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Chile's distinguished immigrant takes root.

FOR HALF A CENTURY Chilean forests have generated some of the most remarkable economic growth in the Hemisphere, and still hold nothing but promising prospects for the future. The mainstay of the booming timber industry is the Monterey pine, known to the world as Pinus radiata but officially titled in Chile the pino insigne or "distinguished pine." An entire volume could be written on the history of this tree, introduced into Chile by a happy error. It is equally deserving of an epic poem or a special thanksgiving service. The success story is all due to the tree's putting down roots in this peculiarly hospitable place, where, during its early years of Chilean citizenship, it grew and spread even more robustly than in its native land.

The Monterey or radiata pine came to the country by sheer luck. Arthur Junge, an amateur botanist and zoologist and a member of a respected German family residing in Concepcion, ordered douglas fir seeds from France in 1886. By mistake, the Valmorin exporting house sent radiata pine seeds instead of the ones he requested. A total of 150 hectares were planted in this species between 1885 and 1925, representing less than 4 hectares of new planting per year. Between 1925 and 1973, the rate of new planting rose to 4,375 hectares per year. The figure grew to 67,677 hectares planted annually between 1973 and 1985, and the expansion in the tree's cultivation continues with no end in sight.

The pine's successful introduction was due in part to Chile's geographical location. Woodlands in Chile are found between the same latitudes as the major forests of New Zealand, Australia and the southernmost part of Africa. A similar analogy can be drawn in the Northern Hemisphere, the Monterey pine's original habitat. The territories located between the U.S.-Mexican border and Reno-Denver in the United States, at 30 degrees to 40 degrees North, correspond precisely to the tree's region of optimum development in the Southern Hemisphere. Other species native to the United States and Canada--the douglas fir, ponderosa or western yellow pine, lodgepole and Scotch pine--have spread following their introduction into Chile, but none with the vigor of the radiata pine.

Although climate, soil and rainfall were favorable, promoting the acceptance of the pine was no easy task. The transplant was not well received by the local inhabitants, who did not want to recognize the new pine as a true citizen although they themselves had also immigrated from other parts. It was, after all, an introduced or exotic botanical species, which led some to fear that it would displace native trees. As with people, immigrant species of flora are commonly discriminated against, but over the course of time often prove to be the best citizens.

Today, no one would dare to challenge the importance of the forestry sector in Chilean economic development or to belittle the dominant role played by the radiata pine. The pine's adaptability over a wide territorial range, rapid propagation and low production cost, have enabled it to capture a considerable share of the domestic market and permitted an expansion of the forest products industry unimaginable before its introduction.

During the 1950s, 93 percent of forestry activity was concentrated in sawn lumber production, with native species accounting for 70 percent of the 500,000 cubic meters produced each year. Eighty percent of production was consumed domestically; exports were channeled mainly to Argentina. There were also 180,000 hectares of artificial plantations (90 percent Monterey pine) supplying the cellulose and paper industry. Exports from that segment of the industry began at the end of the decade, with sales abroad accounting for 60 percent of the volume of paper produced.

This period in the history of the Chilean forestry industry was important because by the end of the decade, activity shifted from natural forests to plantations. This was partly due to the exhaustion of easily accessible native woodlands through selective timbering, and to the use of slash-and-burn techniques to clear land for planting. This practice, traditional in Chile's southern provinces, wreaked such ecological havoc that it cannot be measured even today. Yet at the same time, forest plantations began to expand, reaching 230,000 hectares by the mid-1960s.

The doors to foreign trade swung open, and the industry was favored by generous tax incentives that served to promote forestry activity and expand the external market. The percentage of exports varied considerably from one sector to another--5 percent for boards and veneer, 15 percent for saw logs, 30 percent for pulp and up to 60 percent for paper. Output rose for every segment of the timber industry, with the radiata pine taking a leading role, accounting for up to 50 percent of total lumber production.

Nevertheless, the end of the 1960s saw an abrupt reversal in these trends. Like the plot in an old movie, the 1970s were marked by confusion and complications, but ultimately closed with a happy ending. In the early '70s, the forestry industry confronted economic instability and a decline in the growth that had seemed so inevitable in the preceding decade. Production levels were anemic, with not a single recorded gain. The pulp and paper, lumber, board and veneer industries all struggled to maintain a precarious hold on their markets. Marketing of forest products abroad recorded a devastating slide to 60 percent below previous levels. Pulp also lost ground, while exports of board and veneer evaporated. Shipments reached their lowest level ever.

Fortunately, the rate of new cultivation managed to weather the general upheaval in the industry. Annual forestation fluctuated from 23,000 to 31,000 hectares, thanks to the efforts of two official agencies, the Reforestation Corporation (COREF) and the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF), which offered attractive planting contracts to landowners. Economic aid was provided through individual loans granted by the Production Development Corporation (CORFO).

Many things changed in Chile in 1973, including the roles of the state and the private sector. The former assumed responsibility for promoting forest activities by encouraging investments in silviculture and industrialization, while at the same time monitoring compliance with current legislation. The private sector was assigned responsibility for investment, production and marketing of forest products and for all woodland development. State action was consolidated in CONAF and CORFO, and all direct action formerly undertaken by those agencies in connection with forest production and commercial practices was transferred to the private sector.

One of the most decisive factors in fostering forest growth and development and conservation of the country's natural resources was Decree Law 701. The most significant official measure adopted in Chilean forestry history, the new law burst like brilliant sunshine upon a wintry scene. It encouraged proper management of woodland resources both economically and in terms of ecological protection, and promoted forestation and reforestation of cut-over areas by underwriting 75 percent of the costs entailed. It led to the incorporation of 2.8 million hectares into the woodlands system and the compilation of the first-ever forest lands cadaster. Another major accomplishment was the forestry subsidy, which made it possible to reach a critical mass of timber stands and attracted financial capital to exploit the resources.

The decree exerted an enormous influence on the forestry sector. Production levels during most of this period rose slowly, but began to accelerate during the final years of the decade. Lumber output increased from 970,000 to 2.2 million cubic meters a year, while the board and pulp industries doubled their 1970 volume, recording annual levels of 86,000 and 700,000 cubic meters, respectively, in 1979. The most spectacular achievements of the decade were posted in the forest products export sector. Forestry exports amounted to US$350 million by the end of 1979, reflecting a rise in sectoral participation in total national exports from 4 percent to almost 10 percent. During this same period two new processing plants, Celulosa Arauco and Celulosa Constitucion, began operation in 1972 and 1973, respectively.

In addition, the legislation created new economic activity in the countryside. Ports in the Concepcion area were overflowing with products awaiting shipment: saw logs, bolts and boards, pulpwood and great mountains of wood chips. The interior also blossomed. The old railroad station in Laja, a small town in Region VIII of Concepcion, had been only a brief stop for the regularly scheduled train passing through a few times a day. Today Laja is a city, thanks to the industry generated by its region's forests. In the area around Nacimiento, farming had dropped off sharply. Idle field hands could find no other source of productive employment. The only ambition of young people in the locality was to emigrate to the cities, more often than not to a fate worse than what they had hoped to avoid. Today, hundreds of them work in the forestry industry.

Of all its contributions to Chilean forestry, Decree Law 701's greatest achievement has been the recovery of heavily eroded lands. A study conducted at the end of the 1950s describing the VIII Region noted that millions of tons of soil had been washed into the Bio-Bio River and its tributaries. Wheat yields were extremely low, below even what was necessary to ensure survival of the landowners. Photographs of the period graphically depict the denuded land. It appeared to be a desolate planet, eviscerated and barren of vegetation in a climate where winter rains caused vast soil runoffs into the rivers and the sea. Between 1974 and 1984, however, target goals were established and met to cover those areas with new trees and open up the ports to economic development, as well as to safeguard the ecology and its most valuable component, the soil.

The outcome of all this activity is a revived forestry sector of impressive dimensions. In 1986 Chile boasted the largest man-made forest reserve in the world, totaling over 1.2 million hectares, planted mainly in radiata pine-20 percent larger than similar timber stands in New Zealand and 68 percent greater than those in Australia. The pine's growth comprises 65,000 cubic meters a day and current logging equals 11 million cubic meters a year. The pine's growth alone could fill two cargoholds daily, supply 14 cellulose plants a year, or build annually 360,000 houses containing 100 square meters each, all without reducing the volume of existing stumpage.

This development has attracted the attention of nations with strong economic and investment interest, such as Japan and New Zealand. Suggested projects, many of them already underway, call for the construction of new cellulose plants, the expansion of three others already in operation and the acquisition of new tree farming lands, Other initiatives include new plantings and the construction of embarkation ports, especially for wood chips, At the same time, sales export sales have climbed steadily. In 1989 they amounted to US$783.6 million. If exports continue to rise at the same pace, by the end of 1990 Chile will become one of the 10 largest forest product powers in the world.

Maintaining the growth of the industry will require continued attention to ecological issues, however. According to Dr. Fernando Hartwig, author of Vision del desarrollo del sector forestal en Chile (A View of Forestry Sector Development in Chile), Chilean silviculture must be governed by two important parameters: economic rationality and ecological responsibility. Although Chileans talk of the destruction of natural woodlands, Hartwig argues that such is not the case. The accessible areas are controlled by CONAF, as strictly as can be expected in view of the vastness of national territory and the limited resources available to the institution. However, Hartwig adds, other aspects of ecological responsibility are related to the management--or lack thereof--of many timber areas in the country. Stands are vulnerable to large-scale losses through fire, pests and natural phenomena. Much more could be done to protect the forests from these nonindustrial threats.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Chile's forestry industry is the production of wood chips. Ports, primarily in the Concepcion area, are piled high with mountains of chips awaiting shipment, mainly to Japan. The chips, used to produce computer paper, have found a lucrative market in the Orient. Such activity has led to fierce accusations by ecologists who say that the Chilean forests are emigrating to Japan.

In its defense, the chip-making industry maintains that their product utilizes only natural woodlands that are logged as part of normal management. It also denies that the beautiful native forests in the south are being devastated to make chips or that many square kilometers of land are being laid waste--as occurred more than a century ago in the southern part of the country where thousands of hectares of timber stands were razed to clear farmlands in what was once the breadbasket of Chile.

The future of the Chilean forestry industry is a chapter in a book still unwritten. Yet it is possible to predict that no other natural resource-based industry, such as mining, will be able to replace Chile's forest wealth and capability. Out of 74 million hectares of territory, Chile's woodlands account for almost 34 million hectares, or 43.2 percent--nearly one half of the nation's land. This figure represents a permanent potential for wooded cover and forms the basis for Chile's forestry capability. A total of 11.8 million hectares of available lands is suitable for commercial forests: 8.8 million are already covered by timber stands while another 3 million are still clear.

The preeminent position of forest resources is almost assured, since the richest mines are eventually depleted and even the generosity of the sea may subside. Woodlands, in contrast, are by nature renewable, and new uses are continually being discovered for forest products. In short, the forestry industry has a future of inexhaustible prospects.

One stanza of Chile's national anthem proclaims that "the sea which bathes your shores holds promise of a splendid future." Despite the truth of that declaration, we may one day need to add another stanza glorifying the forests that so richly deserve our praise.


A poet once said that Chile is like a sword dangling at the waist of America. The country comprises a long narrow band of land lying between the largest cordillera in the world, the Andes, and the mightiest ocean, the Pacific. The land appears to cling to the edge of the continent, about to drown as it is pushed out to sea by the powerful Andean sierras.

The country is separated from its northern neighbors by a great lime-soiled desert that cannot sustain even the most resistant vegetation. This implacable salty desert has molded a breed of men who are at home with the harsh soil and merciless sun. In the south the land has been fractured by the steady pounding of the seas. The southernmost tip is actually a vast archipelago where the waves have gradually devoured everything except the rock, scouring what underbrush has been able to survive, and where the blizzards continue to beat their age-old whitened trek to the ocean.

Between the burning sands of the north and the southern lands devastated by wind and cold, lies the Chile that has doggedly survived recurrent earthquakes; it is here that the history of the country has been written. The miracle of the forests arose in the central and southern regions. The woodlands were flourishing when the first Spanish conquerors appeared among the monkey-puzzles, the hualles and the ishpingos. Later this land became the country's breadbasket, and the great native jungle, which still exists, was opened to make way for the pine plantations.

Hernan Munoz Villegas has observed and documented the development of the Concepcion area for more than 40 years in countless articles and broadcasts. A career journalist, he has also been a university professor and currently writes for the El Sur daily newspaper.
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Title Annotation:includes article Boughs for Chile; radiata pine
Author:Munozl Villegas, Hernan.
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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