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Judge: Chile forestry Agency Failed to Stop Alerce loggers

Attorney Considers Lawsuit Against Government Agency

May 12, 2005

The judge investigating the illegal logging of Chile's ancient alerce forests in Region X has criticized the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF) for “shortcomings and mistakes.”

Judge Hernán Cristoso said CONAF did not adhere to its own internal regulations when it repeatedly granted alerce traffickers permission to export wood supposedly taken from already-fallen alerce trees, and when it failed to review maps that had been altered by the accused to gain access to neighboring properties.

Cristoso arrested Fresia Mayor Nelson Schwerter and seven other individuals for illegal alerce trafficking earlier this week (ST, May 10).

La Nación reports that Cristoso was able to link Schwerter to the alerce scam because of checks the mayor had written to the loggers in payment for stealing the alerce timber.

Sources close to the case say that a “secret witness” has testified about meetings between the leaders of the alerce trafficking ring and CONAF authorities in CONAF regional offices.

Schwerter, a member of the rightist National Renovation (RN) party, bought alerce and smuggled it with the help of Daniel Vergara Calderón, owner of the neighboring property “Esperanza Norte y Sur,” according to testimony given by illegal loggers previously jailed by Cristoso.

Schwerter and Vergara – an ex-Army official who worked for the Pinochet-era intelligence agencies of the National Intelligence Directorate and the National Intelligence Center – have been suspected leaders of the theft ring for years, but their participation in the illegal trade of alerce has never been proven.

About 200 of Schwerter's supporters organized a 40-car caravan Tuesday to show their support of the mayor, driving around Puerto Montt and to the jail where he is being held.

Attorney Miguel Fredes, representing Forestal Sarao – the owner of the property that was allegedly raided by alerce loggers – said he was studying a possible lawsuit against CONAF authorities who granted alerce removal permits, or who may have helped cover the tracks of the criminal operation.

Another alleged leader of the alerce ring indicted by Judge Cristoso is businessman Alex Langomarsino. Langomarsino and Vergara allegedly built an illegal road to access alerce trees on Forestal Sarao's property.

Cristoso was appointed to the case at the beginning of June 2004 after Judge Rosa Muñoz resigned after receiving death threats (ST, June 3, 2004).

Muñoz started the investigations, and in May 2004, unexpectedly ordered the arrest of CONAF Director Carlos Weber for his alleged involvement in an alerce trafficking scam (ST, May 12, 2004).

While Weber was later released for lack of evidence (ST, May 17, 2004), his arrest caused a furor, bringing national attention to suspicions long-held by Chilean environmentalists: that the illegal logging and trafficking of alerce trees is supported by a large network of corrupt officials and politicians.

Although listed as a threatened species in the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), alerce trees continue to be logged and used in construction because of their impermeability and resistance to rot.

Chile's alerce trees, which live for as long as 4,000 years, have been protected since 1976, when they were declared a national monument.

By Steve Anderson (editor@santiagotimes.cl)

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