Seeds of destructionPuerto Montt, Chile: Isolated by the Andean mountains, the Atacama Desert and Pacific Ocean, Chile's forests evolved independently from the rest of the world's trees.
In the country's Valdivia region, temperate forests also extend into Argentina, where only 5 per cent of the original distribution of mountain cypress remains. Here are trees found nowhere else alerce (Fitzroya cupressoides) with 3,625 years of weather patterns recorded in their growth rings, the 16-storey-tall coig|e(Nothofagus dombeyi Mirb. Blume), and sweet-smelling ulmo (Eucryphia cordifolia).
The 12-million-hectare Valdivian forest shelters more than 400 wood species, of which 224 are unique to Chile and Argentina. Soil and weather conditions promote one of the fastest tree growth rates in the world, and drastic changes in altitude give rise to species with special habitat requirements.
If Chile continues cutting 120,000 hectares of native forest a year, the trees will have disappeared in 25 years, according to data gathered by forest researchers in 1994.
Along the Valdivian coast there are vast hillsides of `false green' the term Chilean environmentalists use for the even colour of the pine and eucalyptus plantations that would not occur naturally in the region. Antonio Lara, a silviculture expert at Universidad Austral, says non-native trees cover two million hectares in this region.
Nearly 90 per cent of Chile's timber exports come from plantations that have replaced other crops on old agricultural land, but 10 per cent of the planted forests replace native trees. Landowners think they can earn more growing non-native trees than native varieties. The native trees that are cleared to make way for plantations are often exported as woodchips to Japan. Non-native tree species are more sought-after by the pulp and paper industry which is more accustomed to these species.
Landowners cut native trees and replace them with something that can be converted to pesos, dollars or yen. "Teaching landowners to earn a living from the native forest is essential if we are to preserve it," said Carlos Weber, director of the Santiago region forest service.
For the past ten years the conservation organization WWF has supported efforts of the Universidad Austral and the Comite Nacional Pro Defensa de la Fauna y Flora (CODEFF) to counter the destruction of Chile's forests. One of only five temperate rainforests in the world, the Valdivian rainforest is on WWF's top-200 list of ecosystems to save. CODEFF wants to buy the 50.6-hectare forest for a nature reserve. Neighbouring farmers are interested in the reserve, and in CODEFF's offer to help them use the coastal forest for tourism instead of timber. A sustainable form of tourism would attract visitors many of them local to the pristine area to learn about its value.
Outside Valdivia CODEFF has found another way of teaching Chileans to value their native forests. Ten families have built a wood shop on the edge of a pasture, where they make lamps, boxes and cups under the direction of an instructor who comes twice a week.
Yellow, umber and even pink patterns of native wood are sanded into these items which will eventually be sold at local markets. CODEFF believes that this will give the craftspeople reason to replant native trees.
But even as CODEFF supports these efforts to save native species, Chile's legislature is debating a new law to facilitate logging. Landowners would be allowed to skip the permit process which restricts timber operations, and to pay instead a one-time fee per hectare for permission to clear their land.
The new law would make it easier for a proposed pulp mill to get the logs it needs. Boise Cascade, a timber company based in the United States, plans to build the largest pulp mill in South America in a bay near Puerto Montt in southern Chile. The mill will need a million cubic metres of wood per year, tripling the current timber harvest in the region, according to silviculturist Antonio Lara.
Saving the forests from being reduced to mountains of woodchips is only part of the problem. Then Chileans will have to face contaminated water and soil and the adverse effects on agriculture, fisheries and tourism that will result.
*Kristan Hutchison is an American journalist who travelled to Chile to write a series of articles on environmental issues. She works for the Juneau Empire (Alaska). Her trip was sponsored by the Pew Foundation.