THE CHILEAN ALERCE: ON THE ROAD TO EXTINCTION?
The Alerce, or Chilean Larch (Fitzroya cupressoides), is one of the most emblematic species of Chile, and is condemned to disappear if the government does not take immediate measures to avert its destruction. Its distribution in Chile is between the parallels 39o 50’ and 43o 30’ south latitude. It grows principally in the
Coastal and Andes mountain ranges, generally at altitudes of between 700 and 1,000 meters above sea level. It can grow to be 50 meters high and 5 meters in diameter. It is one of the oldest trees in the world, with some individuals living to be more than 3,600 years old. Some studies indicate that in the year 1550,
approximately 617,077 hectares of Alerce forest existed. Today, only 263,191 hectares remain. Of the remaining forest, 17% is protected by the state, and only 2.6% of that protected area is in the coastal mountain range.
In 1973, Alerce was included under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, which prohibits its
exportation. In 1976, the Chilean government declared Alerce a Natural Monument through Supreme Decree No. 490 and its exploitation was
prohibited. Yet this decree has proved to be ineffective, and wide-scale destruction of the species continues. There are however loopholes in the law
– the government authorizes logging of Alerce that were damaged by fires or logging before 1973, and also allows logging of trees that died in “natural
ways” and that were buried in the soil under the forest.
DOCUMENTATION OF THE DESTRUCTION
A team aboard the Green peace ship MV Arctic Sunrise has documented Alerce destruction in two important areas in Chile: the Andes range and the Coastal Mountain Range. In the Coastal range, the Alerce forests are under much greater threat than in the Andes range. Green peace documented areas of illegal logging throughout the Sarao mountain range, located in the Fresia area in Region X. Green peace was able to identify several types of illegal logging and an extensive network of roads to transport the illegal wood by undertaking surveys by helicopter. We were able to identify Alerce logging by examining the color of the sawdust left on the soil.
Illegal logging of Alerce in this sector has been reported consistently for a few years, but the exploitation continues unpunished and the government has not made an effort to prosecute the responsible parties. The difficulty accessing this region and the lack of funding to enforce the law are two important reasons that
illegal logging of Alerce continues unabated.
In the Andes range, there are Lenca, Puelo and Hornopiren sectors, located to the east of Puerto Montt. In this region, the two greatest threats are intentionally set forest fires and illegal logging. Illegal loggers set fire to the forests and then apply to CONAF for a permit to log the Alerce. A prime example of this illegal logging took place in 1999 in the Candelaria area, located between Puelo and Hornopiren National Park. 25 Alerce trees with diameters between 0.7 and 2 meters were cut while alive on land owned by the Piedras Moras Investment Society. Even though the logging was denounced and the State Defense Council was asked to intervene, there have not been any prosecutions to date.
MEASURES NEEDED TO PROTECT ALERCE
The state of the Alerce forests in Chile clearly reflects the failure of the Chilean government to provide adequate conservation measures and protection, and
brings into question its ability to abide by international treaties such as CITES. The Chilean government must urgently implement policies aimed to preserve and
recover Alerce forests. These policies should take into account the following elements: The ownership of Alerce forests, now that a significant amount of forest area belongs to the private sector.
Putting a definitive end to the massive illegal logging in sectors located in the Coastal range in the Fresia area in Region X. The illegal logging must be treated
as a crime. There must also be investigations into the chain of custody associated with destruction of Alerce forests, and the buyers must also be held responsible. Amend Supreme Decree 490, prohibiting extraction of dead Alerce in areas that haven’t been inventoried and identified by the agencies in charge of protecting and conserving Chile’s native forests. Increase the role of and funding for the National Forests Corporation, the entity that oversees conservation and protection of Chile’s forests.