Forest Fires in Chile Set Alight Debate, Conflict and Misinformation

Photo taken from Creative Commons archive, from the Public Domain.

The fires that have devastated seven of Chile's fifteen regions for months now have proved a dominant theme in media, on social networks and messaging services. While the causes of many of the fires remain unclear, the majority appear to have been started by human carelessness and a lack of preventative policies, combined with natural causes, such as the drought that Chile has been experiencing for the last eight years.

Theories abound as to who is guilty, as Rodrigo pointed out on Twitter:

Who is to blame for the fire, according to Twitter: foreigners, the Mapuche people, ISIS, Pinochet, the State, businesses, the USA. And the common people? No.

As Rodrigo's tweet indicates, the fires have stirred a long-running and complicated conflict between the Mapuche community and the Chilean government over land rights, after a number of unfounded stories emerged in the Chilean media blaming these communities for the fires.

Writer Pablo Simonetti complained:

It's unacceptable that an ex-army Commander in Chief is making such grand claims with no evidence. I won't stand for this.

It's one thing to think differently, it's another to believe any lie that aims to spread hatred. Stories of Mapuches and Colombians being detained are false.

At the same time, the fires have led to solidarity within the South American region, whose governments have sent help, while people in the country are trying to temper the effects of the fire through different strategies, including the use of Bitcoin to raise funds for those affected.

The fires are proving difficult to quell, however. Meanwhile, many online authors are rushing to post their views, urging people to think more deeply about the causes and the contexts of the fires, in an atmosphere thick with rumours and misinformation.

In an article on the online media outlet Pousta, Jaime Villarreal asked his readers to make use of all the information available to them, and to consider the possibility that climate imbalances could be behind the fires:

Siempre es más fácil, en medio de la tragedia, buscar un culpable al que podamos apuntar con el dedo. […] Es vergonzoso como la gran mayoría de las personas se ha dedicado a buscar, en cada rincón de la red, pruebas para culpar de los incendios a algún grupo mapuche o subversivo. […] Lo más peligroso es desde donde estamos tirando nuestros ataques. Basados en pruebas de dudosa reputación, nos hemos dedicado a culpar a un tercero, sacándonos de encima toda responsabilidad colateral/cultural en esta tragedia.

In times of tragedy, it's always easier to find someone to point the finger at… It's shameful how the vast majority of the people have decided to trawl the net looking for evidence that the Mapuches or a subversive group are to blame for the fires… The most dangerous thing is the place we are launching our attacks from. Based on shaky evidence, we have decided to blame a third party, rather than take any collateral or cultural responsibility for this tragedy.

He continues:

Lo otro es que nadie habla o cuestiona cuánto tiene que ver la peor ola de calor en la historia de Chile, o cuánto tiene de responsable esta sociedad enferma […] Esta ola de calor no es una coincidencia. Al revés, es un consecuencia del calentamiento global. Siento desilusionarte, pero tus manos y las mías tienen harto que ver con lo que está pasando. […] Lo dicen los mejores científicos: el calentamiento global es real y una de sus consecuencias es el alza en la temperatura y el aumento en los incendios. […] Bienvenidos al futuro.

On the other hand, nobody talks about or questions how this is related to the worst heatwave in the history of Chile, or how much this damaged society is responsible… This heatwave is not a coincidence. On the contrary, it is a consequence of global warming. I'm sorry to disillusion you, but the fact is that both you and I are involved in what is happening… The best scientists say that global warming is real, and that one of its consequences is a rise in temperatures and an increase in fires… Welcome to the future.

“They [the media] only come in times of tragedy”

Another statement that has gone viral is one made by Matías, a boy from Portozuelo, one of the towns most affected by fires in the Bio Bio region. The boy criticised the media in an interview with a journalist from CNN Chile, for only paying attention to the region when there are problems:

Solo vienen cuando hay tragedias, pero este pueblo antes nunca había aparecido en ningún lugar […] Ahora viene el SuperTanker, antes no venían ni siquiera los helicópteros que habían acá. No había agua, no había nada y ahora que están pasando cosas malas, justo vienen personas, regalan de todo, hacen muchas cosas, pero antes, en los días normales, nunca habían venido a preguntar por el pueblo.

They only come in times of tragedy. Beforehand, this town was never seen by anyone… The SuperTanker is coming now, but beforehand, even the helicopters didn't come here. We didn't have any water, we didn't have anything, and now that bad things are happening people are coming, they give us everything, they do lots of things, but before, when things were normal, no one ever came to see how the town was.

The fires have also led to discussions about forestry policies, which, according to numerous social associations in the region, favour the interests of corporations that bear a share of the responsibility for the fires.

This is how it was reported in the local newspaper El Desconcierto:

En Temuco, Región de la Araucanía, se realizará un mitin […] donde enseguida se realizará un punto de prensa y el ingreso de una carta dirigida al gobierno de Chile y al Congreso de la República exigiendo el fin de todo subsidio y beneficio a los intereses de las grandes forestales.

In Temuco, Araucanía, a meeting will be held… and afterwards, there will be a press release and a letter sent to the Chilean Government and the National Congress demanding an end to subsidies and benefits in the interests of these large companies.

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