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Worst wildfires in Chilean history – the role of the forestry business

The recent fires are one of the biggest forest disasters in the history of Chile. The facts are distressing: there are 11 out of the 15 regions of the country that are currently affected (Coquimbo, Valparaíso, Metropolitana, Lib. Gral Bernardo O’Higgins, Maule, Biobío, Araucanía, Los Ríos, Los Lagos, Magallanes y La Antártica Chilena).

According to the information given by ONEMI (The Chilean National Office for Emergency), the fires have affected 238,000 hectares, and it’s reported that there are 64 active fires being combatted, 30 controlled, and 5 extinguished, from a total of 99 disasters. Conaf (National Forest Corporation) has also informed that there are a total of 46 aircrafts fighting the fires, which are paid for by private individuals. Close to 4,000 people have been deployed in different jobs to help control and extinguish the fires (Conaf brigades, volunteer firefighters, armed forces, municipal workers and neighbors).

Now, the question is: who is affected by the wildfires? Who is not affected by the wildfires? The forest companies and big landowners, which have insurance that covers the damage, and in many cases this can even be convenient for the forest business.

Like Lenin said about analyzing a political situation, the first thing we have to ask ourselves is who is benefiting from this?

Who is affected by the wildfires? It is thousands of families who have lost their homes and their land, all the volunteers who have died in duty, and our forests and animals. It also harms the Indigenous Mapuche people, who have outrageously been blamed for this catastrophe by right wing politicians and media outlets, even though in the regions that have been most affected there are not Mapuche communities or conflicts. The Mapuche people have an enormous respect for the land and nature and would never do something to harm Ñuke mapu (mother earth in Mapudungún).

Who is not affected by the wildfires? The forest companies and big landowners, which have insurance that covers the damage, and in many cases, this can be convenient for the forestry business to buy new land for cheap.

The chaos in the country could be beneficial for the right wing, which is taking advantage of the situation with hysterical rhetoric, blaming the incumbent government to better position themselves for elections next year. It is also a favorite context for private companies and “philanthropies” to shore up their public relations image by giving donations, while all year they try to avoid paying taxes. And lastly, the media, who takes advantage of the catastrophe and pain of the people to produce content that will boost their ratings.

All of this is happening while firefighters are dying because the Chilean state was not ready to combat an emergency situation like this one.

Natural disasters and the forestry business in Chile: Who is to blame?

The wildfires in the country have been on the rise in recent years, especially during the summer. Back in 2014, the region of Valparaíso experienced one of its worst days in history, with wildfires that had flames that reached 7 meters high. More than a thousand hectares were burnt in just three days, 2,000 houses were destroyed, and there were 15 dead.

Is crucial to understand that climate change has contributed to the variation of the temperature in the center and south of the country. Every year we are experiencing higher temperatures, such as this current summer in Chile. This week they have reached a historic maximum of 37.4° degrees Celsius (98.6 Fahrenheit) in Santiago.

There is a direct relationship between the devastation of the native forest, caused by forest companies, with the Decree Law 701 created in 1974 during the U.S.-backed dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. This has been one of the main causes of a drought in the forests of Chile, along with the actions of forestry companies.

This law is commonly known as “Law of Forest Development” and it leads the Chilean state to encourage large companies to plant monoculture of pines and eucalyptus, subsidizing 75 percent of these plantations.  What this means is that the state gives millions of dollars to forest companies to plant trees that destroy the native forests.

The composition of the forest in Chile today is: 75 percent radiata pinewood, 15 percent eucalyptus, and 10 percent native. The overpopulation of pine and eucalyptus has consequences in the environment, because it produces a severe drought in the land. In those plantations, humidity and water are scarce due to the enormous absorption of it by pine and eucalyptus trees.

These plantations constitute a structural problem because they dry the territory, destroy plants, and create a large dry grassland susceptible to all types of fires. All this is for the sole purpose of exportation of wood and cellulose to first world economies.

The severe contamination and depredation of our resources from companies impoverishes the population in these areas because they are left with no land to harvest. After the companies are done exploiting the land over and over again, it cannot be used to grow anything; it’s a dead territory.

Chilean state at the service of forest companies

The Forestry Business in Chile is administered by only two families: CMPC owned by Matte Family and Bosques Arauco (Arauco Forest), owned by the Angellini group. Both companies control around 70 percent of the forestry business in the country. Together they own more than 2 million hectares, which have been gained at the cost of the dispossession of the land of the Mapuche people and other communities, who are left with a small amount of land while both capitalist families accumulate a huge fortune.

In the forest areas controlled by these companies the majority of the people have no access to clean water, a right that is taken away from them, and it is only accessible to those families who can pay for trucks that bring in water. Needless to say, the areas surrounding the forest companies are the poorest in the entire country.

What role does the Chilean state play in all of this? The state is at the service of capital, at the service of forestry companies that have only benefited a small group of individuals. The direct consequences of the forest business in Chile are the impoverishment of the communities, exploitation and alienation of forest workers who have to live with miserable salaries, and the dispossession of Mapuche land, who have continue fighting for their right to self-determination and continue to be persecuted by the Chilean state.

The forest Companies in Chile have contribute to the destruction of nature, killing native forests and its habitat, killing hydrological resources, and exploiting to the maximum the resources of the country. As a result it has accelerated environmental destruction. The working class suffers the consequences, because all forest companies have done is plant poverty in the communities by developing a forestry industry that today is the cause of one of the biggest natural disasters in Chilean history.

Only a state that is going to be at the service of the people will be able to stop the native forests from being destroyed. A socialist system will place the resources of the country in the hands of the Chilean people; and it will guarantee the right to self-determination for the Mapuche people, give them back their ancestral lands and free all their political prisoners.

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