Chile has long grappled with rampant illegal logging, particularly in the south. But as clashes between timber mafias, loggers, and Indigenous communities worsen, a new legal framework is trying to contain the problem.
In a new report published in October, following an amendment to the country's timber theft law, Chilean think-tank AthenaLab sought to unravel this complex problem.
The amendment came amid calls to reduce timber trafficking in the southern administrative region, where a state of emergency has been in place since May. And the change has so far led to the arrest of 25 people in the country's illegal logging heartland, according to the Chilean newspaper Biobio Chile.
But the problem goes far beyond making more arrests. The southern region is home to Mapuche Indigenous communities who have rejected what they see as the encroachment of extractive industries on their ancestral lands. They have burned forests and trucks transporting timber, attacked sawmills, and set up roadblocks to force companies to move elsewhere.
Separate from the Mapuche but also active in the region are shadowy timber mafias, criminal syndicates dedicated to illegal logging. Unlike the Mapuche, these timber mafias have no political aims and are driven by profits from the lucrative illicit wood trade, according to AthenaLab's report.
InSight Crime spoke to its author, Pilar Lizana, to better understand the issues at play.
Timber Mafias vs. Mapuche
Timber mafias are feeding on the instability created by violence and protests from the Mapuche, Lizana told InSight Crime. They take advantage of a lack of government presence to trespass on property, steal wood from licensed sawmills, and create fake documentation to transport and sell their product. Other times, gunmen will hijack entire truckloads of legally felled timber.
Radical members of the Mapuche community, including groups like the Coordinadora Arauco-Malleco (CAM), also participate in illegal logging to finance their political goals.
The lines between these two actors are often blurred, but they are not the same, Lizana said.
Both actors also participate in land usurpation and illegal logging. Their activities have led to a "vicious circle that, protected by institutional weakness, has allowed them both to grow," the report stated.
The most well-armed and largest Mapuche armed groups have territorial control of certain areas in the central and southern regions of Biobío and La Araucanía, where Chilean authorities do not enter in fear of inciting more political violence and tension, according to the report.
Mapuche groups have filled the void left by the absent state. Groups like the CAM have become de facto authorities in certain areas, controlling highways and roads on which the timber moves. They also seize property that they believe has been stolen from them, Lizana said.
The groups' interactions with parallel criminal economies are one key differentiator between them. Timber mafias rob machinery parts and fuel from legal foresting companies and then sell it on the black market, according to Lizana.
Weak Institutions and State Presence
Chile's institutional weakness has helped timber theft become an organized criminal economy. The report found that underfunded regulatory bodies, weak prosecution, and a lack of oversight and anti-corruption measures in southern Chile are contributing factors.
In addition to the limited presence of security forces, Chile's Internal Revenue Service (Servicio de Impuestos Internos - SII) and the National Forestry Corporation (Corporación Nacional Forestal - Conaf) bare much of the blame. Public officials from La Araucanía and Biobío have lambasted the SII and Conaf, saying they had "failed miserably" to control illegal timber sales in the southern administrative region.
The consequences of this failure have been wide-reaching. In addition to usurping land and stealing wood, timber mafias use fake invoices and false dispatch receipts to launder illegally felled trees with legitimate wood. Illegal timber has then found its way into the licit economy where customers unknowingly buy it, the report found. SII and Conaf have done little to trace these illicit flows, the report concluded.
For Lizana, much of the problem lies with information sharing. "Conaf authorizes timber exploitation and maintains records and tax documents of the companies participating in this economy. Carabineros [Chilean police] control the roads." She said that greater cooperation between institutions would help regulate logging and uncover criminal actors.
Light Penalties, Low Enforcement, and New Legislation
Previously, the Chilean legal system treated timber theft as equal to common theft, meaning light penalties for perpetrators. Between January and May this year, 117 people were detained in the southern administrative region for "rural violence," most commonly including arson attacks and robberies with intimidation, reported Biobio Chile. Just four of those arrested have had legal cases opened against them. Rural violence is a term used in Chile's legal system to cover many of the crimes which happen in remote parts of the country, including arson, theft, and even attacks with explosives. It has been sharply criticized as authorities seem to pay scant attention to such crimes.
This changed on September 27, when the Chilean legislature passed Law No. 21,488. The new legislation bolstered the powers of institutions supervising the logging industry, increased penalties for wood theft, and authorized improved techniques to investigate organized crime groups involved in the illegal economy.
"[The new law] provides the same techniques as in Law No. 20,000 [anti-narcotics legislation]. It provides a new system for tracing raw material and new techniques for investigating the theft of wood to increase penalties," Lizana explained. The law also allows for confiscating machinery and trucks used to transport stolen wood and sanctions those who use counterfeit or falsified documents to trade wood illegally.
In a high-profile application of the new law, Chilean authorities arrested 12 people and seized nine vehicles allegedly part of a timber mafia operating in Biobío and La Araucanía, Chilean media outlet Emol reported on October 20.
The operation also underscores the complexity of the relationship between radical Mapuche groups and business people in charge of the timber mafias. Waldo Nuñez Cáceres, a forestry businessman, coordinated and paid local Mapuche groups to occupy and exploit property he helped manage, reported Chilean newspaper La Tercera. He paid groups 600,000 Chilean pesos (around $635) per truck they filled with stolen wood, keeping the rest of the profits from the illegally felled timber.
While timber mafias may be driven by profit and Mapuche groups by political goals, the new law and more prosecuted cases will undoubtedly help reveal the complex connections between the two groups within Chile's illegal logging and wood theft industries.