Resistance and profits drive illegal logging in Chile

Often presented as a Manichean conflict between terrorism and civil society, the reality in Chile’s south is much more complex. Radical indigenous groups, paramilitaries, and state authorities are engaged in a struggle over land ownership and the economic profits and rights to history ownership implies. Authorities have passed a law and are working on an alternative to the state of emergency to solve the problem.

Illegal logging in Chile is affecting the licit economy, relations with first nation peoples, and crime policies.

Since the timber industry received substantial state support during the dictatorship, exports have increased, reaching US$6.8 billion in 2018, a year before the pandemic and social  uprising hit economic growth. Timber exports represented a record 9.1% of total exports, according to the World Bank, whose data also shows that about a quarter of Chile’s territory comprises forested areas, providing a treasure trove of biodiversity.

Southern regions Biobío, La Araucanía, or Los Ríos, which host most forests, have long grappled with clashes between timber mafias, indigenous communities and loggers.


Some Mapuche oppose the encroachment of extractive industries on their ancestral lands, using radical tactics, including forest burning. Groups like CAM also participate in illegal logging to fund their goals, security think tank InSight Crime reported.

Before his imprisonment in late August, CAM spokesman Hector Llaitul told Chile Today that the fight against the forestry industry is part of what the group deems legitimate resistance against capitalism and the state.

Watch the full interview with Hector Llaitul (CAM) here

For timber mafias, on the other hand, profit is the main motive. They assault sawmills to steal wood and sell it with sophisticated fake documentation. Criminals also hijack entire truckloads of legally felled timber.

Forest Anarchy

A lack of state presence in the regions has exacerbated the problem, creating room for radical groups, paramilitaries – whose members also include Mapuche, according to InsightCrime – and corrupt police. But authorities are starting to move.

Timber theft, previously treated as common theft in the legal system, has been defined as a separate crime. Since promulgated in late August, the law has led to the arrest of over 20 suspects so far.

A state of emergency under which soldiers guard public routes and private property has been in place for a year. It was imposed under the previous Sebastián Piñera administration and lifted once President Gabriel Boric assumed office in March. But authorities reimposed the measure in May after attacks surged.

Yet, current authorities, such as Interior Minister Carolina Tohá, also said the state of emergency doesn’t provide a solution. To confront the problem, an alternative measure will be presented soon. Given the entrenched and multi-dimensional nature of the problem, swift solutions should not be expected, however.

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