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Smoky air puts spotlight on Chile's tree farms

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Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

(Read caption) Firefighters walk past a cloud of smoke during a forest fire in the rural town of Melipilla at Bollenar area, about 44 miles southwest of Santiago, January 7, 2014.

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Our correspondent in Chile woke yesterday to the thick smell of smoke. He looked outside: Santiago’s air had turned blue, and an office tower one block away was difficult to see amid the haze from a number of weeks-long forest fires that have caused more than $100 million in property losses and will hit the timber, tourism, and insurance industries.

But Chileans are unlikely to respond to the crisis in any measurable way, says our correspondent in the capital city, home to 40 percent of the nation’s population. Air pollution is accepted by many Chileans, and ecology ranks low on the totem pole compared to economic interests from tree farming.

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“Chile has a very weak ecological consciousness,” says our correspondent. “Forest fires are another issue in a giant pile of policy problems, and I don’t see them catching much attention.”

While authorities issued an alert on Wednesday due to the choking smoke, Santiaguinos are accustomed to health alerts as the city’s geography lends itself to inversions that trap pollution in low-lying areas.  

“Today the air is still hazy, but a breeze overnight cleared out the smoke,” he says. “People are walking in the streets, but fewer than normal.”

The tourism industry will feel a hit from the fires, as will insurers.... For the rest of the story, continue reading at our new business publication Monitor Frontier Markets.