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23 June1999

Forest Mega-Project Sows Discord

By Natalia Pinilla

PUERTO MONTT, Chile, Jun 10 (IPS) - A chipboard factory that would process around one million cubic metres of wood annually from native forests, to be built in Ilque - 20 kms south of this southern Chilean city - has environmentalists up in arms, both at home and abroad.

Residents of the small town of Ilque, population 700, as well as the city of Puerto Montt - located 1,044 kms south of Santiago - are divided over the Cascada Chile factory, to be built by a local subsidiary of the U.S. Boise Cascade Corporation. The conflict over the projected factory has had repercussions both within and outside Chile, mobilising environmentalists to speak out in defence of forests of native species of trees jeopardised by the activities of large logging companies.

In the U.S. city of Chicago, Illinois, second-grade teacher Maria Gilfillan was accused by Boise Cascade of teaching her students ''bad things'' when she encouraged them to write to the company to protest its plans in Chile. But ''it's not enough to teach about the importance of rainforests,'' responded Gilfillan. ''We have to do something to help protect them. The letters were very polite. The children expressed their concern about the forest and asked Boise Cascade to find a way to make their chipboard without destroying Chile's forests.''

Plans for the project began in May 1997 when the Chilean company Maderas Condor and Boise Cascade set up an association to create the Puerto Montt Industrial Company. But a series of lawsuits has brought the project to a standstill. Cascada Chile's detractors - including environmental and civil society groups, small business owners, and parliamentarians - charge that influence-peddling ensured approval of the project by the Environmental Commission (COREMA). The Puerto Montt Industrial Company is being sued for 800,000 US dollars by the State Defence Council for the destruction of Conchales de Ilque, an archaeological monument, caused by the company's heavy machinery during road construction.

The initiative has the backing, however, of local and regional authorities, business groups and residents of Ilque and Puerto Montt, who see the project as a source of jobs and progress for one of Chile's poorest areas. The Puerto Montt Industrial Company says the project - in which some 180 million dollars are to be invested - will directly create 200 jobs, plus another 1,500 indirectly, not to mention the 700 workers needed to build the factory, which according to company representatives will operate ''using clean technology, without harmful environmental effects.''

According to the original project, the factory was to be completely supplied by wood acquired from third parties. But in February, Italo Zunino, one of the owners of Maderas Condor, indicated that 50 percent of the supply would come from native forests owned by the company.

Ilque is a town of traditional fisherfolk, small-scale farmers and salmon fishery and shellfish farm workers.

Cascada Chile ''is a terribly harmful project that calls for the construction of a port on one of Puerto Montt's cleanest bays,'' high school teacher Carmen Cortes, owner of the local shellfish farm and president of the Ilque Defence Committee, told IPS. Nor is the company offering any guarantees for the recovery of native forests, she argued. ''I don't think farmers are going to re-plant their land with native forest so their grandchildren can turn around and sell it. They'll undoubtedly re-plant with exotic (faster-growing) species such as pine and eucalyptus.''

Hans Kossman, executive of the Patagonia Salmon Farming Company in Ilque, maintained that the logging project was incompatible with salmon farming, ''a business that is already employing 140 people from this town.''

Cascada Chile will be the ''largest factory of its type in the region, and will absorb a quantity of trees equivalent to the total now being processed by all similar companies from Puerto Montt to Valdivia (200 kms to the north),'' warned Ricardo Caceres, a lawyer.

But Rene Barriga, president of the Cascada Chile Project Coastal Support Committee, which claims 530 members, told IPS that construction of the plant would provide Ilque with telephones, jobs and better roads. And Alejandro Larenas, co-ordinator of the Cascada Chile project, asserted that ''this is an historic opportunity to really educate the public and to do something that benefits small-scale forest owners.''

Larenas dismissed the idea of developing tourism in the native forests, as proposed by Caceres and Horts George, president of the Ottwei-Chile Foundation, on the argument that ''the country can't afford to have a forest and not touch it in order to just look at it.''

Rabindranath Quinteros, governor of the region and president of COREMA, stated that he was in favour of the project because it would create new sources of employment and add value to native forests, and gave his assurances that ''an investment project that damages the environment would never be allowed.''

But representatives of the international environmental watchdog Greenpeace warn that Cascada Chile ''represents a serious risk to the native forest and its biodiversity,'' and that the project's approval revealed ''a legal vacuum for the assessment of projectsthat utilise native forests.''

[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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