New documentary links lumber companies to large-scale fires

A recently released documentary aims to show the public that many of the recent large-scale forest fires in Chile were caused by lumber companies planting highly flammable monocultures such as pine and eucalyptus, and that these fires have disproportionately affected local agricultural and Mapuche communities. It also dissects the “individual responsibility” narrative promoted by lumber companies. It does more than point fingers, however; it also proposes solutions.

Llamas del Despojo: Incendios del Negocio Forestal (Flames of Dispossession: Lumber Industry Fires), a recently released and freely accessible documentary was produced by media platform Resumen TV and production company Colectivo Ojo de Treile and directed by Nicolás Salazar and Verónica González. It attempts to shed light on the parts lumber companies play in the large-scale forest fires that have been raging throughout Chile in the past few years.

The documentary’s many drone clips provide a visual of thousands of acres of now barren land that was destroyed by forest fires. According to the data presented in the documentary, between 2010 and 2018, approximately 16,000 fires were reported and these fires burned 444,000 hectares of land.

The issue with monocultures

The explanation put forward is that pine and eucalyptus are the biggest culprits when it comes to forest fires, because they consume large amounts of water, grow in high densities, and create a homogenous, highly combustible structure. Specifically, they produce resins and expel large quantities of highly flammable hydrocarbons, which means that when a fire starts in one of these forests, it spreads at a very high speed and is extremely difficult to control. The combination of heat waves, strong winds, low humidity, dry soil, and monocultures is an explosive mix and can transform a small fire into an uncontrollable megafire very quickly.

The documentary shows that fires in native forests move much slower because the forests are less flammable. It presents several birds eye shots of completely burned down monoculture forests right next to intact native ones. Ariana Bertín, a doctor of molecular and cellular biology interviewed in the documentary, explains that the reaction between the monoculture industry and water scarcity is strong because pine and eucalyptus are fast growing species that need a lot of water.

It is estimated that in the last 500 years, approximately 51 percent of Chile’s native Valdivian temperate rainforests have disappeared, shrinking from over 11.3 million hectares to about 5.8 million. Most of this native forest land was replaced with agricultural and lumber monocultures.

Another message that is conveyed throughout the documentary is the fact that monocultures have also caused a drastic reduction of biodiversity, the loss of many aquatic plants and organisms, soil erosion, and had negative impacts on water quality. All of these factors also contribute to the impoverishment of local communities.

A danger to communities

As explained in the documentary, large-scale forest fires also release huge amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, which causes respiratory health problems in those close by — for the most part volunteer firefighters or local residents. In one clip, sociologist and resident of the town of Los Álamos (Biobío), Viviana Mora, explains “we have fires that often spread all the way to people’s houses because the lumber plantations adjoin them. The limits of the city and the plantations are often blurred or inexistent. A fire in a forest zone will therefore directly affect a local population.”

The narrative mainly focuses on the personal stories of individuals affected by the forest fires. Many of them are local farmers or Mapuche whose families were dispossessed of their ancestral land during the Pinochet military dictatorship when the neoliberal model was installed. Having received subsidies from the State, lumber companies such as CMPC (Matte group) and Arauco (Angelini group) acquired extensive stretches of land from Mapuche and peasant families, who were then forcefully displaced.

Many ancestral territories had already been taken from the Mapuche during the 19th century military occupation of Chile. Large areas of native forest in the South of the country were burned to the ground in order to make space for colonizer settlements. Most of it now belongs to two lumber companies: CMPC, which owns 1.05 million hectares of forest in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil; and Arauco, which owns 1.71 million hectares in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil.

The counter-offensive

An interesting aspect of the documentary is that it also contains a series of statements from representatives of the two main lumber companies accused of causing the fires. Both  state that they are doing everything they can to contain the flames and that all their titles are in order, which means that they aren’t actually committing any acts of abuse from a legal point of view. One representative also tries to explain that the main problem is in fact vandalism and that the authorities need to act in order to prevent this from happening. It is made clear that these companies mostly blame the forest fires on individual responsibility or criminality, without actually mentioning the role of monoculture.

Towards the end, the various experts that were interviewed also provide a series of potential solutions to this issue. The ones believed to be most effective are prioritizing the regrowth of native forests in order to restore humidity, allowing larger distances between human living areas and lumber plantations, and drafting better national or municipal regulations in order to stop the plantations from threatening human life and biodiversity. Doctor Bertín mentions the necessity of a “paradigm shift towards a system centered on the environment and the people as a fundamental axis.”

Finally, it also champions civil society movements such as Recuperación campesina Mundo Nuevo that have also been working towards challenging the power of large lumber companies and protecting the interests of those living on and around those lands by protesting against large-scale abuses and being vocal about the need to respect the rights of local and indigneous communities.

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