The fires, although affecting the regions from Valparaíso to Los Ríos, have had their epicenter in the Bío Bío and Araucanía regions. This is no coincidence. These are the two regions of the country with the highest density of monoculture plantations of fast-growing exotic forest species (radiata pine and eucalyptus). In fact, with 875,178 hectares of monoculture tree plantations, the Bío Bío Region has the largest area of plantations in the country. It is followed by Araucanía, with 632,289 hectares of the same plantations.
As we pointed out in an article written in the context of the forest fires of summer 2017, there is scientific evidence that exotic monocultures severely affect waters and are highly flammable, much more so than natural forests. Despite the fact that this is evidence known - although publicly denied - by forestry companies, these in the past developed harmful practices, such as the substitution of native forest for their monoculture plantations. The same companies maintain to date other equally critical ones, such as the installation of such plantations in the vicinity of human settlements, as evidenced in 2017 in the case of Santa Olga in the Maule Region.
A recent report by the Center for Climate Science and Resilience (CR2) (2020) reports the greater danger posed by exotic forest monocultures for the spread of forest fires compared to their occurrence in native forests. It thus finds that 50% of the area burned as a result of mega-fires between 1985 and 2018 was covered by exotic plantations.
It should be noted that most of these companies have certified their monoculture plantations by the FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) seal, which obliges them to environmentally, socially and economically responsible management. Among the FSC environmental principles that FSC-certified companies are obliged to respect are the maintenance, conservation and/or restoration of the ecosystem services and environmental values of the managed forests, as well as avoiding, repairing or mitigating the negative environmental impacts they cause.
A report prepared on the application of the FSC seal in Chile at the request of FSC international in 2016 noted the social and environmental risks of monoculture tree plantations, including the danger they pose to forest fires.
Despite this, an additional 63 thousand hectares are added annually to the 3.1 million hectares devoted to monoculture forestry (INFOR, 2022). The reasons are obvious: forestry companies obtain enormous profits as a consequence of planting and processing fast-growing monocultures. Thus, for example, CMPC recorded profits of US$ 1,005.3 million in 2022, while Arauco obtained profits of US$ 822 million between January and September of the same year alone.
Our country subscribed to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (2011). These principles establish the responsibility of States and companies regarding human rights, which include the right to life and integrity affected by fires, as well as the right to a healthy and sustainable environment, now recognized by the United Nations as a human right.
In relation to companies, these Principles establish their obligation and responsibility to respect human rights. To this end, they must: a) "avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities and address such impacts when they occur; and b) (...) prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts directly related to their operations, products or services provided through their business relationships, even where they have not contributed to those impacts". Principle 17 states that companies should also "act with due diligence, assessing the actual and potential impact of their activities on human rights, taking measures to avoid their violation, as well as to remedy the adverse consequences that their activities have caused or contributed to".
It is evident that, in the case of monoculture tree plantations, the companies that develop them have not complied with their human rights responsibilities, particularly with regard to due diligence to avoid damage to the human environment and the environment caused by the fires of their monoculture plantations. Even less have they fulfilled their responsibility to repair the damages that their actions have contributed to generate in human rights. Such damages, when they have been assumed, have mostly been assumed by the State and not by the companies.
To date, Chile has developed two National Action Plans on Human Rights and Business for the implementation of the aforementioned United Nations Principles. The measures considered in the First National Action Plan (2017), as noted in a study conducted by the PUC Law School (2020), focused on the State's duty to protect human rights and not on the responsibility of companies to respect the same rights. A Second Action Plan, approved inconsultaneously in 2022 in the last days of the Piñera administration, reiterates this trend, so it is not expected that this Plan will generate substantial changes to move towards due diligence of companies in this area.
The deficit that companies in Chile have in human rights is confirmed by a recent report of the same Faculty of the PUC (2023) referred to the commitments, due diligence, remediation and reparation in relation to these rights, a report that analyzes 29 companies of the Selective Stock Price Index (IPSA Chile). These include the two large forestry conglomerates mentioned above. The report shows that, of the total of 24 points assigned to compliance with corporate responsibility in human rights, Empresas COPEC SA (which is the holding company of which Arauco is a part) obtains a total of 3 points. Although CMPC obtains a better overall score (16.5 out of the total of 24 points), it only achieves 7 out of the total of 12 points assigned to the integration of human rights due diligence in its operations.
For the same reason, the statements made by the President of the Chilean Timber Corporation (Corma), Juan José Ugarte, in the context of the meeting convened by President Boric in recent days with businessmen to address the crisis caused by the fires, are paradoxical, to say the least. On the occasion Ugarte stated: "We need to activate prevention. No more fire! It is critical to fight and stop the extent of the fires". We ask ourselves: what have the forestry companies grouped together by Corma, among them CMPC and Arauco, done to prevent, through a policy of due diligence in their activities, the extent of the fires that today are mostly occurring in the monoculture plantations of which they are owners or which are part of their supply chain, monocultures that are the epicenter of the tragedy that today is being experienced in the center south of the country, affecting the life and safety of the people who live there?
The answer is categorical: despite the experiences of past fires and the scientific evidence referred to above, the companies have done nothing to change the model of exotic forest monocultures, at the cost of sacrificing the environment and the safety of the population, all for the sake of profit.
With this reality in mind, it is time for the State to assume its responsibility in the protection of human rights, in this case affected by the lack of due diligence - if not negligence - of forestry companies. Consistent with the prevailing trend in recent years in European countries (France, Germany, Great Britain, among others), it is urgent to move towards the establishment of binding regulatory frameworks to enforce the responsibility of companies, including forestry companies, in the area of human rights.
In this regard, President Boric's presidential program proposed the presentation of a bill to regulate human rights due diligence for companies operating in Chile and for Chilean-owned companies with operations outside the country. One year into his administration, however, there is no public progress or a timetable that makes it foreseeable that his government's commitment in this area will be fulfilled.
It is essential to advance, in a participatory manner with all stakeholders (including the communities whose rights have been affected by the actions of the companies), in the development of a proposed law that establishes mandatory due diligence by companies on human rights, as well as mechanisms to enforce reparation by the companies for the damages caused to these rights as a consequence of their operations.
Given that the non-binding frameworks, both state (National Action Plans) and corporate (FSC), have so far not allowed the prevention of the serious human rights impacts caused by the irresponsible actions of forestry companies, actions that year after year have an impact on the forest monoculture fires we are suffering today, we believe that this will only be possible through a legally binding regulatory framework on the matter.
If we do not have a regulatory framework of this nature, it is foreseeable that, in the context of the climate crisis we are already facing, we will continue to experience increasingly intense fires such as those currently occurring in monoculture tree plantations, and lamenting the loss of human lives, biodiversity and ecosystems in the country.
How much longer do we have to wait to put a stop to this critical reality?