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Source: www.santiagotimes.cl

DC Politician Linked to CONAF Case

Chamber of Deputies Approves Committee To Investigate Illegal Alerce Trafficking

(May 14, 2004) Monday’s arrest of National Forestry Corporation (CONAF) director Carlos Weber (ST, May 12) may not only help put an end to the illegal trade of ancient alerce trees in southern Chile, but may also put an end to the political career of a powerful regional politician now linked to the multi-million dollar scam.

Former CONAF attorney Carlos Barahona alleged Wednesday night that the illegal alerce trade has had a very influential god-father: Christian Democratic Party Sen. Sergio Paez, from Region X.

In an interview aired on Channel 13, the former CONAF lawyer alleged that Sen. Paez had pressured local authorities and CONAF to allow the illegal cutting of the protected tree species and that profits from the scam had been used to finance political campaigns of local politicians like Paez. Barahona also assured he had documents that can prove his statements.

CONAF is the government agency charged with overseeing Chile’s national parks and protecting endangered native tree species, such as the alerce.

Paez, a senior DC politician who is currently in Jordan presiding over an Inter-Parliamentary Union meeting, announced through DC Sen. Mariano Ruiz-Ezquide that he will file slander charges against Barahona.

Reactions to the new developments in the case were varied.

Region X Deps. Gabriel Ascencio (DC) and Fidel Espinoza (PS) called for patience so that more facts can be gathered, but rejected generic accusations claiming that Region X politicians used money derived from illegal alerce traffic to finance election campaigns.

But environmental lawyer Miguel Fredes, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center (Centro Austral de Derecho Ambiental – CEADA), told the Santiago Times that Paez’ involvement in the case is something that environmental organizations had suspected for quite some time. “This will become the CONAF-gate, a real political scandal,” Fredes predicted.

Meanwhile, Carlos Weber remains detained at a medical clinic in Puerto Montt, Region X, where he was admitted for heart complications following his arrest on charges of bribery and influence trafficking. Judge Rosa Muñoz ordered his arrest as a result of investigations stemming from a 2000 CONAF report and evidence later presented by environmental groups denouncing the illegal cutting of alerce and illegal issuing of permits allowing the transportation of the lumber.

The Ministry of Agriculture, from which CONAF derives authority, appealed the judge’s decision. Minister of Agriculture Jaime Campos declared that Weber’s arrest was unconstitutional since the CONAF director had only been summoned by the court to give evidence.

Independent Democratic Union (UDI) party Dep. Carlos Recondo strongly criticized the minister’s declarations, saying Campos is pressuring the judge not to investigate the involvement of government officials any further. Environmental groups, meanwhile, called for Campos’ resignation.

Together with other members of the UDI and of the National Renovation (RN) party, Recondo successfully promoted Wednesday the creation of a special Chamber of Deputies committee to investigate and clarify the charges against CONAF. The motion to create in the investigative committee passed with 85 votes in favor and two abstentions.

The alerce tree (Fitzroya cupressoides), otherwise known as the Patagonian cypress, is a relative of the Californian redwood and sequoia trees and only grows in Patagonian regions of Chile and Argentina. In some cases the massive trees, which have been logged heavily since the arrival of Spanish to the region four centuries ago, can live up to 4,000 years.

Though the species has been protected since 1976, when it was declared a national monument, and is currently one of the threatened species of the United Nations Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), alerce trees continue to be exploited and used in construction because of their impermeability and resistance to rot. This happens through illegal cutting or, in other cases, via a loophole in the 1976 decree that allows for the collection and commercialization of timber from dead alerce trees.

According to environmental lawyer Fredes, US$150 million worth of illegal alerce has been exported in the last eight years, decimating up to 100,000 acres of forest, thanks to a vast and corrupt network that the environmentalist compared to a “real mafia.”

While the government has so far done little to curb illegal trade of the trees, Weber’s arrest on Monday, along with new evidence expected to be presented next week by environmental groups, may well represent a positive change in the situation.

By Irene Caselli (santiagotimes@yahoo.com

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