A burned plantation near Cocepcion, Chile. Sergio/Flickr

Originally published by Global Forest Coalition:

It is the summer of 2017. In Chile more than 600,000 hectares [1] of scrubland, plantation forests, agricultural land, native forests and homes have been devastated in what is thought to be the worst episode of forest fires in Chile’s recent history. It has affected thousands of people, and, tragically, eleven people have died.

Financial losses have been steep as well, but, more devastating than that is the extensive loss of Chile’s biological and ecological patrimony, which has reached crisis proportions. For example, most of the last remaining stands of the endangered Ruil beech tree (Nothofagus alessandrii) and the ecosystem linked to it have virtually disappeared. These losses are particularly critical in Chile because of the high level of endemism. [2]

Seven weeks after the fires began it seems that the main threat has passed, and the international aid teams that arrived to help have left the country. But as I write this article, in the month of March, there are still more than 60 fires burning, and it’s necessary to understand what has happened in order to prevent its repetition in the future.

It is well known in Chile that it is rare for forest fires to occur naturally (they might, for example, be caused by electric storms). In more than 97% of cases [3] forest fires are triggered by human activity, accidental or otherwise. Indeed, experts have concluded that forest monoculture plantations are the main cause underpinning this tragedy. For more than forty years Chile has implemented economic development policies that have favoured an industrial forest model based on the use of exotic species that are highly inflammable, such as pines and eucalyptus. Government after government has ignored warnings about this from experts, organisations defending the environment, communities affected by the forest industry, and victims of drought. They have also turned a blind eye to biodiversity loss, forest destruction, and the various ecological problems that forest plantations cause.

In particular, the authorities have failed to ensure that plantations are kept away from populated areas, roads and water courses. This has enabled the establishment of large connected areas of dense forest monocultures—a perfect and effectively limitless fuel—dangerously close to housing and transport networks.

This summer saw that fuel ignited. Worst hit was Chile’s central zone, where exceptional climatic conditions were experienced. Weeks of extremely high temperatures, combined with dry and windy weather [4], created the ideal conditions for the conflagration. This follows on from an extensive period of drought that began in 2010 and still continues. Record temperatures were recorded in various cities in January, including Santiago (37.4°C), Quillón (44.9°C), Cauquenes (43.9°C) and Chillán (41.5°C). So far these conditions are considered exceptional, but it may be that we will see them recurring as global climate change bites and the planet heats up.

Contemplating this sad scenario I ask myself whether, considering the threat of climate change, it is acceptable for the forest industry to continuing issuing certificates attesting to the quality of their operations, when it is failing to implement the adequate security standards that might have helped to avoid this tragedy? Moreover, does it really make sense to pay for carbon credits in a world where tons of carbon are being released into the atmosphere every year because of forest fires? After all, the value of carbon credits is based on the continued existence of the trees they relate to. In my opinion this logic does not make sense.


[1] https://www.conaf.cl/situacion-nacional-de-incendios-forestales/

[2] https://www.mma.gob.cl/librobiodiversidad/1308/articles-45159_recurso_2.pdf

[3] https://www.scielo.cl/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0717-92002016000100014

[4] https://www.forestal.uchile.cl/noticias/130671/entrevista-a-miguel-castillo-academico-experto-en-incendios-forestales#.WIkkEGN27KE.facebook

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