Flying into the southern Chilean city of Concepción, a magnificent pine forest stretches below, carpeting the slopes of the coastal mountains and running down to the Pacific shore.footnote1 Yet as Thomas Klubock reveals in La Frontera, the pines are not really forests at all but vast plantations of North American conifers. Aerial spraying has purged them of insect, fungal or vegetable life. The endless stands of Monterey pine have none of the variegated life associated with native woodland ecosystems—no intermingling of plant and tree species, no underbrush or climbing creepers, no leaf mould, no animals, no people. Concepción, at the mouth of the River Bío Bío, is the gateway to Chile’s industrial forestry region which stretches south for several hundred miles, bordered by the Andes to the east and by the coastal cordillera to the west, down to the far-south city of Valdivia and the region of the great lakes. Forestry is the country’s third-largest source of foreign exchange, after mining and industry, and the Monterey’s success story has been claimed as a key to the ‘Chilean miracle’, a paradigm for green development.

In the nineteenth century this region was known as la frontera, lying beyond the territorial-administrative boundaries of the Chilean state when it won its independence in 1810. It was—and is—home to the Mapuche people, who had defended it against both the Incas and the Spaniards, as acknowledged in the Treaty of Quillin in 1641. At that time, the land was forested with Chilean beeches—the deciduous raulí and roble, the evergreen coigüe—and araucaria pines, intermingled with vines and wild bamboo; further south, in the temperate rain forests of Valdivia, there were gigantic, ancient cypresses, a match for California’s redwoods. Since the 1990s, Mapuche communities have staged a series of land invasions of the Monterey plantations, most now owned by Chile’s largest financial conglomerates, challenging the pines’ image as a ‘green’ motor of development and pointing to their destructive effects on the local ecology: acidification of the soil, desiccation of rivers and streams, destruction of flora and fauna by aerial spraying. Mapuche protesters were brutally repressed by the democratic Concertación governments that followed Pinochet—their militants shot, their leaders imprisoned. Klubock’s La Frontera is a masterly social and environmental history of the region, examining both ruling-class strategies and campesino and Mapuche resistance, and complementing his earlier investigation of copper-mining settlements in central Chile, Contested Communities (1998). In his new book, forestation provides the prism through which to examine the long arc of Chile’s capitalist state formation and its transformation of the frontier’s ecological and social landscapes. His goal is a history of environmental change ‘from the bottom up’. It may also help to shed light on the nature and ideologies of Chilean class relations. As Klubock points out, the question of how a country noted for the political stability of its multi-party system could descend into the state terror of Pinochet’s 17-year military dictatorship is less puzzling when viewed from its restive southern frontier.

Though travel writings and colonial officials’ recollections cultivated a myth of the Southern Cone’s pristine virgin forest, a terra nullius, in fact the territory had long been shaped by human intervention. The temperate forests and Pacific shoreline provided rich terrain for hunting, fishing and gathering food and medicinal herbs and plants. Mapuches also grew maize, squash, potatoes, quinoa and beans, using small-scale slash-and-burn systems of forest clearance and crop rotation that retained soil fertility. To a more limited extent, they also domesticated alpacas and llamas. The first century of Spanish conquest brought demographic disaster: epidemics of European diseases combined with chronic warfare, Klubock argues, decimated the indigenous populations of central and southern Chile. By the late eighteenth century the Mapuche had recovered and even began to prosper by incorporating the Europeans’ horses, cattle, sheep and crop varieties—wheat, oats, barley—into their traditional forms of livelihood, involving small-scale agriculture, migration between summer and winter pastures for their livestock and relatively long-distance trade, exchanging cattle, ponchos and salt for silver, clothing, tools and alcohol. Moving from habitat to habitat allowed the Mapuche to enjoy a degree of abundance, while minimizing labour and impact on the land, as Klubock notes: ‘Trade along the coast, plains and mountains, as well as with Spanish and then Chilean merchants, combined with seasonal migrations as a strategy for gaining access to products of different ecological zones, producing significant prosperity for independent Mapuche groups.’

By the early nineteenth century, increasing numbers of land-starved Chilean campesinos were settling south of the Bío Bío—living, Klubock suggests, sometimes amicably, sometimes in conflict with their Mapuche neighbours. By the 1840s, growing demand for wheat in California and Australia, roughly equidistant from Chile, helped to intensify competition for land, met by forest burning. Meanwhile from 1850, the former Spanish enclave at Valdivia was expanded by the arrival of 6,000 German settler colonists, fleeing the counter-revolutionary crackdown after the defeat of 1848. From the 1860s, the Chilean state moved to impose its rule on la frontera, its line of military forts advancing southward in the so-called Pacification of the Araucanía, formally completed in 1883; army officers often carved out fundos (estates) for themselves as they went. Already by 1866, however, the law asserting state ownership over the newly conquered land restricted the migratory Mapuche to reducciones, permanent settlements, with no rights to the land they’d previously roamed. The reducciones were small—around 5 hectares a head, while the colonos had closer to 40 hectares a head—and non-alienable, ruled by a male family head or lonko. This incremental dispossession of self-governing indigenous zones was paralleled on the Argentine side of the Andean cordillera by the extermination of the Patagonian Mapuche, officially commemorated as the Conquest of the Desert.

The reducciones served largely to pen the Mapuche into settlements on the cordillera foothills, freeing the fertile valley floor for large-scale landowners. Denied access to their fields, the Mapuche were compelled to rely on their livestock, hunting and gathering, expanding trade networks or staging cattle raids across the Andes—around 3,000 metres at this latitude—to the Argentine pampas. Klubock points out that national mythologies of the 1883 defeat of the Mapuche were low-key compared to the triumphalism about victory over Bolivia and Peru in the 1879–83 War of the Pacific; the heroic exploits of Chilean soldiers and nitrate miners in the north were celebrated in poetry, monuments, textbooks and songs. He suggests that the reason why the colonization of la frontera was not commemorated in the same fashion was because of its incomplete nature; rebellions, protests and invasions of landed estates persisted for decades after 1883. Violent confrontations between landowners claiming hundreds of thousands of hectares and landless ocupantes (squatters), defrauded Mapuche and aspiring colonos, eventually resulted in a government commission, which toured the south in 1912. As Klubock notes, the commission was treated as a court by a stream of Mapuche and mestizo peasant petitioners, who bombarded the officials with hundreds of claims for land rights against the owners of the fundos.