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Mega-Forest Project Sows Discord

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21 August 1999

Erosion of Native Forests Continues

By Gustavo Gonzalez

SANTIAGO, Jul 25 (IPS) - Native forests in Chile continue to be destroyed a result of Government policies that permit logging exploitation, while a law intended to protect timber resources remains bogged down in Parliament after eight years, official data shows.

According to the land registry data on natural resources, presented this month by the National Forestry Department (Conaf), between the years of 1994-1998, some 25,000 hectares of coniferous trees were lost in the regions of Araucania and Los Lagos. Those two regions, which cover an area 600 to 1,000 kilometres south of Santiago, hold the greatest forest reserves in the country, which are exploited by a variety of logging companies, both Chilean-owned and transnationals.

Marcel Claude, a specialist in natural resources, says the Conaf data indicated that the deterioration of native forests was increasingly due to exploitation by logging companies and less to the collection of firewood by poor peasants. The small and large-scale depletion of forests for fuel traditionally has been labelled the main cause of deforestation in Chile but for years, environmentalists have warned that the greatest danger in the future was the logging industry.

For Claude, that threat has already fully materialised, since the greatest loss of native trees in the two regions assessed by Conaf has been recorded in rural communities where industrial projects have been installed. Ecological groups say that Chile is the world's third-biggest producer of wood chips, created via the systematic destruction of valuable coniferous species, like oak and a variety of native species.

How many native trees exist in Chile and at what rate are they being destroyed or replanted? This question is at the centre of a heated debate, and the answers, one way or another, depend on the criteria and methodology used to address the issue.

Claude himself was sacked by the Central Bank in 1996, where he ran the environmental accounting system, after he released a study asserting that coniferous forests would disappear in Chile within the next 30 years. The economist's predictions caused a stir and were termed ''alarmist'' both within government circles and by the Wood Corporation (Corma), an entity encompassing the logging and forest industries.

Corma dismissed Claude's forecast on the basis of a survey carried out by Conaf throughout the country, according to which the surface area of coniferous forests increased between 1985 and 1994 from 7.5 million to 13.4 million hectares. According to the business group, the 1994 statistics include 3.8 million hectares of very young trees, the result of either human reforestation efforts or natural reproductive processes. The group hoped to use those figures to discredit the claims of environmentalists, who accuse the logging industry of eliminating coniferous trees to plant exotic species with rapid growth rates - such as the Australian eucalyptus and various types of pine trees.

''A crude and simple comparison of statistics (from 1985 to 1994) is improper, above all because the information from the land registry has been interpreted using methodologies and definitions that are different from those used in the past,'' cautioned Claude. ''The increase cited by Corma exists only on paper, and what has happened is simply a change of definitions that has allowed it to exaggerate the figures considerably,'' added the economist, who currently heads the Land Foundation. Included in this ''growth'' of native forests are shrubbery and other flora that cannot be considered trees, since they derive from plant species less than two metres in height, environmentalists say. Similarly, 800,000 hectares are so sparse that they can hardly be categorised as forests, say groups like the Defenders of Chilean Forests, a network of 35 non-governmental organisations.

According to Claude, the application of a strict concept of native forests indicates that between 1985 and 1994, the total surface area covered by this resource did not expand, but in fact diminished from 7.5 million hectares to 5.2 million. Economists say the latest land registry data from two regions indicates that this process is continuing at an alarming rate, while in Parliament, the Native Forest Law has been dormant since 1991, unable to overcome the pressure against it from logging companies.

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