Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT-LATAM: No Forest for the Trees

Gustavo González*

SANTIAGO, Jun 3 2003 (IPS) - A tree plantation is not a forest, says forestry engineer Rodrigo Herrera, of Greenpeace-Chile, one of many environmentalists in Latin America fighting to preserve native forests as integral ecosystems – with many frustrations and relatively few advances to show for their efforts.

Africa and South America were the regions of the world that lost most natural forest in the 1990s, when deforestation reached an average annual rate of 16.1 million hectares, 15.2 million hectares in tropical regions, according to a report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

The problem affects all Latin America, but Argentina, Brazil and Mexico were among the countries with greatest loss of forest coverage in the 20th century, alongside Burma (Myanmar), Congo, Indonesia, Nigeria, Sudan, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

In Chile, after 11 years of tedious bureaucratic back-and-forth in Congress, just now is the possibility emerging for a Native Forest Recovery and Forestry Development Act.

The government, environmental groups and logging companies have hammered out positions that are closer to each other, despite seemingly irreconcilable demands.

President Ricardo Lagos announced that in early June he would send to the Senate a set of guidelines agreed by the Forestry Panel, a dialogue group that was on the verge of breaking up in May, when environmentalists accused the government of failing to comply with a protocol accord signed in June 2001.

The presidential guidelines will give footing to the final step to be taken by Congress to approve the law, and could reopen legislative talks on mechanisms for designating subsidies for native forest recovery projects, said Hernán Verscheure, of the National Pro-Defence of Fauna and Flora Committee (CODEFF), in an IPS interview.

"The Treasury Ministry wants those funds to be competitive, which would limit access to them for small and medium farmers who own native forests in remote areas. The citizen groups are asking that these funds be designated directly," said Verscheure, coordinator of the CODEFF Forests Programme.

The mechanism the environmentalists are asking for is the same applied by dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) when he expedited Decree 701 in 1974, which used subsidies and tax exemptions to foment large-scale forestry plantations, turning the country into one of the world’s leading exporters of lumber and wood pulp.

But unlike the intentions of the new law, the Pinochet decree proved to be an incentive to cut down natural-growth forests in order to plant fast-growing exogenous species, like the radiated pine and the Australian eucalyptus. This became yet another threat to the survival of Chile’s native forests, in addition to logging for firewood, the expansion of farmland, and forest fires.

Between 1985 and 1994, the area in Chile covered by autochthonous forests shrank from 7.5 million to 5.2 million hectares, according to a 1996 report by economist Marcel Claude, then director of environmental accounting for the Central Bank. He said that if that pace continued, the country’s native forests would disappear within 30 years.

The government and the CORMA lumber company rejected the study, and the Central Bank fired Claude. And a subsequent report by the governmental National Forestry Corporation (CONAF) stated that the area covered by natural forests, on the contrary, had expanded in the period studied from 7.5 million to 13.4 million hectares.

CODEFF, Greenpeace, Defenders of the Chilean Forest, Terram Foundation (created by Claude) and other environmental groups objected to CONAF’s version of the land-use register because it included areas of native vegetation such as bushes, which do not officially qualify as forests.

Technically, to be considered forests, the plant species growing in the area should be a minimum of two metres tall.

Environmental groups issued a declaration in July 2002 stating that the decline of autochthonous forests in Chile was occurring at a faster pace than even Claude had reported in his controversial study for the Central Bank.

In neighbouring Argentina, the authors of a 1914 inventory calculated that there were 106 million hectares of natural forests. By 2002, the total tree-covered area in the country had been reduced to 33 million hectares, according to an official study, which underscored the rapid deforestation in the northern provinces in particular.

There are numerous protected forests in Argentina, but national and provincial forestry laws have been reformed based on criteria that give priority to economic development and investment. As a result, cultivation of areas with non-native tree species expanded from 20,000 hectares annually in 1992 to 100,000 hectares in 2001.

In the north of the South American continent, the Colombian government issued a decree in October 1996 to promote reforestation, a law that lifted the environmental licensing requirement for tree plantations.

In Venezuela, a country that in 1976 became the first Latin American country to establish a Ministry of Environment, 48 percent of the national territory is protected. But only this year was a plan initiated to take inventory of the Venezuelan forests, an endeavour costing eight million dollars and slated to conclude in 2007.

Brazil, the South American giant, has a Forest Protection Law establishing that large rural properties in the Amazon region must preserve 80 percent of their forest coverage.

But where laws to protect forests and promote reforestation are lacking is along Brazil’s Atlantic coast, home to 60 percent of the Brazilian population. Only seven percent remains of the original Atlantic forest.

In Mexico, the Vicente Fox government enacted the General Law on Sustainable Forest Development in February, unifying a range of different forestry regulations. Most importantly, the law upholds the ban on logging in protected areas, which cover most of the country’s native forests.

The Lacandona jungle, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, in the past two centuries lost 75 percent of the two million hectares of humid forests. The constant pressure of expanded human settlement lies behind the region’s prolonged conflict, as well as the poverty and violence it suffers, say experts.

In Chile, says activist-expert Herrera, the expansion of massive plantations of pine and eucalyptus over the past 25 years has contributed to poverty and migration of peasant farmers and indigenous peoples, due to the reduced production or deteriorated soils of their lands.

The fragmentation of native forests has also taken its toll, as it entails the destruction of ecosystems, loss of biological, genetic and ecological diversity, and an alteration of the landscape that cannot be compensated by tree plantations, said the Greenpeace representative.

The "native forest law", which began its long path through the Chilean Congress in 1992, will allow autochthonous forest recovery and management programmes to develop in harmony with government plans to reduce rural poverty, says CODEFF activist Verscheure.

According to the Lagos government, the legislation will provide benefits in the form of preservation, recuperation and development of more than two million hectares of native forests in the hands of small and medium rural landowners.

"The long absence of legislation means that there are not very many people interested in working and managing native forests. What this law does is establish the game rules," Juan Eduardo Correa, executive vice-president of CORMA and active participant in the Forestry Panel, said in comments to IPS.

"With clear rules, the private sector will be interested in managing these forests in order to aid in their recovery, and to look ahead to a future in which it is not only a natural resource that produces lumber, but also has other uses," such as eco- tourism, said the lumber company official

* This report includes contributions from Diego Cevallos (Mexico), Yadira Ferrer (Colombia), Humberto Márquez (Venezuela), Mario Osava (Brazil) and Marcela Valente (Argentina).

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