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The Pehuenche and the Monkey-Puzzle Tree

While traveling with "Expedition Alerce '90", in southern Chile, trekking in a little-known area called Cahuelmo Fjord, I was told about a valley known as Quinquen. Located near the headwaters of the Bio-Bio River, Quinquen lies east of Temuco, near the Chile-Argentina border, Quinquen is the Mapuche word for "place of refuge." There an indigenous community struggles to maintain its connections with the past while the land is being contested by logging interests. The araucaria, the monkey-puzzle tree, sacred to these people, is being cut for profit.

The expedition in Cahuelmo Fjord had been a grueling one; we walked many miles through trackless terrain often choked with nearly impassable vegetation. Our goal was to discover the whereabouts of the giant alerce trees, the ancient and endangered "redwoods" of South America now found only in southern Chile's remote upper reaches. The expedition was a joint effort by Ancient Forest International (AFI), now based in the United States and Chile, and Comite Nacional Pro Defensa de la Fauna y Flora (Codeff), a Chile-based ecology group. Expedition Alerce opened up the possibility for the establishment of an international preserve to protect the fragile beauty of a magnificent fjord area now threatened with development. AFI and Codeff hope to raise the needed funds to purchase all or part of the nearly half-million acres.

Following the expedition, we had the change to visit Quinquen and meet personally with the Pehuenches, "the People of the Trees." We were already filled with potent images of the giant alerce, one of the oldest living trees in the world. Now we would encounter the araucaria, the monkey-puzzle tree. Our minds raced with plans to somehow protect both trees, but we had much to learn, and little time before both trees and the "People of the Trees" were lost to lumber mills and quick profits.

"The People of the Trees"

The Pehuenches are an ancient people, with roots that trace back into the slumbering shadows of prehistory. Originating somewhere in the Argentine pampas, they long ago migrated over the great southern Andes west into Chile. Under the comforting shadows of the sturdy and familiar pehuen - the name they gave to the araucaria - they felt at home. The pehuen stood at the center of their lives. The tree was their religion, their sustenance both spiritually and physically, and the future for their children's children.

The araucaria is virtually a living relic, surviving nearly unchanged for more than 200 million years, and possibly the Earth's oldest living tree species. The tree can attain great height, often reaching more than 150 feet (over 50 meters), and can live well beyond a thousand years. Its thick trunk rises nearly taperless from base to crown, like a giant pillar supporting the sky. Its sharply etched branches twist like monkeys' tails lines with prickly, green, triangular leaves that run their length like bony plates upon the backs of dinosaurs. The tree grows only in the sub-Andean areas, still thriving near the 3,000-4,500-feet level (900-1,500 meters). Rising in elevation from the mixed beech forests of Coihues and Lengas, the araucaria begins to form pure stands, markedly beautiful and strange against the curving outline of a ridge (Frid 1990a).

The Pehuenches were a nomadic people in those days before the Spaniards came. Traveling in relatively small family groups or bands, they were skilled hunters-and-gatherers, finding enough abundance in the trees and on the land to sustain themselves. But then, in 1537, the Spaniards arrived in Chile, and the conquistadors, in all their fine, metaled regalia, were in Chile to stay.

Because they could not distinguish among the peoples they fought in the lands around present-day southern Chile, the Spaniards classed them all as "Araucanos" or "Mapuches," applying these broad labels to many distinct subgroups. The territory of these combined groups then extended from the Aconcagua Valley in the north to the island of Chiloe in the south. The better-armed Spanish forces found they could not defeat those stalwart Mapuche warriors who adapted to the Spanish-introduced horses and defended their homelands with a near desperate effort, just as they had once halted another invader 100 years earlier. The Incas could not subdue the Mapuches either, bestowing on their southern neighbors much respect and distance. Though persistent in their pursuit of battle, the Spanish forces could not overcome the Mapuches' well-planned defense strategies. Yet over the ensuing years the attrition in battle was great, and the many disruptive forces of colonization took their toll. Finally, the two sides compromised and a treaty was signed in the mid-seventeenth century giving the Mapuches title to all lands south of the Bio-Bio River (Crowther 1986:417).

After Chile won its independence from Spain in 1817, an uneasy peace between Mapuches and the new settlers ended; those lands once guaranteed the Mapuches by treaty were being contested anew. The Chilean government embarked on a resolute program of "pacification" beginning in the 1860s, using both force and new treaty agreements. By 1883, more then 300 years after the Spanish invasion, "pacification" was deemed successful. Mapuches who could not be defeated with gun and sword were subdued with handshakes and penned promises. Assimilation followed, whereby many distinct native groups lost their cultural identities, merging with the newly established ladino and mestizo society. Dr. Oswaldo Silve Galdames, director of the department of history at the University of Chile, claims that the Indian contribution to modern Chilean society runs deep, and is underestimated by most Chileans today.

Around 1880 several Pehuenche families came to settle in the valley of Quinquen, having fled from the intensifying "pacification" program (Codeff 1990:3). Here the araucaria still grow, allowing the Pehuenches to continue the dream so long ago begun among the same mountains and valleys of their ancestors. The valley offered them abundant supplies of the piñon fruit from the plentiful old-growth araucaria. In addition to their livestock, the Pehuenches could supplement their income by selling extra piñones to the surrounding communities. (The community of Quinquen has grown to approximately 17 families containing some 140 individuals.) The years between first settlement and today, however, have been fraught with difficulties and new threats.

The Road to Resistance

In the early 1900s, Guillermo Schweitzer, a white cattle rancher, settled on land in the area of Quinquen. He asked the resident Pehuenches permission to graze his cattle in their valley in the summer, offering payment in return. The chieftain, Manuel Meliñir Inainir, accepted his neighbor's offer, and for 10 years their relationship seemed stable. Then, without warning, Schweitzer declared himself the valley's legal owner, claiming that he had bought the land from the state and calling his holdings El Porvenir de Lolen ("Property of Great Extension") (Codeff 1990:3). With a mask of benevolence, he allowed the established families to continue living in the valley. The Pehuenches, confused and burdened anew, began to organize and to make, perhaps, a last stand for their land trees, and culture. Their future as a unique and viable people would depend on the coming years' strategies.

In 1920 Schweitzer mortgaged the Quinquen valley to the government farming cooperative, Caje Agraria, in exchange for a loan. The new title holder auctioned off the property in 1936 to Agostin Lamoliatt, who established himself as the new landowner, still permitting the Quinquen families to reside there. But the Pehuenches' troubles intensified in 1946 when two sawmills belonging to the partnership Lamoliatt-Lledo were installed in the valley (Codeff 1990:3). Logging of araucaria began shortly thereafter. The plights of the araucaria and the Pehuenches were clearly linked. Ironically, the very trees offering the Pehuenches sustenance and protection for passing millennia needed the sure hand of their human counterparts to protect their last virgin stands.

The Pehuenche resistance to logging eventually brought about a repressive response from the contracting logging firm, Fahrenkrog Butendiek, and in 1964 the police were called in to use force against the resisters. Many Pehuenches were seriously injured or abused in the resulting violence. Later that same year the Pehuenches sent an appeal to the president of Chile, Eduardo Frei, but their plea for assistance in reclaiming their lands went unheeded. Rather then dealing with the Indians' claims to the land, the courts instead gave priority to resolving a lawsuit between two lumber companies contesting the Quinquen valley (Codeff 1990:4). While the courts decided company borders to what might otherwise be considered Pehuenche land, the Pehuenches are preparing to defend their valley from further deprecations. But the road to resistance is long.

In 1987 a major fire swept through an extensively forested area in Quinquen valley. Many hundreds of valuable acres were burned and the inferno raged dangerously close to some homes. The logging company operating in the area attempted to blame the Pehuenches for the fire. (The fire was later proven to have been a company-related "Accident.") The Pehuenches believe that the company intentionally started the blaze to make worthless the Pehuenche claims to the land and discredit them further before the courts. The company denies these allegations; the two sides are now more than ever at odds. Meanwhile, one of the real issues goes unaddressed: the araucaria trees are being destroyed, while no effective measures exist to insure proper management and protection.

In 1976 the Chilean government passed Decree 29, intending to end all araucaria logging. The tree was given the enhanced status of "Natural Monument," which prohibits all exploitation of live araucaria. The decree declared that the araucaria "constitutes one of the most valuable natural treasures of the national heritage... and the most authentic and noble of the Mapuche traditions and of the Chilean culture in general." But illicit cutting and burning continued. Once a section of forest was burned, the dead but often useful remains of the araucaria were then logged "legally." This loophole in the law's intent led to many new violations.

By 1985 Corporacion Nacional Forestal (CONAF), part of the Ministry of Agriculture and responsible for the promotion and development of policies for Chile's forests, stated that the araucaria "was a species threatened by extinction." Yet CONAF joined the logging interests lobbying for a new directive regarding the araucaria. In 1987 Decree 141 passed, which effectively removed all protective status for the araucaria and actually authorized new and expanded exploitation of the already beleaguered trees. This decree brought CONAF under closer scrutiny by those opposed to further cutting. One CONAF forester, Alvaro Rojas, claims his agency is having great difficulty managing Chile's remaining old-growth forests because of a serious lack of funds and personnel to properly enforce CONAF's intended functions (Frid 1990b).

A "Natural Monument"?

Codeff, which has the distinction of being Chile's first ecology group, believes that CONAF is in complicity with the logging interests. It states that CONAF has even permitted a near 60 percent increase in logging of the araucaria over the new decree's intended levels. In late 1988, when a delegation of Pehuenches took their case to Codeff, Codeff members launched an intensive campaign to support Pehuenche land claims and protect the araucaria. The increased public awareness about the issues has had an effect, but, according to organizers at Codeff, there has been an increase in logging by the companies intent on taking what they can before the law changes in favor of protection. Codeff asserts that an overcut has already occurred at Quinquen, while CONAF allows continued logging. CONAF disputes this claim, stating that there are no industry violations.

Multinational interests in Chile's timber industry are extensive. A joint Japanese-Chilean wood chip mill is operating in Puerto Montt. Giant factory ships regularly ply the waters between Japan and Chile. One such ship, the Forestal Esmeralda ("Emerald Forest"), was commissioned last year. The huge, 228-meter-long vessel (more than two football fields in length) is owned by a Japanese company, flies the flag of Panama, and is run by a Filipino crew. With a total capacity of 64,000 metric tons, the ship's usual load is around 48,500 metric tons of wood chips. The massive vessel makes five trips a year to and from Japan. A large portion of the existing mountains of wood chips comes from the remaining old-growth hardwood forests. Completion of a second chip mill near Puerto Montt soon promises to double the existing production capacity.

Codeff suspects that this increased demand and production is another reason for the accelerated logging of araucaria and other Chilean forests. An expanding international marker in araucaria is a real concern of Codeff, though it is unable to find accurate data on araucaria export. There is a limited export market to Argentina, but investigators believe that this market is expanding while other foreign markets are being established discreetly. (Ironically, Argentina strictly protects its own stands of araucaria, declaring the tree to be a "natural treasure," while at the same time importing increased levels of Chilean araucaria.) Codeff hopes to bring up the issue of the endangered araucaria at the 1992 meeting of CITES, the United Nation's commission regulating international trade in endangered species. Since CITES bases its recommendations on export figures, Codeff must attempt to gather more accurate data on export of araucaria than the reluctant industry is willing to freely divulge. (CITES has already placed the araucaria on its Appendix 1 list, which classifies the tree as an endangered species in need of international protection.)

Ad Mapu (Agrupacion de Mapuche) is another group defending native land rights. Ad Mapu is run by Mapuche organizers, whose land takeover tactics have caused much controversy in Chile. The Quinquen struggle has been added to Ad Mapu's many issues. "We must regain control of our own destiny, our own land," stated Ad Mapu leader Jose Santos Hillao. "The Mapuche are not only a part of history but we're very much a part of the present." According to Maria Lucy Traipe, Ad Mapu's national president, "We want the opportunity to develop our own culture and further our people's education according to their own idiosyncrasies. We want our language taught to our children in the schools."

The struggle of the Pehuenches at Quinquen has brought some welcome support from the new Chilean president, Patricio Aylwin, who had his son deliver a strong statement supporting the Pehuenche land rights claims. Yet this presidential stance will soon be tested. The Chilean Supreme Court recently ruled against the Pehuenches in their land rights case fighting the land-owner who extended his property lines by simply moving his fence to include an additional 450 hectares. The Supreme Court ruled that the Pehuenches lost their land title long ago, and that they must relocate from the valley. This decision sets a dangerous precedent, but there is no set data for removal. The new administration must decide whether to enforce or ignore this ruling.

"The Young People Will Change"

On our third and last day in the valley, we visited the family of Juan and Maria Meliñir. With them were their three boys, ranging in age from six to eight, and Maria's father, 75, who was the community lonco (having the responsibility of administrating community affairs and gatherings, an honor usually bestowed on the oldest in the community). Juan and Maria greeted our arrival with wide smiles and invited us into their house. We were all seated around the wood stove within the dimly lit, smoke-filled room. The children laughed, playfully hiding from the camera's probing lens. Yet everyone present seemed at ease, determined to relate their story.

Meliñir's grandparents arrived in the valley in 1912 and built their home nearby. When I asked what would become of them if forced to leave Quinquen, Juan answered with little hesitation, "Our life depends on our connection to the trees. We would feel very badly... If we lose this valley, we won't have anything for food and nothing for growing... this would be the worst thing for us!" Maria spoke of the many Indian people displaced from their lands who have moved to the cities seeking work. Acculturation has resulted in loss of language and severance of cultural ties.

Though Maria's own family may live in nearby towns part of the year to supplement their income, their mainstay is still the land. Oftentimes only the men go to the cities, while the women and children stay behind to tend the livestock through the cold winter. Sometimes winter is so cold that they must melt ice or snow for drinking water. Last year was particularly hard; the snowfall was more than 3 feet deep. Looking around, I could not imagine staying warm enough in this cabin through such a winter. The dirt floor and simple furnishings with but one window to let in light were the only amenities in the tiny, thin-walled dwelling, where the graying, handhewn boards making up the walls had wide spaces set between them, possibly to let out the smoke, but surely not to hold back the cold. I asked them if they preferred this harsh lifestyle to the more relative east in the cities. "It would affect us badly if we had to move," responded Juan, "especially the old people... a different kind of weather would cause our health to change. And it would be harder to keep our customs in the cities. ...The outside world seems crazy. We hear the news of tortured people and the problems in the cities."

Juan and Maria both stressed the difficulty of maintaining their customs, especially for the young. "The old people," Juan said, "have their traditional clothing and other ways, but the young people are losing it. The only hope we have is the piñon to keep our connections to the past." Maria spoke poetically, "The old people, they have all their feelings in their blood, and they won't change... but the young people will change." The youth are an important concern for the Pehuenches; their children's futures remain uncertain.

Maria's father's toothless grin and shining eyes betrayed an indomitable spirit within; his answers were direct and certain. He talked at length about the logging of their sacred trees: "In a bad winter, when the cold could kill off all of our livestock, our families can still depend on the piñon to carry us through. The trees provide our only certainty for survival. When the trees are cut, our futures are threatened. The araucaria is stronger than we are ...for thousands of years it's been our only dependable source of life."

The elder reemphasized concern for the children's future. "We need to have a school here in Quinquen. Now we must send our children 30 km away to school. The children sometimes, especially when it snows, must remain for long periods at school and away from home. They often get sick then, and the parents must walk through deep snow to reach them. It would be much better to build a school here ...and a clinic also."

When we took our leave, I asked one final favor of our hosts: a pose for a family picture in front of their home. They happily agreed, but Juan suggested that they stand instead in front of the nearby araucaria trees; the small grove of pehuen would be their background. That last scene, with the Pehuenche family and their trees, and even the family dog stretching out lazily before them, says with me. I cannot imagine the Pehuenches separated from the araucaria. Their natural association has evolved over thousands of years, yet a simple court action and a chainsaw could end their dream.

For the Pehuenches, the trees of Quinquen are their last stand. Though the logging companies may come and go, leaving their marks like locust swarms upon the land, the "People of the Trees" must remain to care for their valley home, to gather their piñones and ensure that the pehuen, like themselves, will not disappear. Only then will Quinquen be their refuge in more than name.

For more than 200 million years the araucaria has withstood the ages passing, seen the birth and death of stars, witnessed the incredible march and loss of the dinosaurs, watched the evolution of mammals and the tectonic drift of the continents. The ancient trees have faced glacial ice and raging fires, floods and droughts, volcanic eruptions and sunspots, but the threat of extinction has never been so real as now, when the monkey puzzle may lose all of its pieces.



1990 Threat of Extinction of the Araucaria and Its Significance on the Pehuenche People, the Quinquen Case.

Crowther, G.

1986 South America on a Shoestring. Oakland, CA: Lonely Planet.

Frid, A.

1990a The Araucaria Forests of Chile: Unique and Endangered. Equinox (Vancouver, BC, Canada).

1990b Bosque Valdiviano: A Unique and Threatened Forest. Equinox (Vancouver, BC, Canada).

Mellafe, R.

1983 Problems demograficos e historia colonia hispanoamericana. In Temas de historia. pp. 45-46. Santiago: Centro de Investigaciones de Historia Americana, University of Chile.

About Piñones

When old-growth araucaria are logged, it will take nearly 500 years to regenerate trees of such quality wood; sustaining an industry dependent on araucaria is impossible. The annual growth rate for araucaria is only 3.5 cm. in height and 1 mm. in diameter. The trees need more than 40 years of growth from sapling to mature tree capable of producing a harvestable crop of piñones. Thus, the Pehuenches' annual harvest of the piñones is adversely affected by logging, threatening once and for all their ancient ties to the cycles of the trees. A culture as well as a tree will find its way into the dark cellars of extinction.

The Pehuenches gather piñones in the autumn months when the nuts are found on the ground, or with effort the clusters are knocked from the upper branches. The "piñas," or female seed clusters that contain the piñones, grow only on the female trees. The male trees bear the pollen for fertilization. Each piña contains approximately 180 seeds, which take about 1.5 years to ripen. Total production varies from year to year and from tree to tree; an araucaria tree can produce on average 60-200 kilos of seeds each year, offering the average family an annual supplemental income near 180,000 pesos (US $600). A sustainable commercial market of piñones has great potential for the Pehuenches, representing a stable economy upon which to build their future.

Rich in carbohydrates, the seeds are an excellent food source, and there are a multitude of methods for preparation. Piñones can be eaten boiled, roasted, or raw. They can be dried or pulverized into a coarse flour to make bread, or fermented in water to make a drink known as mudai. Toasted piñones are ground into chuchoca, which serves as a condiment, and the seeds provide feed for livestock. The piñones also play an important role in the Pehuenche annual celebrations and rituals, and to ensure a good harvest, the "Ngillatun," or ritual gathering held before each autumn harvest, takes place in a clearing within the forest.

How You Can Help

Please write to the president of Chile asking that he live up to his promise to protect Chile's native people's land rights:

President Aylwin

c/o Chilean Consulate

1732 Massachusetts Ave., NW

Washington, DC 20003

Ask him to protect the Pehuenches' land claims and the old-growth forests of Chile, including the alerce and araucaria trees.

Also, please support the April 1991 "Ancient Forest Chautauqua," which will bring a unique public forum on the issues of old-growth forests and indigenous people's perspective before major audiences in more than 20 cities in Canada and the United States. For more information, contact:


Ancient Forest Chautauqua

6321 Roosevelt Way NE, Apt. A

Seattle, WA 98115

(206) 524-0194

For more information on plans to purchase wilderness lands for an international biosphere reserve, contact:

Ancient Forest International

P.O. Box 1850

Redway, CA 95560

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