Chileans Can't See the Native Forests for the Woodchips 'Tiger' Economy Chews Up Natural Resources

Article excerpt

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 Munoz, 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. …