Monoculture Tree Plantations, Bioenergy and
Pollution Trading in Chile: United Nations COP25
By Gary Graham Hughes, California Policy Monitor, Biofuelwatch
The austral spring of 2019 will mark a historical watershed in the history of Latin America, due to a series of popular mobilizations in several nations denouncing economic inequality and environmental injustice. Of particular intensity has been a popular uprising in Chile that was used to justify the irregular relocation of the 2019 United Nations annual climate meetings from Chile to Madrid. Increasingly, in the light of official government efforts to obfuscate human rights violations and environmental racism at home, the dynamics around Chile retaining the “presidency” of COP25 while the actual president of the country, Sebastian Piñera, is not even attending the meetings, has begun to cast serious doubts in the international grassroots about the overall legitimacy of the UN sponsored climate proceedings.
In an effort to save face before the international climate elite during the climate meetings, the Chilean government has recently announced the accelerated closure of a couple of outdated and dirty coal burning power plants, reducing the thermoelectric generating facilities anticipated retirement from within the next ten years to within the next five years. Even as this announcement is welcomed, it is hardly enough to placate a mobilized populace experienced with the injustices of a predatory economic system based on extractivism and that condemns vulnerable populations to living in highly polluted Sacrifice Zones. Due to the profound experience of having been subjected to a neoliberal economic laboratory forced on their communities literally by gun point during a 17-year military dictatorship, and the ensuing 30 years of further entrenchment of markets-based policy, grassroots Chilean social movements perceive reliance on markets as an illegitimate approach to addressing existential issues such as climate change. Certainly, this consensus rejection of neoliberalism from a population with intimate experience with markets mechanisms permeating all aspects of their lives is not the type of message that the UN is eager to elevate during the current exceptionally market-centric COP25 meetings.
The brutal truth is that by failing to listen to the Chilean people and their demands for climate justice the UN is perpetuating a culture of impunity that covers up current and legacy human rights abuses as well as the destruction of native ecosystems and threats to public health. This is true in many circumstances around the globe, but it is particularly relevant at this juncture in time. There is rightfully great tension in how Chile retains the “presidency” of COP25 while contextually the reality of the violent repression of legitimate rights to protest increasingly are highlighted by international human rights stakeholders.
Front and center to street protests demanding massive political and economic change in Chile have been the demands for justice from and for the Mapuche people, a resilient indigenous people who have been over the decades subject to a never-ending industrial onslaught on their communities, families, culture and spiritual practices. This industrial invasion of Mapuche territory has been carried out by many sectors, not the least of which is the monoculture exotic tree species plantation model designed to provide raw materials for an export oriented pulp and wood products industry, and increasingly for biomass based electricity generation, which has a key role in giving a destructive model a crucial “green” cover. To get a better understanding of the dangers of the plantation model it is necessary to take a quick look at some of the social, political and environmental tragedies associated with the pulp and wood products industry in Chile, and exactly how COP25, by ignoring these realities on the ground and by promoting false solutions such as offsets from biomass energy facilities, is perpetuating a cruel culture of impunity.
One of the most destructive legacies of the monoculture plantation model has been the substitution of native ecosystems with massive extensions of exotic tree species across the landscape, resulting in a near complete loss of biodiversity from a native forest ecosystem with some of the highest levels of endemism on the planet. The replacement of the bosque nativo chileno with the infamous “green desert” of eucalypt and pine plantations is devastating to natural and human communities alike. The voracious thirst of industrial plantations presents great risks to people and native species, as available water is ravenously consumed by fast growing trees covering millions of hectares of arable lands. Indigenous communities find themselves without water with which to complete the most basic of household tasks. On top of that, the exotic tree species plantations are like patches of napalm spread across a landscape that is increasingly threatened by anthropogenic and climate forced wildfire, resulting in massive firestorms such as those that ravaged Southern Chile early in 2017.
The plantation model was one of the priorities of the Pinochet dictatorship, which acted in collusion at a high-level with the most powerful economic conglomerates of the Chilean aristocracy to rapidly expand the number of hectares dedicated to the plantation model. The social and economic impacts on affected communities of the plantation model are severe, as the physical expansion of the plantations relied heavily on dispossessing campesino and indigenous communities of their land, through practices that are now widely understood as having been nothing short of usurpation. Many communities found themselves confronting forced migration, even at gun point, resulting in desperate poverty for affected communities as they found themselves forced to abandon their rural homes and instead desperately learn to find a new way to make a living in unfamiliar urban environments, or on greatly reduced and degraded land holdings that as well are from water scarcity and toxic contamination from the industrial practices typical in the management of exotic tree species plantations surrounding their precarious settlements.
Police Violence, Political Prisoners and Militar
After many decades of documented rights violations by the authorities the evidence shows that the indiscriminate use of police and military force is intended to intimidate dissenting voices, criminalize any sort of activism focused on challenging contemporary and legacy land rights violations and even, in several cases, condemn community leadership to incarceration. One of the issues that is not being mentioned as it should during COP25 in Madrid is the Kafkaesque manner in which Chile has persecuted environmental defenders, providing a stark contrast between claims to global environmental leadership and the existence of numerous political prisoners languishing in Chilean prisons. The nearly permanent persecution of indigenous and campesino voices in communities impacted by the plantation model relies on criminalization of community leadership, and as in the case of Alberto Curamíl, a political prisoner who was awarded the 2019 Goldman Prize, depends on the fabrication of criminal charges to politically punish activists who have successfully impeded the expansion of extractive industry.
Even more disastrous histories are being woven by the violence of the plantation model. Though ignored at COP25, unforgotten by the popular mobilization in Chile are the unarmed Mapuche activists who have lost their lives during police actions. The walls of cities across Chile carry the spray-painted names of the fallen activists, names like Camilo Catrillanca, who was assassinated by Chilean security forces, and whose death at the hands of the police was covered up by top-level Chilean politicians, including the current president. The militarization of indigenous territory in the south of Chile is a case study of how the state security apparatus is being used as an extension of corporate control of the land base that was acquired through usurpation and forced removal. An end to the militarization of Mapuche territory is a fundamental climate justice demand of social movements in Chile, yet this demand falls on deaf ears at a COP25 that is seemingly more interested in protecting a global corporate economic status quo than it is in responding effectively to the increasingly dire threat of environmental degradation and global climate change. By failing to effectively elevate the persecution of environmental defenders in the very nation that is “presiding” over the meetings COP25 is engaged in a perpetuation of a culture of impunity for human rights violations.
As if such egregious greenwashing of rights violations by failing to address them during global climate meetings were not enough, the United Nations takes the climate injustice even further by colluding directly with the corporations responsible for the expansion of the exotic tree species to suggest that burning biomass in electricity generating infrastructure at massive pulp plants is climate friendly, and qualifies for registering carbon credits for sale under the auspices of the Clean Development Mechanism. In this instance therefore the United Nations is not only being silent in the face of documented rights violations and environmental damage. Instead, the UN is actually stepping in to provide direct “green” cover to Arauco, one of the three companies that control the Chilean plantation sector. Arauco is a transnational pulp and paper monster, with a long history of abuse of people and the planet. By allowing Arauco to use the UN carbon offsets platform to traffic in credits generated from bioenergy facilities that are part of destructive pulp plants plagued by environmental and social conflicts the UN is directly implicated in helping Arauco avoid being held accountable, whether it be by local communities or international human rights and environmental justice organizations. Arauco, with the help of the UN, has been able to make the biomass generating infrastructure at their giant and destructive pulp facilities built in Nueva Itata and outside of Valdivia into a carbon casino revenue stream, blatantly running rough shod over climate science and a basic sense of climate deceny. It was the opening of the Valdivia pulp plant in 2004 and subsequent effluent pollution to neighboring wetlands that resulted in the now legendary massacre and forced migration of the iconic black-necked swan population downstream from the Valdivia pulp mill. That Arauco has been able to generate a revenue stream by generating carbon credits from the burning of biomass at the Valdivia pulp mill to allow polluters to offset their climate damage is offensive to anyone with the most minimum sense of climate science and environmental justice.
These retroactive greenwashing deals are seemingly not enough for the UN. Chilean activists also describe how the new MAPA project (Arauco Modernization and Expansion Project) proposed by Arauco actually hides the development of a massive new 200 MW biomass-based thermoelectric plant as a “green” cornerstone of a humongous pulp plant expansion. Adding insult to injury, activists fighting the proposed expansion have revealed how the financing of debt for investment in the pulp plant expansion is reliant on future revenue stream from sales of carbon credits related to the new bioenergy plant. In other words, the UN carbon offsets platform is integral to the financing of the expansion of an export-oriented pulp facility that is fully reliant on a plantation model that is devastating indigenous communities and permanently condemning millions of acres of land to a sterile short rotation clearcut plantation-based production model.
Propaganda and Public Perception Management
Ultimately, one of the most disturbing outcomes of the promotion of plantation model based False Solutions is the way language on climate and forests is twisted into an Orwellian knot of half-meanings and untruths. The climate offset platform newspeak of “green” bioenergy qualifying as climate “action,” and the role that the United Nations stamp of approval on the plantation model plays in perpetuating impunity are truly circumstances that provide hard evidence for the increasing concerns about the use by extractive industry of climate discourse a tool of propaganda. The promotion of bioenergy as a climate solution is directly exploited by the economic beneficiaries of the plantation model to empower the management of public perception about the real social and environmental costs imposed on communities by extractive industry. It is, for instance, terrifying to think that in the year 2019 we are still clamoring for a commitment from the UN to come to terms with the science that a “plantation is not a forest.” The unwillingness of the UN to take these basic steps when it comes to climate and forests is a dramatic example of how UN climate discourse, as the Chilean plantation model case reveals, is perpetuating an unjust and destructive culture of impunity.
As the second week of COP25 grinds on, and the markets-centric focus of discussions at the meetings take center stage, the view from Chile is that the UN climate process is setting a new standard in normalizing the unspeakable, at the expense of indigenous cosmovisions, human rights and ecological sanity. Such is the drastic degree to which the realities on the ground in Chile, the current “president” of COP25, are being ignored. It is increasingly apparent that the concerns about where these UN processes are really headed are well founded. The cries by COP25 stakeholders regarding the imperative for “increased ambition” and the “urgency to act” sound as hollow as they really are, while the UN continues use such rhetoric to provide an escape route for an industry that is destroying local watersheds and the global atmosphere. Just who does COP25 serve? Is it true that the UN climate talks are more about protecting polluters than they are about protecting people and the planet? Is the oft-clamored-for climate ‘emergency’ being leveraged to allow human rights violations to be ignored and to further entrench false solutions? When the degree to which the UN is willing to go to bat to protect corporate interests like Arauco and the destructive plantation model that is the source of their profits is fully taken into consideration it leaves little room for doubt about just how much COP25 is an exercise in the perpetuation of a culture of impunity.