Devastating fires expose flaws in Chile’s forestry model

Devastating fires expose flaws in Chile’s forestry model
Fecha de publicación: 
10 February 2023
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Santiago, Feb 10 (EFE).- The plantations of pine and eucalyptus that cover large swathes of southern Chile embody the so-called Chilean forestry model – promoted by the Pinochet dictatorship – and have fueled the ongoing wildfires blamed as of Friday for 24 deaths and the destruction of more than 366,000 hectares (904,000 acres).

“In adverse climatic conditions of drought, monocultures of pine and eucalyptus can quickly generate large fires due to the high continuity of fuel in the landscape,” Alvaro Promis, an expert in forest restoration at the University of Chile, told EFE.

The risk can be diminished if the plantations are dispersed, separated by stretches of farmland and native forests, or bounded by creeks, he said.

Data collected by Chile’s forest service show that in the zone where the fires have been raging for the last week, which extends from 250-600 km (155-372 mi) south of Santiago, plantations cover more land than native forests.

And in the regions of Ñuble and Biobio, the area occupied by industrial-scale plantations is 50 greater than that with native forest.

Experts consulted by EFE say that monocultures aggravate soil erosion, which reduces water retention and in turn requires the companies to resort to intensive irrigation.

But Juan Jose Ugarte, president of the forest industry association (Corma), said that native forests are just as prone to generating large fires as plantations.

Offering a more nuanced view was Carlos Zamorano, a forestry engineer and professor at the University of Aysen.

“The plantations are not the causes of the fires, the causes are multiple, but a landscape of monocultures – homogenous, of the same species, age, and covering thousands of hectares in rows – magnifies the impact of climate change in many aspects,” he said.

The Chilean forestry model took hold in the second year of the 1973-1990 rule of the late Gen. Augusto Pinochet with the promulgation of Decree 701, which provided financial incentives to replace native forests with plantations.

“Those state benefits were maintained until 2012 and permitted the substitution of pine and eucalyptus plantations for native forest, to which was added the privatization of the state forestry companies, such as Celulosa Arauco and Celulosa Constitucion, between 1977 and 1979,” biologist Flavia Liberona told EFE.

Those elements combined to entrench a forestry model “based on the plantation and export of exotic species,” according to Liberona, the executive director of Fundacion Terram, a Chilean NGO.

“The origin and objective of the model was to maximize profitability based only on one product, the wood, in the short term, which generated an exceedingly successful productive cycle that has even been an example for other countries,” Zamorano said.

Chile’s first plantations of exotic species were started in the 1940s as a solution to erosion and the advance of sand dunes as a result of the over-exploitation of farmland.

After Decree 701, monocultures have become dominant.

Corma’s Ugarte said that the Chilean forestry industry began some years ago to adjust the model in favor of interspersing biological corridors between plantations.

Promis urges a greater emphasis on trees native to Chile, an idea also supported by Zamorano, who hopes to see an end of what he calls “the binary landscape,” divided among “areas of preservation where nothing can be touched and lands with a purely productive focus.”

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