Farm machinery on a Uruguayan eucalyptus plantation
Credit: Courtesy of WRM
Uruguay Tries to Solve Its Forestry Puzzle
By Silvana Silveira
Industrial forestry is a solid productive sector in Uruguay, but activists say that its extensive monoculture plantations are harmful to water sources and soils, as well as workers.
MONTEVIDEO, Aug 16 (Tierramérica).- "A Uruguayan consumes 40 kilos of paper per year, compared to 400 kilos consumed by someone in Finland. We produce wood pulp to feed foreign consumption," says sociologist María Selva Ortiz, representative of the environmental group Redes-Friends of the Earth Uruguay.
"But the ecological baggage of that consumption is the damage to our water, our soil, our farmers," she told Tierramérica.
Behind the hundreds of thousands of tons of timber produced as raw material for the paper industry, there is a landscape of damaged roads, extensive crop monoculture, exhausted water resources and degraded soil, according to Uruguayan ecologists.
In Ortiz's view, industrial forest expansion displaces small farmers, foreignizes agricultural land, and damages a culture of food production in this small South American nation.
To portray the transformation of Uruguay's nature map between 1975 and 2009 is one of the purposes of the report "Latin America and the Caribbean: Atlas of Our Changing Environment," produced by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), based on satellite images taken over the course of the last three decades.
The initial findings of the study were presented at the 17th Meeting of the Forum of Environment Ministers of Latin America and the Caribbean, held in late April in Panama.
In Uruguay, known for its extensive plains as part of the South American Pampa, the Atlas shows that the total forested area grew from 45,000 hectares in 1990 to 900,000 hectares in 2009. That change led to a loss in biodiversity, shifts in the water cycle, and degradation of soils, according to UNEP.
Senator Ernesto Agazzi, a member of the governing party and former minister of Agriculture, said the country has 1.5 million hectares of trees, but just 750,000 hectares are native forest.
Nearly all of the rest are plantations of exotic tree species, with eucalyptus covering 70 percent and pine 30 percent. And there are more than three million hectares of land appropriate for forest out of a total national territory of 17.6 million hectares.
The 1987 Forestry Law promoted these crop monocultures in areas of low wool or beef production, through subsidies, tax returns and soft credits. The tree plantations were established in the prairies, Uruguay's most abundant and biodiverse ecosystem, and in areas that were once native forests.
"It was a law presented for the pimps of cellulose," or paper pulp, the former minister told Tierramérica. When the leftist Broad Front (Frente Amplio) won power in 2006, it eliminated the subsidies to the pulp industry, which by then was "economically mature," he said.
"Now to invest in the sector one has to draw up a project that must undergo economic, social and environmental analysis," Agazzi said.
When asked about the environmentalists' warnings about the harm caused by the monoculture tree plantations to soil and water, Agazzi responded that "the threats are in areas of underground water recharging and sandy soils -- the rest is pure speculation without scientific basis."
In his opinion, the activists "tend to fear the tree, as if it were the enemy."
However, activist Elizabeth Díaz, of the non-governmental Guayubira Group, told Tierramérica "the problem isn't trees, but rather the hundreds of thousands of hectares planted, which produce plagues of wild pigs, foxes and parrots."
Ortiz, of Redes-Friends of the Earth, stressed that "scientific research from all parts of the world states that water sources should not be forested" with those species, "in order to protect the flow of water."
"We are intensively foresting the sources of the Tacuarembó River watershed (in the north) and of the Santa Lucía (in the south)," she said. The first is a tributary of the Río Negro, which has three hydroelectric dams. The second supplies potable water to 70 percent of the country's population.
According to the "Portrait of Forestry Workers," conducted in 2009 by the labor union-based Cuesta Duarte Institute, more than 90 percent of the 16,000 Uruguayan forest workers, concentrated in the northern provinces of Paysandú, Rivera and Tacuarembó, are subcontracted.
The conditions "have improved a great deal in the last five years as a result of the creation of Salary Councils and the law on outsourcing, because a good portion of the work is done by subcontracted companies, synonymous with ongoing fraud against the workers," said Fernando Oyanarte, secretary-general of the Union of Timber Industry Workers.
"But because of the unique qualities of forestry work, it is difficult to organize workers, who are dispersed among areas with difficult access and are always on the move. Today they are working with one contractor, and tomorrow with another," Oyanarte told Tierramérica.
One such worker is Pablo Litrizon. He was hired by Nazca Forestry Services, which supplies the Forestal Oriental company, which in turn supplies the pulp mill belonging to the Finnish corporation UPM, located on the Uruguay River.
"There are two ways of working with the companies: the multinationals, which try to respect the existing legislation, and a bunch of small companies that work under a slave regime, with no decent housing, poor meals, and a lot of other shortcomings," he said.
"The coveralls we wear should be changed every 10 hours because of the applications of pesticides, but they are used until they are worn out," said Litrizon, union representative in Paysandú.
According to the general manager of the Forest Producers Society, Edgardo Cardozo, in the last 20 years more than 2.4 billion dollars have been invested in the sector. "Today the key is caution, given that not all countries have overcome the 2008 crisis," Cardozo said in a Tierramérica interview.
The Chilean company Arauco and the Swedish-Finnish Storo Enso are preparing to build a new paper pulp mill in southwestern Uruguay. But other plans have been cast into doubt.
Industrialized forestry generates some 600 million dollars in revenues annually, not counting UPM's production, according to engineer Pedro Soust, director general of forestry for the Ministry of Agriculture.
The certification processes, which establish labor standards and best practices, are valuable parts of the chain of production, he said.
* IPS correspondent.