Logging Gripes.

Position:Chile - Brief Article

Chile's National Environment Commission collects criticism from activist and business leaders.

CHILE'S RECENT ENVIRONMENTAL BATtlegrounds--Trillium and Ralco--are so well known they go by single names like Brazilian soccer stars.

Another quality the two investments have in common is less auspicious. After millions spent on planning and tough legal and political clashes, the logging project and the major new dam remain in development limbo, neither canceled nor really moving forward.

Yet the final casualty of the political fire fights, which forged Chile's nascent green movement in the summers of 1996 and 1997, may well be the reputation of the government's own National Environment Commission, also a locally famous one-namer, Conama.

How well Conama can resuscitate its image as a relevant, well-run watchdog remains to be seen. Both environmentalists and business leaders have logged their share of gripes about the agency and its much-debated mission.

The aftermath of the Trillium disaster eventually pushed the head of Conama out of office. Vivian Blanlot left in mid1997 following a successful legal challenge to her commission.

Bellingham, Washington-based logger Savia, Inc., head of the Trillium project, had planned to log native lenga trees in Patagonian Chile. The company's US$260 million project included measures aimed at preserving the environment to gain Conama approval.

Environmental groups sued, winning a substantial delay on grounds that the government's failure to fully publish a new environmental law rendered Conama's approvals moot. Trillium eventually got the green light it wanted, but with so many conditions it may never get off the ground.

Meanwhile, the Ralco Dam, headed by Endesa of Chile, would block a portion of the Bio-Bio River to produce much-needed hydroelectric power. Ralco was besieged by lawsuits from both environmental and indigenous groups. But the coup de grace was a private letter from the World Bank--leaked to the local media--that was critical of the project. Ralco remains on track, but work has slowed to a crawl.

Conama's replacement director, Rodrigo Egana, now two years on the job, says critics should see the agency for what it is--a technical administrative body that responds to the government. In the past, Egana says, Chile did not put enough energy into caring for the environment, especially considering the size and complexity of new investments. Balancing the demands of investors and public interest is a...

To continue reading