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Conaf Reorganization Angers Chile's Environmentalists

Fundacion Terram Launches Campaign to Protect Alerce Trees

Santiago Times - August 25, 2005

Fundacion Terram, a Santiago-based environmental NGO, denounced staff relocations made by the state agency charged with protecting endangered alerce trees at a press conference Wednesday morning and launched an international campaign to save the beleaguered alerce tree species.

Terram's denunciation of the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF) comes two days after CONAF Region X director Lisandro Barriga was removed from his position, as were CONAF's Region X finance officer Carlos Poblete and supervisor Carlos Ritter.

The staff changes came after years of denunciations by environmentalists about the illegal trading of Chile's millennium alerce trees. A recent parliamentary investigation condemned CONAF's negligence in the protection and control of the illegal logging of alerces.

The slow-growing alerce trees are unique to the temperate rainforests of southern Chile and Argentina. They are the second-longest-living tree species in existence (confirmed to live at least 3,500 years), and provide impermeable redwood lumber that brings tremendous prices on world markets. Logging of alerces was forbidden after the trees were listed as an endangered species at the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1976.

Chile amended its law on alerces in 1987, however, allowing CONAF to issue permits for the logging of "dead" alerce trees. This loophole has encouraged the illegal extraction of the trees, with traders often stripping the bark off of alerce trees or starting forest fires to kill them.

In response to numerous charges made by environmentalists about an "alerce mafia" operating in southern Region X, Judge Hernan Cristoso was assigned in June, 2004 to investigate.

Cristoso's investigation has linked several CONAF officials and local politicians to the illegal trafficking, and on May 11 the mayor of the town of Fresia, Nelson Schwerter, was arrested for alerce trafficking (ST, May 12), along with several other suspects.

At Wednesday's press conference, Fundacion Terram executive director Rodrigo Pizzarro expressed outraged at CONAF's decision to relocate Barriga to a fire management position, and demanded that the government face up to its responsibility and remove Barriga from the agency.

Pizarro said Barriga should be removed because, like other CONAF officials, he demonstrated "active negligence" and is an "official with direct responsibility, whose actions not only allow illegal extraction to take place, but actually make it easier for illicit activities to occur."

Judge Cristoso accused CONAF officials in May of recording alerce wood as a different species in order to facilitate its export, and of falsifying documents to show that live trees were dead trees.

Miguel Fredes, an attorney representing one of the principal plaintiffs in recent alerce case litigation who spoke at the press conference, agreed that CONAF's decision to relocate Barriga to a fire management position is totally irresponsible and "almost seems like a bad joke."

Fredes promised that Barriga will be prosecuted, saying that that evidence shows Barriga allowed 10,000 hectares of alerce forest to be burned in 1998. Keeping him in a position at CONAF is "completely incoherent," said Fredes, adding that the agency's mandate is to protect endangered species, not eliminate them.

"CONAF regional director Pedro Bahamondes is not taking the gravity of the alerce case into consideration," said the attorney.

On Monday Bahamondes denied that the relocation of the Region X CONAF officials was directly related to the alerce issue. "Our institution is in the process of reorganization in order to comply in good form to the tasks ordered by the Alerce Commission, to assure protection of alerce forests," he said.

The press conference also provided the opportunity for Terram to launch its "Defensa de Alerce" protection campaign. Its two slogans - "El Alerce es un Lujo" ("Alerce is a Luxury") and "Sí Esta en Peligro" ("Yes, It Is in Danger") - are strong reactions to CONAF's denial of the severity of alerce's situation.

"Defensa de Alerce" is a national and international campaign that will fight for the protection of alerce trees and inform people about their ecological value and the need to save them from extinction. The campaign is carried out in collaboration with international organizations and conventions. Its website (www.defensalerces.cl) will provide updated news and reports about cases of illegal alerce trafficking.

By Tessie Spoljaric-Woodgate (editor@santiagotimes.cl)

Pat Rasmussen
World Temperate Rainforest Network
PO Box 154
Peshastin, WA 98847

Santiago Times: www.santiagotimes.cl



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