Smoky air puts spotlight on Chile’s tree farms

Smoky air puts spotlight on Chile’s tree farms

09 January 2014

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Chile — Our correspondent in Chile woke yesterday to the thick smell of smoke. He looked outside: Santiago’s air had turned blue, and an office tower one block away was difficult to see amid the haze from a number of weeks-long forest fires that have caused more than $100 million in property losses and will hit the timber, tourism, and insurance industries.

But Chileans are unlikely to respond to the crisis in any measurable way, says our correspondent in the capital city, home to 40 percent of the nation’s population. Air pollution is accepted by many Chileans, and ecology ranks low on the totem pole compared to economic interests from tree farming.

“Chile has a very weak ecological consciousness,” says our correspondent. “Forest fires are another issue in a giant pile of policy problems, and I don’t see them catching much attention.”

While authorities issued an alert on Wednesday due to the choking smoke, Santiaguinos are accustomed to health alerts as the city’s geography lends itself to inversions that trap pollution in low-lying areas.

“Today the air is still hazy, but a breeze overnight cleared out the smoke,” he says. “People are walking in the streets, but fewer than normal.”

The tourism industry will feel a hit from the fires, as will insurers. RSA Insurance, for example, has secured about 1,400,000 hectares in the regions of Maule, Bio Bio, and Araucania, according to ADN Radio. The provinces of San Antonio, Marga Marga, Melipilla, and Santiago are also on red alert.

The cause of the fires is unclear, but fingerpointing is well underway. A few voices have blamed the government for allowing forest companies to allegedly mismanage and overfarm the land. The government, meanwhile, said arsons could be to blame — a thinly veiled allegation against the indigenous Mapuche people who live in the south and have been displaced by the tree farms. Mapuche members have publicly admitted to setting retaliatory fires in the past, and one leader is set to go on trial next month for arson.

Yet even as President-elect Michelle Bachelet takes over from Sebastián Piñera in March, the fires are unlikely to spark any change in political or social attitudes toward indigenous land rights, tree farming, or fire fighting. “The government is very pro tree farm,” adds our correspondent.

Forestry is Chile’s second-largest export industry, after mining. The nation has vast forests of pine and eucalyptus, which are processed into timber and pulp, but are also highly flammable. Chile is entering a fourth consecutive year of drought.

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