Monday, May 20, 2019
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Fighting cellulose plants
Hernán Scandizzo
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Paper plant’s construction could cause severe contamination in one border town.

The possible installation of two cellulose plants in the Uruguayan city of Fray Bentos, on the border with Argentina, has given way to many bilateral protests and diplomatic friction in recent months.

Uruguayan authorities sustain that the plans which include the plant’s location on the banks of the Uruguay River, will spark millions of dollars in investments that will improve the region’s economy and generate jobs.

Opposition to the plant emphasizes the contamination this industry causes, but it tries not to limit the debate to the two-fold "healthy environment versus investment and development", and instead, put in the center of the polemic, the model forest paper plant that intends to consolidate within the region, beyond national borders.

The discord was propagated by the Spanish company ENCE-Eufores — the European leader and the world’s second-largest producer of eucalyptus globulus bleached cellulose — and the Finnish company Metsa-Botnia, the world’s third-largest paper producer.

The conflict became a part of both nations’ agendas following an April 30 march of more than 30,000 people. Residents from affected cities on either side of the Argentine-Uruguay border occupied the General San Martin Bridge on the Uruguay River for six hours.

Following the mobilization, Argentine authorities broke their three-year silence on the issue (the cellulose projects were publicized in 2002) and objected to the plan. At first, they solicited their Uruguayan counterparts that considered the relocation of the plants, a right that was granted by the Uruguay River statute, that outlined the conditions for the rivers management.

But Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez denied this request. In response, in early July, the Argentine foreign ministry began negotiations with the World Bank to block a credit that would give the plants eight percent of the financing needed for construction.

After the dust settled, both countries’ governments agreed on July 22 to give a 180-day period to a bilateral comission to study the plants’ potential environmental impact . However, according to Uruguayan Foreign Minister Reinaldo Gargano’s comment to the Argentine daily Pagina 12, the matter will be resolved with the environmental impact study by the International Financial Corporation, a part of the World Bank Group.

Also important is that the region’s press portrayed the Argentine-Uruguayan relationship as a relaxed one, but what for those who question these projects, things are not exactly tranquil.

Statements aired on the radio station La Tribu de Buenos Aires, Uruguayan Víctor Bacchetta, of the Environmental Journalists Network said that it is impossible "to have the lofty expectations that the government expressed in its statement ‘investment is fundamental’ and establish a counterpoint between the solution for social and environmental problems". "As if they could separate: first we are going to resolve the social [problems], then we will think about the environmental ones" he continued. his is a false dichotomy that is being used to justify investments that do not have effective environmental support."

For its part, the Gualeguaychu Environmental Assembly (AAG), that brings together the population of this Argentine city neighboring Fray Bentos, said that the position of Argentine President Néstor Kirchner’s administration has abandoned its environmental defense efforts by refusing to demand an immediate stop to the project’s development.

The first argument wielded against the plants is their use of chlorodioxide in the cellulose bleaching process, which is a principal substance in the production of dioxides, which are highly carcinogenic.

Héctor Rubio, of the AAG, said that the paper industry generates the second-highest contamination levels in the world.

"I had the opportunity in October 2003 to go to Pontevedra to see the ENCE plant," Rubio said. "There, I was able to review all of the disasters it had created."

"Pontevedra has the sad privilege of being the Spanish city whose population has the highest incidence of respiratory infections, all caused by fumes from this factory," he continued in a radio program.

In Chile, the Celulosa Arauco and Constitución (CELCO), another cellulose plant, was sued for causing a level of contamination so high in the nearby Carlos Andwanter Natural Reserve that 6,000 black-necked swans died, and severe health problems were reported for the area’s population.

The conflict brought to the surface other links to similar cases.

According to Rubio, the "problem is that the [businesses] arrive at the dirtiest part of paper producing process. Here, what they make is the paste, not the paper. There is no value added to the production, the paste is sold this way, and shipped to Europe."

Bacchetta adjusted his criticism of the forest paper plant model.

"These plants are being constructed because a forestation project, the artificial planting of very important trees was orchestrated by the previous governments," he said. "And this is registered in a policy known internationally for its negative impacts that the World Bank and International Monetary Fund gave incentives for."

Uruguay had forested 600,000 hectares (nearly 1.5 million acres) with eucalyptus trees, while Argentina forested 1.2 million hectares (nearly 3 million acres)

According to studies by the World Movement for Tropical Forests, headquartered inthe uruguayan capital Montevideo, the propagation of this monoculture reduces the surface area destined for stockbreeding and agriculture, eliminating jobs and accelerating the desertization process given the high rate of water absorption these trees have.


The bridge above the Uruguay River has been the scene of numerous protests by both Argentines and Uruguayans against the construction of a cellulose factory in this border town.
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