Chileans Can't See The Native Forests For the Woodchips

'Tiger' economy chews up natural resources

Jorge Patricio Manns stands on a bluff overlooking this southern Chilean seaport and scowls at an orangy-tan mountain of woodchips looming behind him.

"Do you realize how many [acres] of native Chilean forest are chopped up right there before your eyes?" asks the environmentalist. "The industry people say this pace of woodchip production will go on for 25 more years. But the truth is, we don't have 25 years of native forest left."

Puerto Montt's woodchip mountain - visible for miles - is a symbol of the rapid natural-resource development Chile has experienced during recent years of high economic growth.

For some, the woodchips - destined for paper and paint-product production in Japan and the United States - are a positive symbol, representing new jobs and improved living standards.

But for others like Mr. Manns, director of the Office for Promoting Development in Chiloe, which advocates sustainable development and ecotourism, the mountain stands as a reminder of Chile's rush to exploit its natural resources to fuel a high, 6 percent average annual economic growth rate. More than 88 percent of exports are natural resources.

"Neither the forest industry nor the growing fish-farming industry are being developed in a sustainable manner," says Manuel Baquedano Muoz, president of the Institute of Political Ecology in Santiago, Chile's capital.

Forestry products make up 13 percent of Chilean exports and have grown from a $334 million industry in 1985 to more than $2 billion in 1995. Fishing, another key industry, has risen eightfold during the past 20 years to an $8 million per year business today.

Forestry and fishing may be pillars of the economy, but they are sources of conflict as well.

Today, laws seek to protect the area's scant remaining stands of sequoia trees. But at the same time huge tracts of woodlands have been opened to cutting. As wood exports have skyrocketed, so have the concerns of environmentalists about the way Chilean forests are being managed.

From the industry point of view, the country's environmental lobby is hypocritical. For decades, domestic consumption of native forests for fuel took place with no controls, industry representatives say, while today's tree-cutting is subjected to environmental-impact regulations.

The significant growth in commercial tree plantations is also criticized, the industry representatives add, although such plantations eventually will reduce pressure to cut native forests and help address widespread soil erosion.

The president of Chile's National Wood Corporation, Fernando Leniz, recently took aim at opposition to a pending project by the American corporation Trillium that would cut old-growth lenga or beech forests in Chile's Tierra del Fuego region.

"All it took was the arrival of a large private company ... for [environmentalists] to adopt an attitude of general warfare against the project," he says.

But most environmentalists claim they do not oppose all use of the forest but advocate sustainable development.

The fishing industry has grown more contentious as open-sea fish have become increasingly scarce.

Small-scale fishermen say introduced species like salmon and trout have decimated local fish populations, while heavy use of antibiotics and high-phosphorous content foods contaminate the water. In addition, the area's seal population is declining as salmon farmers shoot seals who enter salmon cages looking for food.

"There are contamination problems and [exotic] species issues, but the real problem is access to fishing grounds," says Eric Vargas, secretary general of the National Confederation of Small-Scale Fishermen.

"We're convinced the government's record of handling these questions indicates it wants many of us to abandon our profession."

Mr. Vargas acknowledges that the number of small-scale fishermen has boomed in recent years and probably needs to drop closer to pre-boom levels. But he says local fishermen shouldn't be expected to retire their nets while industrial fishing and fish farming continue to grow.

For roughly a decade, salmon farms have been moving into the coastal waterways where shellfish were traditionally harvested, Vargas says. The installation of salmon cages in low-cost shoreline areas around Puerto Montt has almost exhausted available sites, according to recent reports.

Salmon farmers concede that any new activity in an area will alter the environment to some extent. But they insist they are not alone to blame for pollution and declining fish populations.

"We are often singled out when there's talk of pollution in Llanquihue and other lakes, but the surrounding towns and the farming and grazing activities do a lot more harm in that sense," says Daniel Rebolledo, executive director of the Salmon Technological Institute, the research arm of Chile's salmon-farming industry.

"We are developing more efficient feeding methods and working toward 100 percent use of the wastes from production plants. We are, in fact, one of the biggest allies of clean water because our industry depends on it," he says.

While such assurances sound good, environmentalists have a hard time buying them. "Everyone knows that this current system of using up the native forest, catching all the fish, or loading up the waters with fish cages is not the most correct," says Ivn Arismendi, a Puerto Montt environmental activist. "But the economic situation people are in ... means that everyone feels the need to sell all the trees."

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