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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Chip Plant Threatens Chilean Rainforest

Air Date: Week of

Boise Cascade, the U.S. wood product giant, has teamed up with a local Chilean partner to open a new operation in Chile. The companies plan to spend $180 million dollars to build a port and a processing plant in the village of Ilque (eel-kay). The Chilean national government is boosting the project as good for economic growth, but many people in Ilque worry about the loss of their traditional way of life and damage to the ecosystem. Lake Sagaris sent us this report from the nearby town of Puerto Montt.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Boise Cascade, the US wood product giant, has teamed up with a local Chilean partner to open a new operation in Chile. The companies plan to spend $180 million to build a port and a processing plant in the village of Ilque. The Chilean national government is boosting the project as good for economic growth, but many people in Ilque worry about the loss of their traditional way of life and damage to the ecosystem. Lake Sagaris sent us this report from the nearby town of Puerto Montt.

(A man speaks in Spanish on radio, clacking sounds)

SAGARIS: In a modest 2-room house in the village of Ilque, Carmen Cortes is making lunch. She scrubs mussels and other shellfish freshly harvested from the bay. Three years ago she gave up teaching to move back to Ilque and cultivate shellfish.

CORTES: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: I've learned the terminology, the objectives, how to be a business woman, how to work with nature. It's been very good. I would not go back to teaching.

SAGARIS: Many of Ilque's 800 people work independently as Carmen does. Another 150 work at the local salmon farm, which settled into the peaceful rhythm of this place some 20 years ago. Still others look after tourists on a new circuit that's being developed. But if Boise Cascade, the US forestry company, gets its way, Ilque may soon turn into an industrial center with a large plant that will consume thousands of tons of chips to produce a kind of fiberboard for export back to the US. The project also includes a major new port that will see cargo ships stopping in this quiet bay. For Doug Bartels, Boise's communications manager, Chile offers a stable economy, the right wood, and good conditions for investment.

BARTELS: There is a good work force that we can train that we think will be very interested in working on our operations.

SAGARIS: Bartels says the project will respect Chile's strict environmental laws.

BARTELS: It's surprising how many similarities, in fact, there are between Chilean environmental regulations and ones that we're familiar with in the US and in North America. I think that the Chileans can really be proud of the fact that they do have very stringent requirements for emission control and protection of water.

SAGARIS: But laws are one thing. Enforcement is another. And Chile has a rather spotty record on that score. Carmen Cortes believes that both the plant and the port will pollute the bay so badly that cultivating shellfish or salmon will become impossible. And she also has powerful moral reasons for opposing Boise's plans.

CORTES: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: These rainforests are the planet's last remaining green lungs. We have to protect them as part of humanity's heritage.

SAGARIS: Carmen shares her love for the trees that would be chipped for Boise's boards with most Chileans. Throughout the country, people wax poetic when they speak of the huge Sequoia-like Coywai trees or the purple-barked Manillo. Others like the water-loving Canilo are woven into the beliefs of native peoples. These trees are part of a landscape that draws thousands of tourists to the lakes region every year.

(An engine runs; beeping sounds)

SAGARIS: Here in the city of Puerto Montt just 20 minutes' drive from Ilque there's already a port. Trucks go in and out all day, feeding mountains of chips to markets in Japan and the US. For Mauricio Fierro, a founder of the Committee to Defend Ilque, these mountains of chips symbolize what's wrong with the local economy. Fierro holds a diploma in forestry management and works as a tourism consultant. He gestures angrily at the chips as he speaks.

FIERRO: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: For Puerto Montt, this symbolizes the bad use of our region's resources, a terrible waste. Better to sell the forest a thousand times through tourism than once through chips.

SAGARIS: Fierro says that Boise's plant could as much as double the amount of wood chips extracted from this region. Mike McGreevy, Boise's forestry economist, doesn't dispute that figure. But he argues that having a regular market will encourage more careful and rational management of the forests. He promises education and controls on the plant's suppliers, and suggests critics are doing more harm than good.

McGreevy: We believe that our impact will be extremely positive, especially in those areas that have been previously harvested, where little active management has occurred. And it is a tremendous resource, and I think we do have the technology, the understanding of managing native forests that will greatly benefit the forests in the tenth region.

QUINTEROS: [Speaks in Spanish]

SAGARIS: Rabindranath Quinteros, the regional governor, says the plant and port are a chance to sharpen the region's competitive edge and get the most out of its natural resources. He has actively sought for an investment, and believes it will bring progress and jobs. But Quinteros is also president of the environmental board. Later this year, he and other governmental appointees will decide the project's future.

QUINTEROS: [Speaks in Spanish]

SAGARIS: Quinteros says that in a democracy, everyone has the right to express an opinion. But in making the final decision, some opinions may be given more weight than others. Among the project's opponents are Chilean environmental groups and Greenpeace's Santiago office, which the company dismisses as extremists. Douglas Bartels, Boise's communications manager.

BARTELS: We're familiar with many of the several organizations here that are critical. The tactics that they use are similar to those that are used worldwide. But here they go way beyond reality or truth. The frustration to us, however, has been that we would like to have people representative of the community involved in it. What we've had so far has just been some of the very extreme special interest groups.

SAGARIS: The community of Ilque itself is divided on Boise's project. Some like the idea of paved roads and new jobs. But opponents like Carmen Cortes complain that they are not getting heard.

CORTES: [Speaks in Spanish]

SAGARIS: Cortes describes how a delegation was invited to speak to the regional developmental commission but was then turned away at the door. Still other say they have been threatened if they speak out. Such threats have strong resonance in a country still haunted by the violence of the former military regime.

(A boat engine revs up)

SAGARIS: Carmen Cortes borrows a boat and we scoot across the bay. The sun turns the waves into glistening rolls of quicksilver. On shore, the trees shiver, their leaves blinking like green lamps. On the beach, a green mound sits like a giant table 200 meters long, 3 meters high, with a deep white slash in one end. In late August a bulldozer gouged the mound, revealing an archaeological site, right where Boise plans to put its dock.

CORTES: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: The experts believe these relics could be related to the Monteverde site just 20 kilometers from here.

SAGARIS: Monteverde revolutionized thinking about settlement in the Americas, shattering time-honored assumptions when it proved people were here 13,000 years ago. That could make this site very important and a draw for tourists. But it's right where Boise plans to put its port.

(A bell rings. Children sing.)

SAGARIS: At the Ilque school, the bell is ringing children into classes as it has for the past 100 years. The children know about the conflict. Some have been hired by the company to deliver colorful fliers. Others speak out against the plant in the port. Whatever they think of the project, they all want progress to come gently, without destroying the landscape, the rural fabric of their lives. That's what Boise Cascade says its project will bring. The environmental board has 3 months to decide whether the company will have a chance to prove it. For Living on Earth, this is Lake Sagaris in Ilque.



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