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Uruguay rejects President’s plea to halt pulp mills

Uruguay Rejects President’s Plea to Halt Pulp Mills

Marcela Valente *

BUENOS AIRES, Mar 1 (IPS) - In a measured tone, Argentine President Néstor Kirchner called on his Uruguayan counterpart Tabaré Vázquez Wednesday to suspend construction of two pulp mills along the border between the two countries for 90 days, until the environmental impact of the factories can be determined.

"I beg Uruguay to listen to me, to accept this humble request. Just 90 days, to allow the world’s best environmentalists to help two sister countries resolve this issue," said Kirchner.

"Ninety days are just a blink of an eye in the long history between Argentina and Uruguay," he added.

Kirchner appealed to people in Uruguay and Argentina to "reestablish a brotherly climate of cooperation," and urged Vázquez to suspend work on the plants and convene a commission of independent experts to "define the criteria to adopt in order to ensure the quality of life" of people living on both sides of the Uruguay River.

The pulp mills are being built on the Uruguayan side of the river, which forms part of the border between the two countries.

Uruguayan Deputy Foreign Minister Belela Herrera ruled out the possibility of a suspension of the work on the factories that are being installed by two foreign companies: Botnia from Finland and ENCE from Spain.

Herrera made her remarks Wednesday after a cabinet meeting held by Vázquez on the anniversary of his first year in office.

For his part, Uruguay’s Minister of Housing, Territorial Planning and the Environment, Mariano Arana, told a Buenos Aires radio station that his government "does not have the legal authority" to bring construction of the two plants to a halt. He also reiterated his argument that the methods to be used by the paper pulp mills will not violate the tenets of sustainable development.

Under an investment treaty signed by Uruguay and Finland in 2002, Uruguay would have to pay heavy damages if it ordered the suspension of work on the Botnia factory.

Kirchner’s request has not modified the position taken by residents of the Argentine town of Gualeguaychú, located across the Uruguay River from the two plants.

The greatest resistance to the factories is concentrated in that town, whose residents are afraid that the pulp mills will cause water and air pollution.

For nearly a month, local protesters have blocked traffic across the bridge joining the two countries near the town. They say they will not lift the roadblock until Uruguay agrees to suspend construction.

Demonstrators have also blocked a bridge farther upstream, between the cities of Colón and Paysandú, for the past two weeks.

Gustavo Rivoller with the Gualeguaychú Citizen’s Environmental Assembly told IPS that the demonstrators would not give an inch, and that he found it "hard to believe" that the Uruguayan government cannot demand a freeze in construction.

He also called on Arana to "stop defending the companies as if they belonged to the state, and allow an independent commission to pronounce itself" on the issue.

If all they offer are "promises that they are going to monitor and mitigate the effects of the plants, we are basically going to live on this highway," Rivoller threatened.

"Uruguay has already stated that it is not going to bring construction to a halt, and that the companies are not going to change their technology. And we will only lift the roadblock if construction is totally paralysed," he added.

In a Feb. 26 article published by the Argentine daily La Nación, journalist Joaquín Morales Solá asked Kirchner: "Do you want the pulp mills or not?"

To which the president responded: "I am opposed to pollution. Period. No one can deny Uruguay an investment that would represent 10 percent of its GDP."

"Uruguay committed errors, and Argentina has committed its own: the roadblocks," he added.

The president "believes that the members of the Gualeguaychú Assembly feel that they are on a crusade, which has distanced them from any sense of reality. Can’t he do something to deal with the protesters? ‘I cannot ask them for what they won’t give me,’ he responds," wrote Morales Solá.

Rivoller, meanwhile, said that "when we met with (Kirchner) he gave us his support, and told us that we should do what we had to do."

Deputy Minister Herrera reiterated that Uruguay was awaiting a decision by a Mercosur (Southern Common Market) tribunal with respect to Montevideo’s complaint about the traffic blockades set up at two of the three bridges across the Uruguay River.

In his speech to Congress Wednesday, Kirchner referred to the "controversy" over the two pulp mills and port installations that Botnia is building in the Uruguayan town of Fray Bentos.

"On three occasions, Uruguay unilaterally authorised these initiatives, thus violating the Uruguay River Statute," the bilateral treaty that has governed the administration of the river since 1975, which requires either country to inform the other of any undertaking that would affect the river.

Kirchner also said that Uruguay "ignored repeated requests from Argentina for information," as well as the request that the work be brought to a halt until the factories’ cross-border impact on the water and air could be determined in an "objective" manner.

But the intensity of the conflict seems to have eased somewhat, and there are signs that the two governments have taken steps towards a solution.

Despite the statements by Uruguayan officials, closed-door negotiations between Uruguayan Presidential Secretary Gonzalo Fernandez and Argentine Cabinet Chief Alberto Fernandez have reportedly made substantial progress towards a "technical solution," a source who preferred to remain anonymous told IPS in Montevideo.

That solution would involve the imposition of strict environmental standards and controls on the two factories - more stringent than those applied to any other factory in the Mercosur trade bloc (made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay).

The two plants are to begin operating in 2007 and 2008, with a combined production capacity of two million tons a year of paper pulp. The combined total investment of 1.8 billion dollars is the largest foreign investment in Uruguayan history.

The tension over the two factories began to mount in 2003, with protests by Gualeguaychú residents and Uruguayan activists. In 2005 they picked up steam, and protesters in Argentina, backed by the government of the eastern Argentine province of Entre Ríos, stepped up their demonstrations.

A high-level technical group set up last year by the two governments to assess the impact of the plants on the river completed its work in January without reaching an agreement.

The delegates from Argentina complained that Uruguay did not hand over all of the available information on waste treatment and potential air pollution.

After the bilateral commission failed to reach an agreement, Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana announced that his government would turn to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, to complain that Uruguay violated the Uruguay River treaty.

With some reservations, the Argentine Congress backed that route of action in late February. But it urged the Kirchner administration to continue negotiating until all other alternatives had been exhausted.

Although Argentina did not file the complaint, Kirchner warned that that would be the way to resolve the conflict if no bilateral accord were reached.

* Diana Cariboni in Montevideo contributed to this report.

 source: IPS