Pulp mill under construction by the Botnia company on the banks of the Uruguay River
Credit: Guillermo Robles.
Pulp Mills Pit 'Greens'Against Labor
By Darío Montero
Two pulp mills being built along the Uruguay River are fueling hopes for jobs, but are also stirring up fears about environmental harm and threats to human health.
MONTEVIDEO, (Tierramérica).- The all-too-frequently perceived antagonism between protecting the environment and creating new jobs is clearly evident in the construction of two pulp mills on the Uruguayan side of the river that creates the border with Argentina. In addition to threatening bilateral relations between the two countries, the projects pit environmentalists against labor unions.
The mills, being built along the Uruguay River by Spain's ENCE and Finland's Botnia companies, and slated to begin operations in 2007, are fueling hopes for more jobs in the area, but are also stirring up fears of future damage to natural habitat and harm to human health.
Truckers, technicians and hundreds of metal and constructions workers who stand to benefit from a new source of employment are closing ranks against environmental groups who have taken up direct action, invading the land where the pulp mills are being built in the western Uruguayan department of Río Negro.
The environmentalists are also maintaining a roadblock -- in place nearly constantly since January -- along Argentine access roads to the bridges that cross the border river.
"I'd rather die of contamination 20 years from now than die of hunger today from lack of work," says a potential future employee of the mills. Investment in the projects totals 1.8 billion dollars -- a record for Uruguay.
"There will be 5,000 new jobs for three years, and then there will be some 700 stable jobs directly, around 2,000 indirect jobs related to the mills, as well as service-related jobs for 3,000 more," said Omar Díaz, representative of the federation of paper workers on the board of Uruguay's central union PIT-CNT.
That is without counting the almost certain construction of paper factories, which would employ many more, he told Tierramérica, adding that wherever there are pulp mills that produce 1.5 million tons a year, as will these two projected mills, the industrial complement of paper production is a given.
Meanwhile, the environmentalists of Gualeguaychú, the eastern Argentine city located across the river and some 25 km downstream from the construction, fear for their health and the future of the environment, and they believe that an equal or greater number of jobs stand to be lost as a result of the pulp mills.
This notion is reaffirmed by Ricardo Carrere, of the Uruguayan environmental Guayubira Group, who told Tierramérica that "in exchange for 600 jobs, a similar or greater number of jobs could be lost in the tourism sector," which is important in Río Negro and employs over 1,000 people. He says the mills would also affect area beekeeping, fisheries and organic farming.
The tensions between unionists and environmentalists are heating up, especially as a result of the latters' roadblocks that are impeding border traffic between Argentina and Uruguay, two countries that continue in their struggles to overcome the economic collapse suffered just over three years ago.
Spokespersons for the Uruguayan government confirmed for Tierramérica that already more than 200 trucks from Argentina, Chile and Uruguay carrying supplies for the mills have been halted by the local and international environmental activists manning the roadblocks. Some of the truckers are threatening force to get past the blockade.
Also tense is the situation created between the workers who are building the major structures of the mills and the dozen activists from the environmental watchdog Greenpeace, who arrived in January in two motorboats at the port of one of the companies and chained themselves, albeit briefly, to pilings.
The production and bleaching of the wood pulp, the raw material for producing paper, uses great quantities of water and chemicals, including chlorine and chlorine dioxide, caustic soda, oxygen peroxide and sodium hypochloride.
These chemicals generate highly toxic organochlorides (dioxins and furans), which persist in the environment and accumulate in the tissues of animals.
Pressure from the affected populations, activists and the industry's workers themselves led to the search for better technologies to reduce or eliminate pollution, and with it curb the risk of cancer, hormonal and neurological illnesses, infertility, diabetes and debilitation of the immune system.
As a result, the totally chlorine-free (TCF) bleaching system was developed, and its predecessor, the elemental chlorine-free (ECF), the most widely utilized worldwide, will both be implmented in Uruguay by ENCE and Botnia.
"The Finnish unions in the sector assure us that the mills being built are going to be non-polluting, that is, the emissions won't be harmful to the local population or the environment," Díaz told Tierramérica.
The Uruguayan labor leader, who maintains contact with his Finnish counterparts, explained that more than 30 years of operations of these mills has allowed the workers to verify this, and Botnia says it will be using even newer technology here than it has in its country of origin.
"They don't like the fact that investment in this sector is happening abroad, but because they lose jobs, with average monthly wages for skilled operators that are over 4,000 euros (4,800 dollars)," and not because of the environmental question, Díaz said.
He doesn't believe the interests of the labor unionists and the environmentalists are opposites, and he cites the case of the Finnish workers, who joined with the activists to improve the pulp and paper production technology to reduce pollution to a minimum.
"The environmentalist position demands that investors improve the installations, and that is an interest completely shared by the workers," he stressed.
Díaz called for "weaving an alliance between unions and environmentalists that helps monitor other factories in operation that are polluting Uruguay today," saying it is a political mistake for the environmental groups to be so concerned about factories yet to be built and so little about the existing ones.
* Darío Montero is assistant regional editor for IPS Latin America.