Chile: Firewood Prohibition Decree Freezes Temuco

Chanting slogans such as “Everybody or nobody,” “Wake Up Temuco!,”, “Minister, I'm cold”, among others, hundreds of residents of the west side of the city of Temuco took to the streets to protest a decree forbidding the use of wood-burning heating stoves in the city. The decree was issued by national and regional health and environmental authorities.

During the winter, wood is the main heating source because it is easily acquired and because of its low cost. Nonetheless, it is also the most polluting source. The high levels of pollution that existed in the city led authorities to restrict its use.

Temuco is the capital of the Cautin Province and is located 691 kms. from Santiago, in the Araucania Region. The region is one of poorest of the country, according to the CASEN 2011 national poverty survey [es]. Temuco is located in the mid-southern region of Chile, an area with changing weather patterns and temperatures ranging from -5°C (June) y 36°C (February).

Contaminación en Temuco. Foto de Carlos Riquelme en Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Pollution in Temuco. Photo by Carlos Riquelme in Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The so-called “black earthquake“[es] (word “earthquake” used to associate the disastrous consequences of the pollution with the consequences of the prevailing earthquakes in the country), a black layer of smog that covers Temuco, became a critical situation in June of this year and inspired diverse reactions from city residents.

From Temuco, Manuel Lazo (@mlazogutierrez) [es] referred to the air's poor quality, describing it as an unbreathable mixture of smog:

at this time in #Temuco, there's 10% fog and 90% pollution. the air is unbreathable again.

Constanza Manosalva (@ConiManosalva) [es], who also shared this opinion, used the hashtag #TemucoIrrespirable (#UnbreathableTemuco) to comment:

This graph says a lot. In #Temuco we are being poisoned. it is absolutely DISGUSTING. #UnbreathableTemuco

As days passed, the situation became even more critical. An environmental emergency was declared in the city. Luis Diaz Robles (@luisdiazrobles) [es], Director of the Environmental Engineering School at the Catholic University of Temuco (UCT, by its Spanish acronym), reported the following:

More than 2 days with #EmergenciaAmbiental (Environmental emergency) because of PM2.5 in Temuco #TerremotoNegro (Black earthquake)

On another end, Alberto Lagos (@RNE_20_TEMUCO) [es] described the effect that air's quality was having on the population's health:

Children coughing, wearing masks, suffocated. The elderly fairing badly in public health centers due to the bad quality of the air #NoMásHumo (No more smoke)

YouTube user clave9cl shared this video depicting a “cacerolazo” (form of protest popular during Chile's dictatorship, whereby protestors peacefully bang pots and pans) against the prohibition to use wood in Temuco:

Although the prohibition has contributed positively to improving the air's quality, there has been controversy about the centralism with which national authorities made their decision. According to citizens, they have ignored the local reality. This was the case with Nestor Contreras F (@Nestorbox) [es], who suggested:

The problem with centralism is political willingness. Those making the decisions are from Santiago and they think the country works the same everywhere

In her Facebook page, Bernardita Ruffinelli, journalist and blogger, posted [es]:

… ¿quién prohíbe ese uso sin considerar subvención de otros tipos de combustible en una ciudad donde hay invierno al menos 7 meses al año? se les olvida parece, que es la región más pobre del país, que la leña es la forma más económica de calentar sus hogares; pero les prohibimos comprarla y no les rebajamos los costos prohibitivos de los otros medios. Yo me sigo preguntando muy en serio, quién está tomando las decisiones políticas que atan de manos a los temuquenses?…

Who prohibits the use [of wood] without considering a subsidy for other types of fuels in a city where there is winter for at least 7 months of the year? They have forgotten that this is the poorest region in the country; that wood is the cheapest way to heat homes, but we prohibit its use without loweing the costs of other fuels. I keep wondering – very seriously- who is making these political decisions that tie the hands of Temuco residents?

This opinion is shared, in part, by the “No+Smoke” movement (#nomashumno) [es]. Although the movement is against the use of wood stoves as heaters, they suggest the use of sources of heating that pollute less. Furthermore, they suggest a government subsidy to purchase these fuels. The No+Humo movement introduced a petition [es] during a march through the streets of the city on June 8, 2013.

Carolina Aedo, an occupational health psychologist and a follower of the “No+Humo” movement, said [es] the following about the prohibitions in her Facebook wall:

Apagar las estufas en forma impositiva no es la respuesta a nuestros problemas de contaminación. No estoy de acuerdo con estas medidas autoritarias impositivas que una vez más quieren tapar el sol con un dedo, sin ni siquiera sentarse a dialogar soluciones que sí pueden ser plausibles Hay muchas otras medidas que tomar.

Turning off stoves in an imposing manner is not an answer to our pollution problems. I don't agree with these authoritative, imposing solutions that do not solve the problem, without even allowing for the discussion of solutions that are indeed plausible. There are many other measures that need to be taken.

Although in the past few weeks pollution levels in the city have dropped considerably (due to the combined effect of the prohibition to use wood stoves and intense rain and wind storms in the region), there is a citizen outcry demanding concrete solutions from authorities. Solutions seem to lie on the continuation and increase of subsidies for the purchase of certified wood heaters, as well as on innovative and alternative forms of heating and subsidies to fund them in the medium and long terms.

Aire Sur Chile (@Aire_Sur_Chile) [es], a Twitter user whose objective is to provide information about measures to reduce atmospheric pollution in the south of Chile, addressed the authorities to demand solutions beyond the immediate response to the current emergency:

@Aire_Sur_Chile: #Temuco a definitive solution to pollution from the authorities is of utmost importance, not only managing the emergency.

As an online debate unfolded about the increase in pollution after few rainy days, Danterana (@Danterana) [es] said is in favor of subsidies because finding a solution is a problem meant to be solved by the state:

…the State is the one who has to solve the problem. They ought to provide subsidies for hearting

A similar opinion was that shared by Marcela Farias (@lamarcefarias) [es], who expressed her disagreement with restrictions she thought were arbitrary:

Let’ find real solutions: subsidizing heating systems, educating, but not restricting in an arbitrary manner in #Temuco

In its official Twitter account, the Green Ecologist Party (@ecologistachile) [es] highlighted alternative forms of heating that are proven to be more efficient:

Geothermal energy wells in Chile can supply 280 thousand homes – something like [the cities of] Valdivia and Temuco together #NCRE [non-conventional renewable energy]

Journalist Mauricio Hoffman (@mauriciohoffman) [es] highlighted an alternative solution proposed by presidential pre-candidate and business manager Franco Paris:

From Temuco, Franco Parisi addresses the environmental emergency and measures taken. [He] proposes to bring natural gas to the area @OasisFMChile

On the other hand, Deputee Germán Becker (@gbeckera) [es], representative from the 50th district (including Temuco and Padre las Casas), said -without providing further details- that they are working on alternative and cheaper heating forms:

We are working to attain other forms of heating that are similar in value to firewood. Soon there will be news!!! #Temuco

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