Exit Route 5 South to the Conflict Zone

By Kyle Thiermann

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We left Santiago at midnight. Three gas station coffees later, the clock on my dashboard hits 7 a.m. and I am still driving south.
Chile’s Route 5 is a straight highway that spans more than 2,000 miles. Behind mining, logging is Chile’s second largest industry. This far south, the only vehicles that accompany us on this long, straight road are 18-wheeler trucks hauling lumber, much of which will be exported to the United States.
Two Chilean producers and our shooter have covered themselves with blankets in the backseat of our rental car and all three of them seem to have entered deep REM sleep.
The lack of curves in the road and the identical tollbooths that require us to stop periodically make the highway feel like one relentless treadmill. The odometer says I’m doing 120 kph, but I question whether we’re actually moving at all.
When I stop at a Pemex station along Route 5 to refill my coffee cup and gas tank, everything looks the same as the previous station. The coffee machine is placed on the left side of the store, just like the one we visited two hours prior. The cashiers are all women and they all wear the same white button-up shirt.
As I drive, my teeth chatter from the caffeine and although I am sleep deprived, I feel hyper-aware of my surroundings. As the car’s clock passes 7:15 a.m. and the darkness gives way to a thick morning fog, I notice that each 18-wheeler seems to carry the same type of lumber—Monterey Pine.
The Monterey Pine is native to three very limited areas located in Santa Cruz, Monterey, and San Luis Obispo counties, but its rapid growth and desirable lumber and pulp qualities have led to it replacing much of Chile’s native forests. This tree is a focal point of the conflict we are here to cover for Seeker Network, the digital media outlet that I work for as a host.
Chile’s indigenous tribe is known as the Mapuche. They make up about 9 percent of the total population and are now in a violent turf war with the Chilean police and lumber companies who they claim stole thousands of hectares of Mapuche land that is now used for logging.
As we finally exit the long highway and enter the rural town that is our destination, I notice Monterey Pine trees growing in 4-by-4-meter rows in the surrounding mountains. In front of us I see armored cars and police carrying AK-47s.
In recent years this conflict has become more violent. As we arrive in front of the courthouse, I see 10 Mapuche dressed in traditional attire standing in a circle outside. Last month, these Mapuche shut down the local municipalities in protest and are now being charged for trespassing.
Although I drove all night to arrive in this small town in Southern Chile, the temperature feels like Santa Cruz on a foggy summer morning. I inhale deeply and the smell of the pine trees makes me feel closer to home than I really am.

View the mini-documentary at kyle.surf/blog.


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