Chile fires offer valuable lessons for conservation

Landscape level planning that incorporates good governance, multi-stakeholder dialogues and strong institutions will be critical as the country rebuilds from the worst fires in its history.

Corporación Nacional Forestal, Chile (CONAF)

Fires in Chile have destroyed 600,000 hectares of land, including natural forests and plantations.

Chile continues to suffer from the worst wildfires ever recorded in the country, with ten times more area burnt compared to the historical average. The catastrophe offers valuable lessons not just for Chile but for countries around the world, and for WWF's own conservation framework.

Almost 600,000 hectares of land has been consumed by the fires, including pine and eucalyptus plantations but also grasslands and natural forest that are home to endemic and endangered species. According to recent estimates, 300,000 hectares of tree plantations and 15,000 hectares of natural forest have been destroyed. The flames were so strong that an entire town was destroyed, killing 11 and affecting over 3,000 people. Followed by eight years of drought, temperatures in January reached historic levels – a sign of what we can expect for the coming decades.

One of the most important lessons we can take away is that we need to address the key drivers at the landscape level to prevent the type of devastation Chile has recently experienced.

Most of the tree plantations affected by the fires were certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which has raised questions more broadly about certification. WWF considers FSC certification a powerful tool to improve forest management. FSC has proven to do that as well as yield positive environmental impacts, such as a decline in forest conversion, increase of protected High Conservation Value (HCV) and restored areas, among other conservation gains. In the last decade alone, FSC-certified tree plantations in Chile have increased from 13 per cent to 70 per cent, largely in part due to WWF’s efforts to transform the forest industry.

The issue is that the scope of FSC is within the forest management unit level and the problem of fires was at another scale: the landscape level. FSC is one of the tools to improve forest and plantation management. One of the most important lessons we can take away is that we need to address the key drivers at the landscape level to prevent the type of devastation Chile has recently experienced. The key is to rethink the scale and how to meet expectations from stakeholders, not only at the local level but also more broadly.

The WWF Network has developed complementary initiatives to address some of those challenges, for example through the New Generation Plantations (NGP) concept in the tree plantation industry, where companies don't only look to their own properties or concessions but at the whole landscape, as well as other producers. NGP recommends best practices like forest restoration, riparian vegetation protection, forest and HCV protection, and clear planning that takes the landscape into consideration and with active participation of stakeholders. The final aim of this initiative is to not only transform companies' performance but also to influence legislation and public policy, as well as other stakeholders and productive sectors in the landscapes.

Market tools and voluntary commitments are important at the forest management unit level but not sufficient for the scenario of large scale plantations expansion and climate change impacts that we face in countries like Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, South Africa and others. Participatory landscape planning, strengthening local and national institutions, and policy development are also needed and the integration between market strategies and governance is becoming more important than ever.

The positive side of the tragedy is that many measures and changes are coming and opportunities are opening up for building a future that's better prepared for climate change in the forest landscapes of Southern Chile. President Bachelet recently announced the creation of a Chilean Forest Service, which will strengthen the current forest institutional framework, a measure WWF has been advocating for several years. More activity is also taking place with active participation of WWF. The Ministry of Agriculture's Council is developing the forest policy for 2015-2035 and designing an action plan for the restoration of burned areas. The Ministry of the Environment has created an advisory committee to recommend priorities that consider biodiversity and climate change in the restoration process.

In addition to restoration, WWF-Chile is also advocating for a broad agreement on the future of the forest sector in Chile, one that evolves from a model of contiguous areas of thousands of hectares of even-aged pine and eucalyptus plantations to mosaics of multiple age, multi-species plantations, protected areas, and restored ecosystems as well as agricultural lands, all in a context of good governance, including multi-stakeholder agreements and strong institutions. In this new model, financial flows will also be fundamental, as a combination of public, private, national and international sources will be needed to recover these landscapes, ecosystems, and their services.

For decades, the Chilean forest model has been replicated in other South American countries and now the shock of the fires is forcing us to adapt the model and share the lessons learned, lessons that are also valid for WWF as a network. We have learned that working on forests, tree plantations and markets with FSC need to be complemented with other drivers such as governance and finance, and issues like climate change. 

This new approach can be a critical contribution not only for WWF but also for countries like Chile and others in South America, South Africa, and Southeast Asia with similar forest models based on large scale tree plantations.

Rodrigo Catalán

Rodrigo Catalan is Conservation Director at WWF-Chile. He is a forester and resides in Valdivia, Chile.

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