa, from Valdivia to Chiloé, and in parts of the Andean mountain range, from Llanquihue to the outskirts of Chaitén.
Recognizable by its intense and homogeneous red color, its wood has a longevity and durability attractive for builders, thus turning it into a key part of colonist construction from the 19th century onwards. It was also used to make fine furniture, instruments, and boats, but it was the widespread use of alerce tiles on the exterior of homes - creating that iconic shingled look typical of architecture in the south – that most brought the alerce close to extinction.
Entire communities sprung up near the alerce groves during the 19th century, and in some areas the shingles and the wood of this tree were even used as currency. In addition, exports of alerce were a highly lucrative business for the remote logging communities that arose to exploit the timber of temperate forests.
It wasn’t until 1976 that the alerce was finally declared a "Natural Monument,” a designation that prohibited its use and felling throughout Chile, making it punishable by law. Although there has been a decline in the illegal logging of the native forest in recent years, the problem persists. The law that protects the alerce has its flaws, and under the guise of removing or working with "dead specimens,” new sneaky logging practices are continuing to put this species at risk in order to obtain its coveted wood.
Just as today the "President’s Chair" goes unnoticed on the side of the road, the constant indiscriminate logging in the forests at Entre Ríos and other properties near the town of Alerce in southern Chile appear headed for a similar fate without effective intervention from the public-at-large. The great giant of the forests of the south of the world is still at risk.