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Pulp mill company sued
Latin America Data Base
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Historic legal action opens up scrutiny to lucrative industry in South America.

In the first environmental-damage lawsuit against a private company in the nation’s history, the Chilean government has decided to sue a cellulose pulping company for the large number of deaths of black-necked swans in a nearby sanctuary that at one time was home to South America’s largest population of the species.

The Consejo de Defensa del Estado (CDE) filed suit in the Appeals Court of Valdivia — 790 km (490 miles) south of Santiago — against Celulosa Arauco y Constitucion (Celco), part of the Angelini Group, Chile’s second-largest business conglomerate. The suit was filed after the Universidad Austral de Valdivia released a long-awaited report on April 18 saying Celco was responsible for major environmental damage in the Carlos Anwandter Nature Sanctuary.

The sanctuary hosted Latin America’s largest population of black-necked swans (Cygnus malencoryphus), about 6,000 at one time. There are only an estimated 300 swans remaining in the reserve after several hundred died and the others subsequently migrated to other rivers and lakes in southern Chile.

The Celco plant, which began to operate in February 2004, dumps its industrial waste into the Rio Cruces before it runs into the nature sanctuary.

Poisoned swans

According to the Universidad Austral report some of the swans were poisoned by toxic-chemical compounds, while others starved as their main food source, a water weed known as luchecillo (Egeria densa), was killed off by the toxic waste dumped by the pulp mill into the Rio Cruces.

Upriver about 32 km (20 miles), the Celco plant in San Jose de la Mariquina altered the composition of the water, according to the report. The emissions of the plant, although treated, increased the presence of heavy metals like iron, manganese, zinc, and copper, along with other chemical compounds, in the water.

Although the swans have become the high-profile symbol of the Rio Cruces disaster, activists point to the damages that the Valdivia plant has caused other species, as well as local residents.

The Angelini Group seeks to minimize its responsibility by pointing to environmental officials who authorized the plant opening during the administration of former President Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle (1994-2000), say legal and environmental specialists.

José Araya, president of the Valdivia-based citizens group Action for the Swans, and attorney Fernando Dougnac of the nongovernmental environmental watchdog Fiscalia del Medio Ambiente, say that the only way to ensure the recovery of the nature sanctuary and the protection of nearby communities is by permanently shutting down the pulp mill.

The Celco plant near Valdivia, Chile, employs 300 workers and indirectly generates roughly 4,000 jobs, according to company sources. Economic analysts estimate that a three-month closure would result in US$40 million in losses for Celco, and this figure would rise to $150 million if the plant were shut down for a year. Permanent closure could result in $1 billion in losses for the Angelini Group.

Dougnac and others are alarmed by government authorities having yielded to the economic power of the Angelini Group. "Without a doubt, there was absolute negligence on the part of the government authorities, who knew perfectly well what the effects of the plant would be, not only on the wetlands, but on the health of the human population as well," he said.

Unauthorized production

Dougnac says Celco, that had been producing a higher volume of pulp than authorized, hid information from inspection and control agencies, and "lied to the public by claiming that it was living up to all environmental standards."

"We have reports that the polluted water and gas and liquid emissions have affected people’s health, with a rise in health problems including gastric and bronchial ailments," says Adriana Hoffman, a biologist who headed the National Environmental Commission (CONAMA) in 2000 and 2001. "And a doctor who was carrying out a campaign to raise awareness not only about the swans but also about the health risks posed by the pulp mill died late last year when his lung cancer took a turn for the worst because of the plant’s emissions."

Experts think the swan habitat is recoverable, but it could take 20 years for the riparian zone to return to normal.

A somewhat similar case occurred in Minas Gerais, in southern Brazil, where a small pulp mill dumped its waste into a river, killing off fish. But according to Melquiades Spinola at the Center of Studies and Research for the Development of the Extreme South, the worst impacts of the pulp industry are economic and social.

The main damage caused by the four paper and pulp factories operating in the southern part of the state of Bahia is unemployment, while "there are 12,000 families of [landless] campesinos living in camps along the roadsides," Spinola said.

Veracel, a Brazilian-Swedish-Finnish company installed in 1992 in the state of Bahia, promised to generate 10,000 direct and indirect jobs but has only hired 300 workers at the plant and another 1,000 on the tree plantations.

Pulp mills play an important role in forestry around the region as well, as most of the world´s paper comes from pulp. In Chile, the pulping industry is one of the top earners of foreign trade revenue, surpassed only by copper mining. But the lucrative pulping industry, the most profitable sector of forestry, is by no means confined to the borders of Chile.

The species of trees most commonly used to produce pulp, or cellulose, in Latin America are fast-growing eucalyptus and pine, and Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay collectively represent 40 percent of the 10 million hectares (24.7 million acres) of rapid-growth tree plantations worldwide.


The swans have become a symbol
Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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