Chile's Senate Passes Native Forest Law

Alerce trees near Abtao, Chiloé National Park (Chile). (Photo: Fernando Bórquez/Wikipedia)

After more than 15 years of delay and revision, a law offering limited protection for Chile's native forests was finally approved by the Senate Tuesday. The vote was unanimous, 35-0.

"Never before has legislation been pending for such a long time," said Juan Antonio Coloma, president of the Senate's Commission of Agriculture.

Most analysts attribute the 15-year delay to a strong lobby by Chile's politically powerful forestry company lobby, led by the Matte and Angelini business conglomerates. Lack of serious legislation protecting Chile's native hardwood forests has given them carte blanche to develop hundreds of thousands of pine and eucalyptus tree plantations, which oftentimes replaced native forests.

The new Forestry Law will now be debated in the House of Deputies, and is likely to pass with little modification by the end of the year. "The principle obstacles have already been overcome," said conservative Sen. Antonio Horvath, who has been in Congress since the law was first proposed on April 28, 1992.

Critics like Sen. Alejandro Navarro, however, say that the legislation is only a small step forward, and that many amendments are needed to make the law stronger and more complete.

The current version of the law is divided into nine chapters, with 66 permanent and five temporary articles. It contains 26 definitions, as basic as defining a tree or a forest. The legislation also categorizes native species in terms of their possible use: preservation, conservation and protection, and multiple use. The law also addresses forest management plans, norms for environmental protection, conservation funds, restoration and sustainable management incentives, resources for further research, and the establishment of an Advisory Council presided by the minister of agriculture.

The law was significantly shortened recently to expedite approval and fails to address several important issues, including protection of sites where biodiversity is particularly vulnerable. Sen. Navarro, who boycotted the law's inaugural ceremony on Monday, said the current version of the law is not good since it lacks strong environmental provisions and enforcement mechanisms.

"This is a law which should enforce the preservation of native forests, but it is based on a weak penalty system," said Sen. Navarro. "Roughly 97 percent of the fines which Conaf [the National Forestry Service] hands out are not paid … Conaf does not have the capacity needed to maintain such a system. Passing this law is the equivalent of putting cops on the streets with toy guns."

The legislation, critics add, does not deal with the native forest land-grabs that have characterized Chile's forestry industry the past three decades, nor does it address the theft of Chile's protected alerce forests, which have been declared national monuments. A special clause in current law—unchanged by the new legislation—allows harvesting of "dead" alerce trees and has served as an incentive for numerous suspect alerce forest fires in southern Chile.

Worse, the legislation does not address the woeful shortcomings of Conaf nor seek to modernize it. Conaf is responsible for sanctioning any encroachment on the nation's native forests and needs considerably more financial support to carry out its work.

Still, some maintain that even this watered down law is better than nothing.

Currently, only 28 percent of Chile's 13.4 million hectares of native forest are protected under the National System of Protected Wilderness. Most of the rest—more than eight million hectares—remains unprotected, much of it in the private hands of small landowners and large businesses.

The law would provide $8 million annually for 30 years to be shared by small landowners and big business to provide incentives for better native forest management. Experts say this funding is desperately needed to encourage small landowners to protect their native forests.

"This is not only about conservation, it is also a social issue," said Antonio Lara, director and researcher of the Núcleo Milenio FORECOS and dean of the department of forestry science at the Austral University of Chile. "If we do not want migration and the deterioration of living conditions for people in rural areas, it is essential that they have options, and one concrete option is the ability to manage their own native forests."

"If you looked at the Human Development Index for the communities where forestry businesses are located," said Ecosistemas biologist Flavia Liberona, "it would make you want to cry" because these communities are among Chile's poorest.

"We see an incalculable loss in the biodiversity of these areas," she added. "These densely forested zones—regions VII, VIII, and IX—had the highest biodiversity in Chile. If we look at what happens on the level of maintenance of cultural tradition, of care for the earth, of access to water, we find one problem after another. Consequently, this current model is not successful."

Many of the communities where forestry companies operate are suffering the effects of decades of forestry export-oriented economics. Chile's forestry sector has grown from 300,000 hectares in 1963 to 2,000,000 hectares in 2007 and has proven extremely lucrative for economic consortiums and business proprietors—most especially the Matte and Angelini groups. While many forestry-related jobs have been created, most are very low-paid jobs.

According to Lara, the heavily government-subsidized expansion of the forestry sector—begun during the Pinochet dictatorship—has led to population displacement, migration, and one of the highest poverty rates in the country. "It was an absolute disaster," Lara said, citing poor working conditions and the failure of many forestry companies to comply with labor laws.

The expansion of the forestry sector has also come at a particularly high cost to indigenous Mapuche communities in these regions. Historically, their land was often fraudulently seized by white settlers. Agrarian reform measures during the 1960's and 1970's, led by Presidents Eduardo Frei Montalva and Salvador Allende, sought to restore properties to indigenous groups, but much of that progress was wiped out with by the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Little has changed for Mapuche groups during Chile's 17-years of democracy, led by the center-left Concertación coalition, other than a modest government effort to buy back the contested forestry properties from the forestry companies to return them to Mapuche communities.

The value of Chile's southern tree plantations centers on the rapid growth of pine and eucalyptus trees, which require only 17 to 20 years to reach maturity, compared to 25 and 30 year spans in other parts of the world.

From The Santiago Times.