The wrath of fire

(Chile, 2013 – 2017)

“How the legacy of Chile’s military dictatorship creates deadly forest fires today.”

Chile is a country permanently afflicted by forest fires. A Mediterranean-like climate, with heat waves and strong winds, along with human factors, create the perfect conditions for fires to start and spread. In recent years, this has resulted in several deaths and enormous physical and economic destruction. Of the approximately 7,000 forest fires Chile has suffered in recorded history, 99% are caused by human activity. Half of those are produced in what are called Interface Zones, border areas where cities and towns meet the forest.

In April 2014, a forest fire destroyed more than 3,000 houses in Valparaiso and killed a dozen people. These houses were in the Interface Zone at the edges of the city. In January 2017, a series of uncontrollable fires ravaged various regions in the south central region of the country, destroying 957,000 acres (387,000 hectares) of forest, along with homes and farms. The vast majority of victims of these fires live in poverty.

According to experts, one of the main reasons for the constant recurrence of these fires is because the country has thousands of tree plantations, monocultures of imported tree species which are not native to Chile, such as pine and eucalyptus.

These are planted for exclusive use by the lumber industry. In these industrial pine and eucalyptus “forests,” the trees are planted in ordered, symmetrical rows, one next to the other, to maximize efficiency of land use and profit. These plantations’ overuse of water, and the rapid combustion of the wood, turns them into the perfect fuel for massive fires.

As a forestation plan, this system appears completely irrational, except for the economic motive behind it. Since the 1970s, plantations have systematically replaced native vegetation with more exotic species in the central and southern regions of the country, the result of a policy of the Pinochet dictatorship that continues to this day. One dictatorship-era document, Forest Decree 701, created government subsidies designed to transfer forest land to the country’s largest business conglomerates, which have operated constantly in these regions for the past 30 years. These policies and subsidies have transformed the very landscape of Chile, replacing whole forests and creating new ones, while creating bare prairies elsewhere. These policies have created a direct financial benefit to the lumber industry and these conglomerates, to the detriment of the environment.

This project will show the social damage which the lumber industry has produced in Chile. The medium will be a documentary photojournalism project, creating a forensic registry of evidence of the deforestation caused by state economic policy.

It will also show the social costs: victims of these resulting fires who have lost everything and yet seek to overcome their losses, standing as examples of resilience and human dignity. Our hypothesis is that as long as the law does not change, fires will continue to destroy and kill. The victims will be the same people as always, and those responsible will be as well.