Chile's two largest wood products companies have agreed to stop logging endangered trees in the South American nation's native forests, U.S. and Chilean environmentalists announced Wednesday.
The Santiago-based companies, CMPC-Mininco and Arauco, have agreed not to log the alerce, the evergreen araucaria and other endangered species in the 1 million acres of native forests they own, said Aaron Sanger of ForestEthics, the San Francisco group that helped coordinate the campaign.
"This is a historic day for the environmental movement in Chile," Gonzalo Villarino of Greenpeace Chile said at a news conference in Santiago, the capital. "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 south-central city of Temuco to commemorate the anniversary of the death of protester Edmundo Alex Lemun, who was shot by police in 2002 during an attempted Mapuche takeover of a CMPC-Mininco tree farm.
Local Mapuche villagers said the land had been illegally taken 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, CMPC-Mininco spokesman Gonzalo Garcia said that as part of the deal, his company would work to "develop a more sensible ecological and social management of its [tree] plantations."
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 last 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-Mininco spokesman 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," Garcia said.
Together CMPC-Mininco and Arauco own 60% of Chile's commercial tree farms.
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 rain forest to keep it undeveloped.