“Volunteers here come from all social strata,” Diego, a fireman in the southern city of Temuco, explains, “We have rich businessmen, students and labourers working side by side… when we enter the station we can’t talk about politics, religion nor football. No conflict. We’re here to save peoples lives”.
An emergency call comes in from the northern Bio-Bio region, the ‘bomberos’ rush around in anticipation for a trip to aid firefighters that have been working to quell fires for seven days straight. The team at Diego’s ‘España Bombero’ station could be on shift from any duration between two to seven days, volunteering, like all firefighting work in Chile.
Forests around central and southern regions are burning at the fastest rate in the country’s history, nearly 400,000 hectares burnt, eleven deaths, 1,190 homes destroyed and 1,343 people rehoused according to latest Oficina Nacional de Emergencias del Ministerio del Interior (Onemi) figures.
Diego’s fire station remains a politically neutral zone but as the largest forest fires in Chile’s history roar, the divided voices that define Chilean society are clamouring like never before.
In the aftermath of the first round of forest fires, the ex-Commander in Chief of the Chilean Army called on the nation’s favourite knee-jerk response to unrest on Twitter- “So much fire, with such diverse focal points, it starts to give the impression of reclaiming terrorism by Mapuche activists.” The idea was vomited up again by the Minister of Domestic Policy, Mario Fernández, who continued to describe the “terrorist character” of the fires.
In search of a scapegoat, police detained four men despite little apparent evidence, accused by courts of sparking fires in the Chépica region, but understood by confused family members to have been taking out the rubbish. Two fires have been reported as being initiated by electrical faults. One was reported as being started by a worker of CONAF (the state institution for the protection of Chile’s forests).
What is clear is that there are flames and that Chile’s forestry companies are hiding behind the smoke.
No matter the culprits of the sparks, in the last 40 years the actions of timber companies such as Forestal Mininco and Forestal Arauco have manipulated the landscape of Chile’s once fertile central and southern regions into a dry expanse ready to be lit.
Chile’s timber and pulp trade depends on the planting of ever greater swathes of pine and eucalyptus. These two non-native species grow at lightening speeds, with the help of chemicals to subdue the native ‘weeds’ from interfering with their industrial growth. Pines and eucalyptus dominate the landscape that becomes dryer with every yield.
These foreign trees are pyrophytes, species that actively encourage fire, acting in forests as they do in fireplaces. Pines and eucalyptus can even survive forest fires. When pine cones overheat, they explode and spread their seed, just as the killing of a radical martyr gives birth to a family of fundamentalists- dramatically increasing the expanses of pines and the risks of fires.
Riding the bus from Temuco to Puerto Saavedra, the conductor points to the timber forests to his left “When you cut a eucalyptus tree at the trunk, three more grow, its incredible business”, and to his right, the consequences of this business “40 years ago all of that used to be lake”, a 500 metre square mass of yellowy scrubland. “I saw smoke over those hills in the north two days ago, who knows whether it will come down here”.
In the face of the forestry industry’s unending extraction of water from the land, President Bachelet dared to say in 2014 “I have said many times that the drought that we have seen is not an emergency, it has arrived to stay, it is probably not going to be an episodic phenomenon but a climatic characteristic in the years to come.”
The same year, ‘DL-701’, an executive order from the Pinochet era, which promises forestry companies a startling 75% state reimbursement for the costs of their services over a ten year period, was extended by 20 years.
With the help of ‘DL-701’ and state insurance policy, companies like Mininco and Arauco are set to win from the fires that run wild in central, southern Chile.
The value of the forestry companies’ assets recently dropped after Donald Trump severed trade ties held together by TPP. For the devastating damage, ‘las Forestales’ will receive state insurance while their pines and eucalyptus emerge from the fire to engulf even more native forests.
It is this unending cycle of domination and extraction that infuriates and depresses the indigenous peoples and ecologists of Chile. On hunger strike in a prison in the Angol region in 2013, Mapuche activist, Fernando Millacheo told press “They steal the ‘lawen’ (natural medicines), they steal our water, they steal our land, so we have nothing.” The Mapuche (which means ‘people of the land’) once lived on land abundant enough for them to be hunters and gatherers, today the much of same area is in corporate hands.
Right now, Mapuche communities are working on the borders of pine and native forests to prevent the fires from spreading to their spiritual flora that remains. Many corn fields and sacred lands have been burnt to the ground and they continue to show solidarity with fellow farmers affected.
Voluntary firefighters and Mapuche communities continue struggling to quell the fires. Farmers and countryside dwellers anxiously scout the horizon, wary of smoke. Forestry companies stay safe in their offices, waiting for state compensation and anticipating greater control over what was once fertile and sacred land.