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Chile Drops Reservation to CITES Trade Ban on Endangered Trees

SANTIAGO, Chile, April 12, 2005 (ENS) - The government of Chile has decided to safeguard all alerce trees from loggers by lifting its longstanding reservation to the protection of this species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Chile will no longer issue CITES certificates and permits to export and trade alerce wood.

The alerce, Fitzroya cupressoides, is unique to the coastal temperate rainforests of southern Chile and the mountains of western Argentina. The slow growing species can live for thousands of years; one tree in Chile has been dated to the age of 3,620 years.

Less than 15 percent of the world’s original alerce forests remain. In Chile, the tree is a national monument, which means that living alerce trees cannot legally be cut. It is listed as an endangered species according CITES and the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The alerce was proposed for CITES protection in 1987 by Argentina. The proposal was adopted by CITES member governments, but Chile entered a reservation on the inclusion of its coastal population of alerce in Appendix I, which prohibits all international trade.

The reservation taken by Chile through its CITES administrative authority, CONAF, excluded from protection dead alerce trees on the coast of Chile's Region X in the southern part of the country. It treated these alerces as if they were listed in CITES Appendix II, under which trade is allowed with permits.

trees

Alerce trees in a Chilean coastal rainforest (Photo courtesy Wood-Mizer)
Since 1987, the Region X coastal area has been devastated by illegal logging and fires, practices promoted by a gang of loggers, according to environmental lawyer Miguel Fredes, who has fought a long battle to safeguard the alerce.

As president of the Centro Austral de Derecho Ambiental (CEADA, Southern Environmental Law Center) in southern Chile, Fredes says he began his campaign to protect the alerce in early 2002, "using all national and international legal and mass media resources available to force Chile’s government to formally waive this power of reservation with regard to this endangered species."

"Nationally, I led a legal campaign to stop the largest gang of alerce traffickers," he said Monday. "The campaign involves around eight criminal and civil lawsuits, and 14 injunctions to stop these practices including actions against CONAF for not enforcing laws to protect alerce forests."

In addition, Fredes submitted documents giving evidence of government duplicity in alerce smuggling to a Special Judge (ministro en visita) appointed for what came to be known as the Alerce Case.

"The evidence unveiled the presence of a large network, including police officials and rangers working to cover up the presence of loggers on private lands mostly comprised of alerce trees," said Fredes.

Fredes

Attorney Miguel Fredes is president of the Centro Austral de Derecho Ambiental (Photo courtesy Instituto de Ecología Politica)
At an estimated US$5,000 per cubic meter on the black market, the lucrative alerce trade drew organized criminal logging cartels operating in Patagonia, Chile's southern region. Fredes believes that US$150 million worth of illegal alerce exports have been exported in the last eight years, cut from 100,000 acres of forest.

The presence of loggers on private properties was confirmed by a video-reports made by Channel 13, which exposed the large-scale harvesting of alerce forests. "The involvement of public servants confirmed suspicions long held by environmentalists that Southern Chile’s illegal logging and trafficking of alerce trees is supported by a vast and corrupt network," Fredes said.

Last year, government officials were linked to the alerce scandal when CONAF director Carlos Weber was arrested on charges of bribery and influence trafficking by Judge Rosa Muñoz, then in charge of the Alerce Case.

"The arrest caused a furor," said Fredes, "leading both Chile’s Agriculture Minister and Interior Minister to publicly defend Weber, who was later released for lack of conclusive evidence."

Fredes worked with environmental attorneys in the United States through E-Law, the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide.

Cheryl Coon of of the Portland, Oregon law firm of Swanson, Thomas & Coon helped Fredes and his Chilean team to discover information on which to base their case.

In April 2003, Coon filed a Freedom of Information Act request to gather information from the before the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service regarding trade of alerce to the United States.

Documents provided under that request showed that three U.S. companies have imported Chilean alerce - Pooser Enterprises, Inc., Baron Industries, Inc. & Five Star Lumber Company.

Fredes said that based upon the evidence of logging and trade in alerce, he was able to argue in court that "the alerce was seriously endangered and should continue to qualify for inclusion in Appendix I."

These efforts served to discourage CONAF from submitting a proposal to transfer the alerce from Appendix I to Appendix II or defend its CITES reservation at the last CITES meeting, Fredes said.

"With our teeth on CONAF’s legs," Fredes said, "its Chief Authority, Carlos Weber, decided to retire its reservation regarding the alerce during March of 2005."

The alerce is a species of larch, a conifer that grows only one centimeter in thickness every 15 or 20 years. It can reach 70 meters (229 feet) in height and four meters (13 feet) in diameter.

The life span of Chile's alerce trees is second only to that of California’s bristlecone pine. The alerce’s primary remaining habitat is Chile’s Valdivian rainforest, one of only five remaining temperate rainforests in the world and the only one in South America.



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