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Chile: Environmentalists Oppose Move to Hand Over Parkland

Santiago, Sep 22 (IPS) - María Cecilia Espinosa

Environmentalists in Chile are upset over a government decision to hand over part of a national park that is home to endangered species of trees, birds and mammals to a local indigenous community that has long laid claim to the property.

In 1985, the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) decided to expand the La Campana National Park, located 100 km northwest of Santiago, by incorporating surrounding land to which no one held legal title, which was thus considered public land.

Since then, the local indigenous community living on the land has been involved in a dispute with the Chilean state over property rights to the area.

The "Mariana Osorio Farming and Livestock Community", made up of 700 indigenous families whose ancestors have lived on the disputed land for centuries, says their ownership rights date back to the Spanish colonial period, in the 17th century, when colonial official Mariana Osorio left a will stipulating that the property belonged to the indigenous people under her charge.

Early this year, the minister secretary general of the presidency, Eduardo Dockendorff, confirmed that the community would be given legal title free of charge to 900 hectares that formed part of the nature reserve, along with another 900 hectares of public land that border the park.

He said the decision was based on documents held by the local community that proved that they owned the land in question.

But local environmental groups like Ecosistema and the National Committee for the Defence of Fauna and Flora (CODEFF) are opposed to the government's decision to hand over ownership of part of the park, saying it sets a bad precedent.

And although the land within the park would legally maintain its protected status, they argue that there is no guarantee that the Mariana Osorio Community will fully respect nature in the area.

The community has been given permission by the government to create camp sites, stands or shops for selling souvenirs, firewood or coal, and hostels and inns, and to carry out "any other compatible economic activities."

CODEFF, a leading environmental group, argues that the government's decision means the park will not be protected from future subdivision and sales of land.

CODEFF activist Hernán Vercheure told IPS that the Mariana Osorio Community has not made any commitment to ensure that the land will continue to be protected. "All it would take is a change in the community leadership or statutes...to modify their activities in that area," he said.

"Above and beyond their intentions, the problem is that there is a lack of safeguards, and the only way to be sure the area will continue to be protected is if La Campana does not lose its status as a publicly owned national park," he argued.

Vercheure said he agreed that people living near the park should benefit from their location by providing services or carrying out activities within the reserve. But "that benefit should not involve the transfer of land ownership, which compromises the integrity of the reserve, and in the end affects all Chileans," he argued.

In 1984, the park was named a National Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

It is home to endangered species of mammals like the lesser grison (Galictis cuja), a member of the weasel family; the mouse opossum (Thylamys elegans), a small marsupial; the South American grey fox (Pseudalopex griseus); the Andean fox (Pseudalopex culpaeus); the vizcacha (Lagidium viscacia), a member of the chinchilla family; the pampas cat (Lynchailurus colocolo); and the cougar (Puma concolor).

La Campana is also the habitat of endangered species of birds like the giant hummingbird (Patagona gigas); the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus); and the austral pygmy owl (Glaucidium nanum).

In addition, the park has the largest and best-preserved population of Chilean palm trees (Jubaea chilensis) in the country, and it is the only area with forests of the endangered 'belloto del norte' (Beilschmiedia miersii), 50 percent of which are located on the land that was handed over to the farming community.

"In the last stretch of his term, President Ricardo Lagos has been implementing a policy that completely disregards Chile's natural forest wealth, national parks or natural monuments, while handing them over to the highest bidder," Ecosistema activist Flavia Liberona complained to IPS.

Legal action has been brought against Minister Dockendorff for yielding ownership of part of the park.

The environmental groups have invoked international treaties, like the "Convention on Nature Protection and Wild Life Preservation in the Western Hemisphere" adopted in Washington, D.C. in 1940, which was ratified by Chile in 1967, as well as national legislation like the law on forests and decree-law 1939, which states that land forming part of a national park cannot be yielded to private owners.

"A national park is an area that contains important ecosystems and rare species that are of high priority from a biological diversity standpoint - a sample of the natural environment that we want to leave to the future generations," said Vercheure.

The CODEFF activist is especially concerned that natural protected areas will begin to shrink due to growing pressure from urban development.

"It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see that in the not too distant future, all of our rural areas will be used by human beings as part of productive activities. If we don't preserve certain areas, we will lose wilderness spaces that are essential for recreation, research and education," he warned.

In Liberona's view, by yielding ownership of the land to the local community of small farmers, the centre-left government of Ricardo Lagos "is making a political gesture, because the community members have not actually proven their legal right to inherit the land," she said.

Under that reasoning, "all indigenous people would have the right to lay claim to the territory that their ancestors occupied in the 1800s, because they are the legal heirs, and the government would have to hand that land over to them - which just isn't happening," said Liberona.

In Chile, 6.4 percent of the population of 15.5 million identify themselves as members of six indigenous groups, although other estimates put the proportion at closer to 10 percent.

The international conventions to which Chile is a signatory require that Congress be consulted any time a national park is stripped of its protected status, "which the government has not done," said the activist.

She maintained that the government signed the agreement to transfer ownership of the land to the local farming community not only to strengthen its image as the December presidential and legislative elections loom, but also in response to an official policy that disregards the environment.

That policy, she said, is not only reflected by La Campana, but also by "the appalling and scandalous logging of 'alerce' trees (a valuable endangered hardwood species) and by the fact that the bill on native forests has been winding its way through Congress for 14 years."

Moreover, she noted, the Lagos administration is attempting to modify the bill in order to allow the government to hand over nature reserves in concession.

"The constitution upholds private property above everything else, and private owners are allowed to do whatever they please with their property, with no one questioning them," said Liberona.

But in this case, it is "the Chilean state, which administers the natural wealth of all Chileans, like the national parks and reserves, that is failing to live up to its duty. It is the state itself that is breaking its own laws," said the environmentalist. (END/2005)

IPS - Inter Press Service News Agency

Copyright © 2005 IPS-Inter Press Service. All rights reserved.

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