A wind turbine in Mexico
A Ray of Hope for the Swans
By Daniela Estrada
Activists applaud the start of an international evaluation phase of a swan sanctuary in southern Chile that was contaminated by pulp mill runoff. They say it is a victory for civil society in its efforts to protect Chile's wetlands.
SANTIAGO, Oct 30 (Tierramérica).- The world's highest authority on wetlands will visit Chile in November to evaluate the problems afflicting the southern nature sanctuary Carlos Anwandter, where the water was contaminated by runoff from a pulp mill, killing hundreds of black-necked swans two years ago.
Peter Bridgewater, secretary general of the intergovernmental Convention on Wetlands, signed in 1971 in Ramsar, Iran, will visit the nature preserve to determine a plan for technical support. He will meet with Chilean officials, local researchers and civil society groups, according to Catalina Bau, director of the governmental National Forest Corporation (CONAF).
The visit comes after the Chilean government filed a request for the sanctuary to be included in the Montreux Record, a list of wetlands of international importance whose ecosystems are threatened.
Bridgewater's visit and inclusion in the list are positive signs from the governments of the "Concertación", the center-left coalition that has governed Chile since 1990, says Eduardo Israel, of the non-governmental organization Action for the Swans (Acción por los Cisnes).
It is "a victory for civil society," he told Tierramérica, noting that two years ago his organization was the first to request a petition for inclusion in the Montreux Record.
"We can recuperate some trust in the authorities. Objective professionals are going to come, without political or economic interests. Things can no longer be hidden," Israel said.
The privately held company Celulosa Arauco y Constitución (Celco) is accused of causing an environmental disaster in the Carlos Anwandter sanctuary -- named in memory of a scientist and philanthropist -- by dumping its wastewater in the Río Cruces, the river that feeds the wetland.
And Celco continues to dump its wastewater in the river, but faces a deadline in April 2007 to present an alternative project for elimination of the mill's waste.
Action for the Swans charged that serious infractions have been committed in the operation of the pulp mill, which annually produces 685 tons of bleached kraft cellulose from pine and eucalyptus and which utilizes elemental chlorine free (ECF) process.
The sanctuary, located in Chile's 10th region, Los Lagos, 840 km south of Santiago, is also known as the Río Cruces wetland, and has the most numerous black-necked swan (Cygnus melancoryphus) population in the South American southern cone.
In 1981 the Río Cruces area was declared a wetland of international importance by the Ramsar Convention.
Twenty-five years later, on Oct. 6, it was added to the Montreux Record because it presented negative changes in its ecosystems that require immediate attention and assessment.
According to the forest agency CONAF, the 4,877-hectare wetland is now home to some 400 black-necked swans. Until 2004, the average population was about 6,000.
In mid-2004, the water of the Río Cruces turned brown, hundreds of swans died, and thousands more left the area. Citizen groups began to publicly denounce the situation, and the government called for investigations, which ultimately put the blame on Celco.
"We evaluated 15 or 16 hypotheses, which we discarded one by one. Finally, we established that the water quality had changed when we compared the pre and post Celco periods," the head of the government-ordered study, Eduardo Jaramillo, of the Southern University of Chile, told Tierramérica.
The changes in the composition of the water affected the waterweed, the main sustenance of the swans. The swans died from the high concentration of heavy metals -- especially iron -- that collected in their livers.
"As of October 2006 neither the waterweed nor the swans of the wetland have recovered. Nor are there eggs or nests. The birds have gone two years without reproducing," said Jaramillo.
Although the citizen groups called for the immediate addition of the wetland in the Montreux Record, the Chilean government opted to draw up a "National Strategy for the Conservation and Rational Use of Wetlands in Chile" and an "Integrated Plan for Environmental Management of the Río Cruces Wetland", which entails 25 projects for monitoring, restoration and conservation of the nature sanctuary.
The plan, presented by Conaf in August, has yet to be implemented.
The fact that experts like the secretary general of the Wetlands Convention are coming to Chile "will help provide more tools for research and promote new ideas. The advantage they have is that they can see the problem from the outside," said Jaramillo.
Both Jaramillo and Action for the Swans spokesman Israel say the recovery of the wetlands depends on Celco runoff halting completely -- and a definitive solution seems to be a far-off dream.
The pulp mill considered building artificial pools and channeling the waste into the ocean. But the proposal generated strong opposition from artisanal fisherfolk, who even prevented Celco from conducting environmental impact studies, such was their fear of water contamination.
* Daniela Estrada is an IPS correspondent.