Native forest law: disaster and opportunity for the wood communities of the Sarao mountain range, Los Muermos commune, Los Lagos region


The inhabitants of the Sarao mountain range, in the commune of Los Muermos, worked for decades in the larch forests (Fitzroya cupressoides) of the Sarao mountain range without restrictions, supplying a demand that increased over time due to the improvement in accessibility to the rest of the country (railway line). The impact of this extraction exercise, which explains the population of the rural area of this commune, was abruptly interrupted when the Government imposed the Supreme Decree 490, prohibiting the exploitation of larch, a species that was legally transformed into a “natural monument”. The complexity of this process is that this restrictive regulation, which clearly aimed at saving the larch from extinction, was applied without warning, leaving hundreds of families with their arms folded and without knowing what to do to sustain themselves. In view of this, these loggers, who had built a culture of exploitation of these forests, looked for an alternative based on their know-how, working in the native forests surrounding the larches to supply firewood (for heating) to nearby towns. The government required they adapt to the regulations and organise themselves, as well as have access to the forest through accessibility plans. As all these demands were strange and hard to circumvent, they were faced with the decision to i) abandon their know-how and migrate to the cities in search of work, leaving their forests and fields abandoned, ii) continue illegally, or iii) begin an important process of transformation in order not to lose their job as loggers. This last alternative was welcomed by these families, who from 2006 to 2011, accompanied by the  Municipality of Los Muermos under the programme “Servicio País” from the Fundación Superación Pobreza and CONAF (the National Forestry Corporation), implemented a range of activities that led them from a “cero time” of confusion and uncertainty to an end in which the community organised as the “Unión Comunal de Comités Madereros de la Cordillera del Sarao”. They managed to find a commercial niche of dry wood in Puerto Montt (capital of the region) with a forest nursery,  a drying shed, a brand and a presence marked by the sustainability of the forest. Today, they are still in force, although the main leaders are old and the younger generations still show a timid behaviour of participation, but which is gradually breaking down as their products (dry firewood) acquire a greater commercial and symbolic value (since they are linked to a good management of over-exploited species).


The protagonists of this micro-story were the leaders of the Sarao mountain range, who were able to transmit confidence to their communities (in a context in which the option of illegal access to the forest was tempting, given the urgency of supporting their families and not having an option to "salvage" at that time). The first exercise, which brought together these leaders and the Municipality, Servicio País and Conaf (Tripartite Agreement), was to develop a situational assessment to shed light on the problem, but also on the resources present in the territory and its inhabitants (in 2006). The following year, 10 Timber Committees were created based on the territorial context of these families, and all of them formed the Union of Timber Committees in 2008. In doing so, they could interact with the Government Opportunities Structure and propose an action strategy that was consistent with the forest and larch protection measures pursued by the government. For this purpose, the land was regularised in order to initiate management plans. From that moment on, these families were able to achieve organisational strengthening projects, a forestry cooperative (Cooperativa Comercial Bosque Nativo) was created, occupational workshops were held (mainly with women), technological tours, participation and organisation of forestry congresses, and the acquisition of a drying shed and a forest nursery to repopulate the areas historically cut down.
The families of loggers from the mountain range of the Sarao were among the subjects that were geographically invisible. In fact, they inhabited a forested area that until recent history did not form part of the main activities of the commune (agriculture and livestock), not because they were not relevant in comparison to the latter, but because a communal archetype had been built only in the valley, leaving aside those who lived in this coastal mountain range and those who inhabited the coast. The exercise of productive transformation of these loggers allowed for artisanal fishermen to also begin to demand visibility and recognition.
What is interesting about the experience is that the processes of transformation of the loggers of the Sarao mountain range implied starting from a base of accumulated knowledge and cultural practices, avoiding some gaps with respect to the structure of opportunities that was being validated at national level. This involved acquiring techniques and techno-scientific knowledge, but assembling them with local knowledge and procedures for access to and use of the forest, and above all, using the pre-existing social structure to build, based on this, new organisational figures that made local sense.


The communal Union allowed them to obtain infrastructure, laid the foundations to market their products and especially allowed them to have a valued organisation. In addition, sufficient training and technical tours were conducted that were relevant to the needs and interests of the community. Infrastructure at the material level included a nursery, a firewood dryer, a storage shed, and between 230 and 250 active management plans, which meant improvements in the physical capital of the population. Education: the inhabitants improved their educational level by one point, which shows the development of human capital in the territory. In addition, study levelling programmes were carried out in the schools of the territory by professionals from Servicio País. Associativity: the organisation was strengthened, which, linked to improvements in their educational level, and meant that small-scale timber producers were able to approach the various institutions by their own means. The strengthening of the associativity is an expression of the strengthening of social capital developed by the timber committees and the women who participated in the workshops. Access to the institutional offer linked to the previous point, the interaction that currently exists between the members of the committees and their families, with the institutional offer present in the sector, mainly of a public nature, such as the Municipality, Conaf, Indap, among others. Migration was stopped by improving the economy and the labour environment in the territory, migration from the Sarao mountain range to other sectors was stopped. Young people began to return. Economy and productivity: household incomes were considerably improved and the sources of production were diversified. It was possible to mobilise own resources and coordinate productive organisations, as well as develop women's capacities through occupational workshops. The progressive mediation with the structure of opportunities is highlighted. This allowed tensions and conflict to be transformed into opportunities to improve the quality of life. It was also important to carry out small and medium-scale projects, which were relevant to the state of community development. The technical tours were an exercise of public recognition. The fact that the inhabitants of the Sarao mountain range interacted with other territories and their inhabitants mobilised and modified their subjectivities, since they became more aware of what they were and what they were doing, by contrasting it with other experiences. They also recognised the possibilities of their own community and territory, which is very significant for decision-making and to forge a project for the future.
All the organizations that were formed and strengthened in this process continue to function, and each month they meet to plan their activities. The Timber Cooperative (Firewood Dryer) has been a little slower: although they formalized their business, in 2013 a contract was signed with SODIMAC, which had a short duration since the loggers decided to sell on a small scale because according to them "it is more profitable". Most of the logging leaders have improved their quality of life, with individual and family businesses. For its part, the municipality continues to look for ways to encourage them to work together for greater development.