Historical perspective

Chile’s forests began to form following the retreat of continental glaciers more than 10,000 years ago. Evidence suggests that these temperate forests have covered this region of the planet for the last 3,000 years, remaining almost intact until the arrival of the Europeans 450 years ago. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the indigenous people of the region had not significantly altered the landscape. The Huilliche 2 people, for example, converted some of the forests of the central valley to agricultural and pasture land; however, as a result of the Spanish conquest, the Huilliche were forced to abandon this zone, allowing the forests to recover (Donoso, 1998).

Nevertheless, after the independence from Spain, and the arrival of colonial settlers from Europe around 1860, the 300-year-old forests were again converted, and through intentional forest fires, vast expanses of the central plains’ alerce forest (Fitzroya cupressoides) were destroyed. A study by Lara et al. (1999) shows that, in 1550, prior to European colonization, original native forests extending from administrative Regions VII through XI covered an estimated 18.4 million hectares.

Today, only 56 percent of this original forest cover remains. Most affected are the Sclerophyllous and the Nothofagus forest types, with 3 and 30 percent, respectively, of ori ginal forest cover remaining. The expanse of grasslands and scrublands, on the other hand, doubled in area, from 2.5 million to 5.5 million hectares (Lara et al., 1999) (see Figure 2). It is important to note that, within these regions, new types of land use –such as urban areas, agricultural lands, and forestry plantations– occupy a significant expanse.