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Forest Fires: The Role of the Dictatorship

SANTIAGO – With each passing year, forest fires are more common in the south of Chile. There are many reasons for this. A primary reason though is a dictatorship-era decree that encouraged the planting of pine and eucalyptus trees, which create conditions that allow a spark to turn into a wildfire.

Forest fires have been increasing steadily every year in the south of Chile. There are many reasons, but one of the main reasons traces back to the military dictatorship’s effort to help boost the Chilean economy.

The Pinochet dictatorship issued a decree known as the 701 Decree, aimed at helping the south’s burgeoning lumber industry, while at the same time controlling the deforestation that would inevitably come from the lumber industry. However, the decree planted the seeds of destruction that we are now reaping.

The 701 decree offered tax incentives to lumber companies if they administered and managed the forests that were used for lumber. In the decree there was also a 75% bonus that was given to industries that helped plant pine and eucalyptus trees, since these two species grow more quickly than others.

A Law that Increases Forest Fires

One of the effects of the 701 decree has been the increase in the intensity of forest fires. This is a result of planting so many pine and eucalyptus trees.

Because pine and eucalyptus grow so quickly, they soak up a lot of water, making the surrounding areas dry and inhospitable to other vegetation, like native trees and plants that might otherwise leave more moisture in the ground and keep the forest floor from drying out.

Once the forest floor is dry, it takes only the smallest spark to start a forest fire—and event that only further exacerbates the situation when native foliage is scorched and replaced by even more pine and eucalyptus trees.

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Efforts to Solve the Problem

The main supporters of the law argue that thanks to the decree the Chilean lumber industry has managed to flourish and create jobs for workers in the southern regions of Chile. However, the regions where most of the lumber industry is centered are the same regions that have some of the worst poverty numbers in the country. 

Another troubling aspect is that the decree officially expired on Dec. 31, 2012, but many of the companies involved are still receiving the incentives that are specified in the decree, meaning that they continue to plant pine and eucalyptus trees, making it that much harder to resolve the problem.

At the moment, many environmental groups and activists are attempting to reign in the logging industry in the south, by appealing to congress and having them take action against the more destructive logging companies. Among them are the Agrupacion de Ingenieros Forestales por el Bosque Nativo (AIFBN), a non-profit organization made up of biologists, economists, and forest engineers. Their goal is to preserve and restore the natural fauna of Chile.

The Mapuches, who are indigenous to the area, also want to change these policies. This is an especially acute concern for them, because the native trees and plants in the southern regions where they live are of key importance for their culture. The areas most affected by the forest fires include lands that have been an important part of their identity for centuries.

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