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Argentines protest Uruguayan paper mills, 2005-2008
Argentina and Uruguay have a history of friendly diplomatic relations, with their countries sharing similar heritages, mutual alliances and significant cultural and political ties. However, following the 2005 announcement of the construction of two paper mills on the Uruguayan side of the Uruguay River (which serves as a boundary between the two countries), Argentina and Uruguay experienced their first significant diplomatic tensions since the 1970s.
In 2003, Spanish pulp producer ENCE got permission from the Uruguayan government to build a pulp mill in Fray Bentos, a small town along the Uruguay River. Two years later, in 2005, Finnish company Botnia also received approval to build a mill of their own in the same town. These two plants represented the single biggest foreign investment in the history of Uruguay, with Botnia’s $1.2 billion factory alone creating 2,500 direct and indirect jobs and accounting for two percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
However, with the factories’ close proximity to the river, there were some who worried about its impact on the surrounding environment and the potential for air and water pollution. On April 30, 2005 - just two months after the approval of the mills was made public - a group of about 10,000 demonstrators organized by the Environmental Assembly of Gualeguaychú (a town on the Argentinean side of the river) gathered to block the International Liberatador General San Martín Bridge, which connected Gualeguaychú and Fray Bentos. The protestors hoped that by raising awareness of the possible negative environmental effects of the mills, they could stop their construction or at least encourage them to adopt practices that would not harm the river.
The protestors refused to let any vehicles pass except cars and trucks from nearby farms. However, Uruguayans who habitually shopped on the Argentine side of the border, where many articles are cheaper due to the difference in exchange rates, were allowed to cross the bridge, park near the roadblock, and walk through the crowd of demonstrators, after which they got into a rental car to take them to the stores. According to the protestors, the shoppers were allowed to walk through unmolested and their cars were left untouched.
The protests continued intermittently for the next couple of months and gained diplomatic weight when the governor of the Argentine province of Entre Ríos, Jorge Busti, stated his support for it in July and the Argentine chancellor Rafael Bielsa went personally to Gualeguaychú to meet the protestors. The combination of the protesters’ ability to gain diplomatic attention and Uruguay’s outrage at having a major road blocked (not only to construction trucks and equipment but also to tourists, a major part of their summer revenue) led to the involvement of both country’s governments in the dispute.
The Uruguay River is shared by the two countries and is protected by a treaty that requires both parties to inform the other of any project that might affect the river. Besides the issue of pollution, Argentina claimed the Uruguayan government had not asked for permission to build the mills. Uruguayan authorities countered that the Treaty does not require that permission be obtained, but merely that the other part be appropriately informed, and that conversations had indeed been held and filed, without objections on the Argentinean part. In addition, they claimed that the technology used in the mills would avoid polluting the river to the extent claimed by Argentineans. These arguments were presented to various international bodies, including the Organization of American States, Mercosur, and the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
In September 2005, Argentina’s Center for Human Rights and Environment (CEDHA) filed a complaint to the Compliance Advisory Ombudsman of the World Bank (which had agreed to finance the project). After a few months, the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation released an impact study of the two mills that stated that the technical requirements of the mills had been fulfilled and the quality of the water and the air in the region should not be harmed. However, the IFC said it would wait for further consultations to be made before finalizing the study and thus before financing the projects.
Meanwhile, on December 23, about fifty of Gualeguaychú’s residents again blocked the San Martín Bridge, using rubble, logs, and vehicles. The blockade started at 5 a.m., angering many drivers who were forced to take a detour to the next bridge, which went from Colón to Paysandú. The Environmental Assembly of Colón later joined the protest and blocked their bridge as well. In response, the Uruguayan chancellor Reinaldo Gargano accused Argentina of violating Mercosur regulations of freedom of circulation of goods and requested that measures be taken to avoid harming the tourist season. Argentina refused.
The campaign against the pulp mills gradually grew as it was joined by environmentalists from other Argentine provinces opposed to investment by polluting industries. On December 30, The Environmental Assembly of Gualeguaychú, joined by the assemblies of other border towns, Colón and Concordia, began a long-term protest - blocking the three bridges that link the province of Entre Ríos with Uruguay and handing out pamphlets and explaining to passers-by the reason for their rejection of the paper factories. Uruguay countered by printing their own pamphlets to be handed out to Argentine tourists, informing them of the technical aspects of the environmental safety of the factories.
In February 2007, the presidents of the two countries involved, Tabaré Vázquiz of Uruguay and Néstor Kirchner of Argentina, met in order to find a solution for the conflict. Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel offered to mediate with the environmental assemblies, urging them to end the blockades while talks were conducted. The demonstrators held several votes, but each time the protestors decided to maintain the blockade. On March 16th, about 10,000 participants held a competing protest in Fray Bentos for the pulp mills. The participants claimed they were defending their rights and the sovereignty of Uruguay.
A few days later, at the urgings of the Argentine government, on March 20, the Assemblies gathered again and voted to lift the blockades of the bridges. The San Martín Bridge had been blocked consistently for the past 43 days. The assembly decided to wait seven days for the Uruguayan government to reciprocate by suspending the construction of the mills while discussions were held. On March 26, both Botnia and ENCE announced they would suspend the work for 90 days in order to contribute to the opening of dialogue. Botnia had completed 45% of its project but had yet to start construction of the mills themselves and ENCE had not started any construction yet. However, although the protestors, companies, and the country’s presidents had all agreed to these terms, Botnia restarted construction after only 10 days of suspension. While the reasons for this are unknown, the Gualeguaychú Assembly responded by once again resuming the blockade (against the advisement of national government). While the government of Argentina supported the protests, it believed that by blocking the flow of traffic the Assemblies were actually strengthening Uruguay’s complaint that the blockade violated the treaty of free circulation of goods and people between the two countries.
The relationship between the political actors of both countries became tense after the resumption of the blockade. Catholic Church leaders in both vowed to facilitate the dialogue (though specifically not to act as mediators), however the governments of Finland and Spain denied the possibility of intervening in the affairs involving Botnia and ENCE. The dispute, however, was not destined to stay isolated in South America. On May 11, 2006, at the opening of the European Union, Latin America and Caribbean Business Summit in Vienna, Austria, the presidents’ official photo shoot was interrupted by the Carnival Queen of Gualeguaychú, Evangelina Carrozzo. Carozzo had entered the event with a Greenpeace activist, both with press passes, and once the photo shoot was about to begin, she swiftly took off her overcoat, leaving only a tasseled bikini, and held up a sign reading “No Pulpmill Pollution” before being taken away by security.
The next two months were relatively calm, both among the protesters and the pulp mills. However, when on July 13 the International Court of Justice ruled that Argentina had not convinced the court that Uruguay’s actions were enough to grant a provisional measure halting the construction of the two pulp mills, the Assemblies of Gualeguaychú and Colón organized a protest march, but chose to avoid road blockades, at least until the summer. During the next few months, taking advantage of the high tourist traffic of Argentines going to the coast of Uruguay, protesters handed out flyers to drivers along the road to raise awareness about the risks of pollution and inform them about their demands. Although traffic was slowed, the roads were never blocked.
On September 21, ENCE president Juan Luis Arregui announced that the construction of the Fray Bentos mill (of which construction had barely started) would be stopped and the project would be relocated 250 kilometers south of its original position, away from the Uruguay River. His reasoning, as stated in a press release was that “there could not be two pulp mills in Fray Bentos.” However, ENCE had vowed for years that it would never change its location, and in a critical report written by The Economist, it proposed that Arregui’s decision may have been a result of pressure from the Argentine government. Whatever the reasoning, three days later, on September 24, thousands of Gualeguaychú residents marched along Route 136 to celebrate ENCE’s withdrawal and to demand that Botnia do the same.
Botnia, however, continued construction of the mill on schedule and so, on November 3, the Gualeguaychú Assembly decided to stage a new blockade. They erected a concrete wall for the duration of the weekend displaying signs against the pulp mill. Later that month, King Juan Carlos of Spain agreed to facilitate the renewal of negotiations between the two countries. However, when the countries met, both sides refused to compromise and negotiations came to nothing. Both sides apologized to the King and promised to continue dialoguing among themselves. President Vazquez of Uruguay expressed his confidence that an agreement would be reached saying, “because if we in the government fail to find the road to a solution, the people will do so, given that Uruguayans and Argentines are much more than neighbors - they are brothers and sisters.”
The antagonism didn’t just exist between the “brothers and sisters” of the two countries, but also between the conflicting ideals of protecting the environment and creating new jobs. Environmentalists were often pitted against labor unions during these protests as the thousands of truckers, technicians, metal and construction workers who stood to benefit from this new source of employment began to oppose the environmentalists. One side worried about the loss of jobs if the mill construction was stopped while the other worried about the negative environmental effects if the work continued. Despite general hostility, there were never any reported acts of violence between the two groups.
Despite the periodic roadblocks of the San Martín Bridge, on November 9, 2007, the Uruguayan government gave final approval to produce pulp at the Botnia mill and on November 15 the mill produced its first load. The IFC released reports stating that the mill was operating in accordance with the IFC’s environmental and social requirements and international best available technology standards. It stated that the mill would generate major economic benefits for Uruguay and not cause harm to the environment.
Unconvinced, but with their roadblocks no longer supported by the Argentinean government, the Assemblies (as well as other artists and environmentalists) gathered to make a memorable “last stand” in the minds of the observers. In April 2008, with the help of the non-profit Art for Earth, the protestors created a public candle art statement by lighting over 4,000 candles in the shape of Botnia’s pulp mill’s chimney with hundreds of crosses reaching towards the shore of the Uruguay River. (See video and photos here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IqfZiybjudk, http://artforearth.110mb.com/index.php?p=2_5)
Though the signs and posters remained along the roads leading to the San Martín Bridge, the protests and road blockades became much less frequent and organized as the years went by.
Botnia continued to produce paper and environmentalists continued to worry about its effects. Though the protesters succeeded in relocating one plant (ENCE), Botnia was not persuaded by their campaign. In April 2010 the International Court of Justice ruled that Uruguay had violated procedural obligations when constructing the Botnia mill, but that those violations did not require the dismantling of the mill. The Botnia mill continued to operate, with a new Argentine-Uruguayan commission, CARU, to monitor the pollution in the area.