BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - Chile's two largest wood products companies have agreed to stop logging trees in the South American nation's native forests, bowing to an international pressure campaign by United States and Chilean environmentalists, it was announced Wednesday.
The Santiago-based companies, CMPC-Mininco and Arauco, have agreed not to log the alerce, the evergeeen araucaria and other endangered species in the one million acres of native forests they own, said Aaron Sanger of ForestEthics, the San Francisco group which helped coordinate the campaign.
"This is a historic day for the environmental movement in Chile," said Gonzalo Villarino of Greenpeace Chile in a news conference in Santiago, Chile. "We hope that other companies will have the courage to take these decisions."
Millions of acres of native forests, including much of the world's second-largest temperate rain forest, have been converted into tree farms across Chile.
The growth of the tree farms has helped fuel social tension in south-central Chile, leading to repeated acts of sabotage by Mapuche Indian groups, who say the densely planted pines have caused water shortages and other problems in their communities.
Several Mapuche leaders are in Chilean jails, charged under the nation's anti-terrorism laws with setting fire to logging company trucks and other criminal acts.
On Wednesday, Mapuche activists marched in the Chilean city of Temuco to commemorate the anniversary of the death of protester Alex Lemun, shot by Chilean police in 2002 during an attempted Mapuche takeover of a CMPC-Mininco tree farm. Local Mapuche villagers said the land had been illegally expropriated from them decades ago.
The agreement announced Wednesday does not directly address the controversy over Mapuche property claims or the environmental impact of existing tree farms. However, the companies did agree to work with the non-governmental organizations to "develop a more sensible ecological and social management of its (tree) plantations" said CMPC-Mininco spokesman Gonzalo Garcia.
Between 1985 and 1995, when the planting of tree farms was most intense, Chile lost 4.5 million acres of native forest, according to ForestEthics. Thanks to the tree farms, the radiata pine, a species that is not native to Chile, is now the country's most abundant tree.
In the past 15 years, Chile has become a major exporter of wood products to Asia and the United States, supplying such retailers as Home Depot.
Sanger of ForestEthics said American environmentalists had long pressured Home Depot to honor a 1999 pledge not to sell wood from endangered forests. This year, Home Depot helped bring its Chilean suppliers to the bargaining table with environmentalists.
In a statement Wednesday, CMPC-Minincospokesman Garcia said the company signed the agreement after entering into a dialogue with the environmental groups at the invitation of Home Depot, the Atlanta-based chain that is the United States' largest distributor of wood products.
CMPC-Mininco "has agreed to redouble its efforts in protection of the native forest on its property," said Garcia.
Together CMPC-Mininco and Arauco own 60 percent of Chile's commercial tree farms.
Earlier this week, in another victory for environmentalists, Chile's Supreme Court agreed to allow conservation groups to move ahead with the purchase of 150,000 acres of the Valdivian rainforest to keep it undeveloped.