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Environmental Group Promises Legal Action

Greenpeace denounces Chile's CONAF for neglecting Alerce trees

By Kathrine Schmidt (*)- Oct. 10, 2005

International environmental group Greenpeace denounced Chile's National Forestry Service (CONAF) for gross negligence in carrying out its duty to prevent illegal logging of alerce forests in the Alerce Andino Park in Chile's Region X.

At a press conference Monday, Greenpeace accused CONAF of “complicity” with illegal logging of the alerce trees and promised to take legal action against the government agency - for the second time in two months - because of the agency's alleged negligence.

The alerce tree is a rare species found only in the Andes mountain range and can live for up to 3,500 years. It is often referred to as a “first cousin” of California's giant redwood trees. Because of its durability and impermeability, alerce wood is extremely valuable and can fetch as much as US$5,000 per cubic meter in illegal international markets (ST, Aug. 4).

Live alerce trees are protected under international law, but a loophole in Chilean law permits extraction and commercialization of trees that have died naturally or were cut before 1974, when the law was passed.

Greenpeace alleged Monday that as a regulatory body, CONAF should have taken much stronger legal action against Rio Puelo, a forestry company that was caught trafficking alerce wood taken illegally from the Alerce Andino Park.

Even though CONAF filed suit against Rio Puelo in a Puerto Montt court earlier this year, Greenpeace alleged that the government agency had irresponsibly stalled the proceedings and largely abandoned the case, allowing perpetrators to go unpunished.

“We must deal with the issue of alerce logging as a country, and so we support all of the action that Greenpeace has undertaken in this vein of protecting our native alerce species,” said Dep. Fidel Espinosa, the president of a special Alerce Committee created in the Chamber of Deputies. “CONAF has offered the forests less protection and, instead, has allowed illegal action. And not just in this case that took place in the Alerce Andino Park.”

According to Dep. Espinosa, Gonzalo Marchessi Acuña, CONAF's attorney, refused to appear before the court in Puerto Montt, leading the judge to issue a warrant for his arrest. While CONAF had composed a list of charges against Rio Puelo, the company was never prosecuted, said Dep. Espinosa, adding that certain errors in the presentation of the case went uncorrected for eight months.

Additionally, CONAF granted Rio Puelo further permits for the logging of dead alerce wood in 2004, even while its first lawsuit against the company was still pending in the courts.

The most recent legal action, brought before the Santiago Court of Appeals, demands certain documentation from CONAF and that CONAF executive director Carlos Weber disclose all alerce resolutions and alerce wood extraction plans that the agency has granted.

According to Greenpeace attorney Paulo Pastén, the lawsuit “seeks to prove that each and every one of those extraction plans is absolutely null and void, since they have failed to comply with the orders of DS N 490” (a decree that declares alerce trees protection as a Natural Monument).

Greenpeace also insisted on its previous demand that the Chilean government declare a national moratorium on alerce logging permits until CONAF conducts a comprehensive forestry survey on whether it is possible to safely and effectively extract any remaining dead alerce wood.

This year, Greenpeace has been particularly active in Chile regarding the alerce issue. On Aug. 3, an investigation into the country's alerce logging publicly denounced logging in the same national park.

With its recent initiatives against CONAF, Greenpeace adds its voice to more than a decade of controversy concerning illegal alerce logging and alleged links between CONAF and the illegal trading of alerce trees. According to witness testimony given earlier this year, CONAF employees sold documents allowing alerce wood to pass unhindered through customs by registering the timber as a different species (ST, June 13). CONAF employees also arranged transportation for loads of more than 75 square meters of logs, which were then sold in the United States for over US$1.8 million.

In response to negative news accounts and growing pressure, CONAF reorganized its top officials but did not fire any who were accused of dereliction of the duty. Environmentalists insisted that the reshuffling of top CONAF personnel was mere window dressing. (ST, August 25).

Santiago Times - www.santiagotimes.cl

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