The mighty alerce tree can live for 4,000 years, but legal loopholes, lack of political will and weak enforcement has ended effective protection in Chile for the species that has been declared a national monument, campaigners say.
A judge in the southern Chilean city of Puerto Montt, who has handed down convictions in nearly 300 cases of illegal alerce logging over the past ten years, has spoken out about the threat. "Chile's forest protection law is really a forest un-protection law," said Provincial Judge Manuel Perez Sanchez. "All of Chile's institutions are negligent."
His comments follow a celebrated case earlier this year, when Rosa Munoz, a judge in the town of Los Muermos ordered the arrest of the executive director of Chile's forest service (Conaf), for questioning on whether a powerful local senator may have unethically pressured the agency to allow his constituents to cut the alerce. The director, Carlos Weber, was released three days later, issuing a bevy of denials. Ms Munoz later withdrew from the case after receiving death threats.
Similar in appearance to the giant sequoia tree of California, some alerces grow up to 150 feet (50m) high and 15 feet across. The durable reddish wood is prized by builders and furniture-makers, and it was on its way to being logged and burned to oblivion when in 1975 the global community banned trade in alerce wood. One year later Chile's government declared the alerce a national monument and prohibited the cutting of any live alerce tree.
Now, however, the tree is in danger again. Conservationists say logging persists and today the tree exists on only about 640,000 acres of remote, mountainous southern Chile. About half of the original forests have already been wiped out.
A Chilean foresters association recently found that about half of the sawmills in Chile's capitol, Santiago, were selling alerce. In Chile it fetches about $60 (£33) a foot; in the United States, Europe or Japan, it is being sold for as much as $500.
Although dead alerces can be cut, environmentalists charge that loggers falsely claim the trees are dead. Yet the national government recently shut down the ecological crimes division of the Chilean police. In June Judge Sanchez, 70, handed down his largest fine yet for illegal logging, $2m. He complains, however, that almost none were paid because the local governments do not seek the money.
Rene Reyes, a Chilean forest scientist, said that in the southern lakes region Conaf had "just 12 forest engineers to enforce laws covering more than 9.4 million acres. They almost never go out into the field."
A native forest protection bill has been in the Chile Congress since 1992. Mr Weber, agreed that the law would do much to help. "We think the law will be passed this year," he said.
But Cristobal Zolezzi, an economist with the Santiago-based Terram Foundation, said that the forest service's dual role of facilitating exports and protecting forests had so far been severely skewed to the former.
© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd