Alerce Theft Convictions Upheld By Chile Appeals Court
The Puerto Montt appeals court last week unanimously confirmed the verdict against rightist political leader Nelson Schwerter for illegal logging and trading of ancient Alerce trees.
The Alerce or Chilean Larch (Fitzroya cupressoides) are a tree species native to southern Chile and protected by both national legislation and by the Convention of International Trade of Endangered species (CITES). Once a dominant species in far southern Chile, Alerce are legendary for the impermeable, rot-resistant nature of their timber and for their longevity – up to 3,500 years old.
Schwerter is the regional president of the center-right Renovación Nacional (RN) party and the former mayor of Fresia, a small community northwest of Puerto Montt in the Los Lagos Region. Schwerter’s top aid, Daniel Vergara, a former CNI intelligence (Pinochet-era) operative, was also found guilty by the court.
The appeals court confirmed a lower court decision that found Schwerter, Vergara and a band of 30 accomplices guilty of illegally logging and marketing Alerce trees for more than two decades. Schwerter stole many of the Alerce trees from the Forestal Sarao company, while CONAF, the state agency charged with protecting the country’s forests, shirked its oversight responsibilities, said the court decision.
The two attorneys who brought the lawsuit against Schwerter - Carlos Baraona, a former counsel to U.S. environmentalist Douglas Tompkins, and Miguel Fredes, former attorney to Forestal Sarao - expressed their deep satisfaction with the appeals court decision.
“Although Schwerter was known to have been the kingpin of the illegal forestry effort, no action was taken against him until we re-opened the case in 2003,” said Fredes.
Fredes explained that Schwerter was able to continue with his lucrative Alerce trade because CONAF looked the other way when he applied for permits and concessions from the agency.
Schwerter and Vergara created a network of illegal loggers and squatters who occupied the Sarao company properties and supplied the two men with logged Alerce. Among Schwerter’s regular customers was U.S. businessman Frank Pemberthy, of Baron Industries, who exported Alerce trees to San Francisco between 2001 and 2003 (ST, 29 June 2005).
The appeals court confirmed that Schwerter and Vergara paid the loggers a pittance, while demanding - and getting – tremendously high prices for the bootlegged timber.
Schwerter attempted to prove in court that he was unaware of the source of the Alerce timber he marketed, but the court found his testimony unconvincing. The court noted that Schwerter paid ridiculously low prices for the Alerce he bought, made false statements about how he acquired the timber, paid cash to the loggers without getting receipts, and could not establish the identity or existence of the person from whom he claimed to have received the alerce wood.