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Explaining Conaf's Failure to Protect Alerce Forests

Santiago Times - August 29, 2005

Carlos Poblete Documents Shortcomings Of CONAF Leadership And Lagos Government

(Ed. Note: Reports about the brazen destruction of Chile's protected millennium alerce forests have been in the news for the past five years, generating public concern and frustration over the government's inability to remedy the situation (ST, October 26, 2004).

A judicial investigation into the illegal trading of alerce trees in southern Chile has resulted in the jailing of Nelson Schwerter, the Mayor of Fresia (ST, May 10) and several others. Last week CONAF, the state agency responsible for protecting native forests, announced a staff reorganization supposedly designed to restore the agency's credibility (ST, August 25).

The whistle-blowing letter featured below is from Carlos Poblete, formerly the CONAF Region X official responsible for safeguarding alerce forests. Poblete gives an insider's view about how CONAF really works, and why he believes he has been a convenient scapegoat for CONAF in its efforts to cover up its institutional shortcomings

Environmentalists involved with the alerce issue this week are strong defenders of Poblete, and say he is one of the few CONAF officials who really helped in resolving the alerce destruction issue. Environmentalists are expected to demand this week that CONAF national head Carlos Weber be removed from his job, rather than individuals like Poblete.)

It is certain that authorities at an institution like CONAF have never found me an easy person to get along with.

It is just that one can't remain indifferent to the distortions and unfairness that reign in the organization, because these distortions can often give cover to political deal-making and an obsequious staff, and thus make professional excellence the least important priority at the agency.

That's why, from my position as a technical advisor in forestry oversight matters, I couldn't help but express my dismay at the systematic and incomprehensible unraveling of CONAF's oversight efforts – a process that became increasingly evident beginning in 2000.

In a letter I wrote in May 2001 – just one year after the Lagos administration took power – I expressed my dismay about the way things were going and I advised the Executive Director of CONAF about the risks facing the institution resulting from the dismembering of its forestry oversight functions.

The letter – available to anyone who would like to read it – reflected my impotence at seeing how CONAF had stopped doing its oversight work because the authorities in control didn't believe in it. Or they didn't think it was important work. Or, probably, they thought it was incompatible with their effort to promote private investment to develop the country's natural resources.

What first started occurring at the beginning of 2001 was truly a Greek tragedy for forestry oversight work in the Los Lagos Region, a region that includes 1.5 million hectares of native forest that is under threat of misuse and which had less than 20 oversight officials.

During this whole year there was not a single aerial flight to detect illegal logging, because there was no money in the budget for it. Less than four days each month were budgeted for on-site inspection trips by oversight officials. And the budget for allowing officials to review property where authorizations for logging had been given was only 40 percent of what it should have been in order to do the job properly.

Oversight officials then began to be assigned to other functions. Of the few remaining, most had only temporary contracts, and had to sue CONAF to assure that their most basic salary needs were met. It was in this context – in 2001 and 2002, in the coastal mountain range of Llanquihue and Osorno – that the most serious illegal logging took place since the country's return to democracy. The illegal logging of alerce forests during the first four years of the current government grew fivefold from the period between 1990 and 1999.

Perhaps the clearest indication of the low priority the current administration has given the issue is its decision to allot less than 2 percent of its budget to the oversight of the nation's native forests.

If anyone should doubt what I am saying, there are documents and objective, statistical studies to back me up. And there is ample official correspondence and documentation regarding the bleeding of financial and human resources for CONAF's oversight needs during this time.

What happened thereafter is now a well-known story because it has been written about extensively in the media. The country demanded that CONAF give an explanation for its inefficiency in safe-guarding native forests, especially the alerce forests. That is when the politicians who were responsible for the unsustainable, inexcusable situation began looking in the other direction to find a scapegoat.

They pointed an accusing finger at CONAF's oversight staff, the officials on the ground who were out trying to do their job each day and who saw who the lawbreakers were, but who were frustrated by the lack of interest and deafness of our institutional authorities.

The politicians responsible for the situation thought the news about the alerce forest destruction would be a short-lived affair. “It is just a media show, it will die down in two weeks,” they said at the end of 2003. But the issue did not go away. And still hasn't. The facts and the public's sensitivity to the situation proved to be much more intense than the politicians had expected.

Last week, in a final effort at damage control, they decided to remove me from my position. Internally, they said that CONAF was being restructured.

But – so far as public opinion was concerned – one of the guiltiest of inefficiency had been sacked: the head of the much-maligned Oversight Section of the Regional CONAF office. The same person who four years before had been stripped of any ability to do his job as a result of the “regionalization” of CONAF's activities.

There were plenty of reasons to put me out to pasture.

For example, I had obstinately ordered the continuation of oversight efforts and legal action regarding the illegal logging of alerce forests in Hornopirén, even after I had been instructed not to do so.

And I was not an easy official to have on board when the agency's authorities preferred not to press charges in the Courts as a result of the forestry-practice violations that had been detected and reported on by the oversight team.

Even worse, I had resisted CONAF's instructions that I not cooperate with Judge Rosa Muñoz and the Los Muermos police court in their investigation of alerce irregularities.

I had also adamantly resisted pressure from CONAF to sign a protection order so that this same judge would not be able to question our oversight staff.

I was also cited to appear and willingly testified to the Chamber of Deputies' Alerce Investigation Committee (see pages 53 to 58 of the Committee's report). In my testimony I gave an independent and critical assessment of CONAF's officials in an effort to assure that the alerce issue was given ample media coverage, so that they might be protected.

All of this, of course, was not to be tolerated by CONAF.

Now that I have been marginalized from CONAF, the much-needed financial support will most likely be given to the agency.

Maybe they will contract the professionals that they needed for the past five years, or maybe they'll make good on the contracts of the oversight staff that has been in permanent flux. And maybe now there will be funds for site inspections as never before, with four-wheel drive vehicles, helicopter flights and satellite imaging. With all of this, they will no doubt make a real advance in the oversight work that needs to be done. And no doubt, in the process, there will be people who say that given all this progress, it is evident that this guy who has just been thrown out of the institution was one of the guilty parties for there having been so little done.

Whatever occurs, if they are able to get better results, I will be among those celebrating. I will be celebrating for the region's native forests, and for future communities that will have the opportunity to appreciate and enjoy them. I will assume my role as a scapegoat in all of this dog fighting if it finally results in generating abundant funds and greater interest in protecting Chile's native forests.

I give my heartfelt thanks to all of those who have collaborated with me during the nine years I have worked to safeguard the forests in the Región de Los Lagos. CONAF, in many of its different efforts and most especially in its forestry oversight work, has very good professionals: committed, capable, creative, almost unbelievingly tireless in their field work, happy, and friendly. This is truly important.

Carlos Poblete Barros
Ingeniero Forestal U. de Chile
Master Universidad Internacional de Andalucía, España
Ex - Jefe de la Sección Fiscalización Forestal Región de Los Lagos


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