Fate of vast tracts of Chilean forest sets job-seekers against ecologists

November 01, 1990|By New York Times News Service

CORRAL, Chile -- When the aging motor launch that links Corral to the outside world pulled into the harbor on its midday stop, most of those going aboard were men carrying bedrolls.

They told the curious standing on the dock that they were headed to an area 50 miles away where there was work in the forestry industry that is spreading throughout the south of Chile.

They would find similar work here at home but for the fact that the 150,000-acre forest south of Corral along the Pacific Ocean has become the focus of a national debate pitting ecological and environmental interests against the country's desire for continued economic development.

Seemingly everyone in this coastal village of 5,000 people is incensed because a project to begin cutting part of that forest has been halted while the national government seeks advice on how to manage Chile's vast tracts of native forest.

"We believe in the protection of natural resources, but that has to be compatible with our right to use the resources of our area," said Sergio Campos, a retired businessman and president of the local committee supporting the project.

"We want the right to work and improve our standard of living," he said, pointing out that at least half the male labor force of Corral had no steady source of income.

"If they are not going to let us eat, they are going to have to apply the same rules in other areas," said Miguel Hernandez, a teacher and the secretary of the committee.

Almost half of the Chilean territory is forest land, with the most important concentration of forests extending several hundred miles north and south from here in the Corral-Valdivia area.

Chile's native forests, together with less extensive ones in neighboring Argentina, make up the most important temperate rain forest in the Southern Hemisphere.

Since the days of Charles Darwin, scientists and environmentalists have considered the Chilean south a genetic treasure. Much of the area, which gives way to glaciers and Patagonia north of the Strait of Magellan, has not been explored by man.

Some of the world's oldest trees inhabit the area, including the alerce and the araucaria, and the government has set aside about 5 million acres as national parks and protected forests. In addition, legislation protects all alerces against cutting.

At the same time, successive Chilean governments for more than two decades have been promoting tree plantings on a large scale on uncovered land.

These are primarily pine and eucalyptus plantations, which benefit from soil and climatic conditions that produce adult trees in a fraction of the time required in most other countries.

Forestry exports are expected to earn $800 million this year, almost 10 percent of total exports. With $4 billion in new investments under way or planned, exports are likely to grow steadily through the end of the decade.

A big unresolved question -- and the one that the Corral project has brought into the limelight -- is whether to allow cutting, and subsequent replanting, of the almost 14 million acres of native forests under private ownership.

Two years ago, a company called Terranova, 60 percent owned by the Pacific Steel Co. of Chile and 40 percent by Marubeni Corp. of Japan, paid $5 million to buy the forest near here from private owners. It then drew up a plan to exploit the property.

It called for leaving untouched, as required by law, the 55,000 acres of alerces. Of the remaining area, 57,500 acres of native trees other than alerces would be subject to clear-cutting on the ground that they are in a state of degradation; 30,000 acres would be subject to selective cutting; and 7,500 acres of bare land would be planted.

The areas to be cleared would be replanted with fast-growing eucalyptus.

The company promised to build 1,600 miles of roads through the now inaccessible area, develop the port of Corral, build a sawmill and, eventually, a cellulose plant.

For Corral, the project spelled hope and a promising future -- something it had not had in the more than 400 years since the Spanish conquerors set up the fortifications that still stand here.

Believing it had the approval of the government's forestry authority, known as Conaf, Terranova began building roads and other installations. By May, 890 people were working.

After the change to democratic government in March and the installation of President Patricio Aylwin, Terranova asked the new authorities for final approval.

Questions and criticisms then emerged, particularly the opposition of a private environmental group, the National Committee for the Defense of Fauna and Flora.

Hernan Verscheure, secretary-general of the committee, said it opposed any clear-cutting of native forests. He said there were also concerns about the effects on the ecosystem of large-scale planting of exotic species, such as eucalyptus.

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