Environmental Resistance in the Uruguay River

When the environmental assembly of Gualeguaychú decided to lift the three-year blockade of the bridge that unites Uruguay and Argentina, a new stage of environmental social action began. Although resistance to the pulp mill continues, a new set of environmental problems affecting the people of the Uruguay River is beginning to appear on the horizon.

When the environmental assembly of Gualeguaychú decided to lift the three-year blockade of the bridge that unites Uruguay and Argentina, a new stage of environmental social action began. Although resistance to the pulp mill continues, a new set of environmental problems affecting the people of the Uruguay River is beginning to appear on the horizon.

The sunset over the banks of the Uruguay River is one of the most beautiful displays that nature offers. Across the river’s channel—more than two kilometers wide where the cities of Paysandú and Colón lie– the reflections of clouds tinted pink by the sunset over a horizon of green pastures, soaks the air with a mysterious serenity. As a popular poem-made-song says, “the Uruguay is not a river, it’s a blue sky that travels.”

The clear waters of the river fall from its birthplace in Brazil, along the border of the states of Paraná and Rio Grande do Sul. After traveling 1,700 kilometers (1056 miles) from its source at an altitude of almost two thousand meters, its waters empty into the Plata estuary, between Buenos Aires and Colonia. The enormous flow is dotted with islands that are a refuge for a variety of birds and other species, but the river is being overexploited by the installation of pulp mills, agrotoxins (pesticides) from the cultivation of soybeans, and projected and functioning hydroelectric dams.

The end of the blockade

During the electoral campaign in Uruguay in the second half of 2009, it was possible to observe a new turn of events. The candidate of the Frente Amplio, José Mujica, who took office March 1, 2010, sought to improve relations with Argentina, which had deteriorated during the presidencies of Tabaré Vázquez and Néstor Kirchner. The Uruguayan president had said he was unwilling to continue dialogue if the bridge blockades were not lifted. But a weak Argentine government had difficulties in lifting the cut-offs by force.

Mujica was responsible for unlocking a conflict that lasted four years. The first agreement reached with the Argentine President Cristina Kirchner was that both countries would respect the verdict of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which determined that the UPM paper mill (ex Botnia) was legal. UPM is one of the largest pulp mills in Latin America, producing more than one million tons annually. It is located four kilometers (2.5 miles) from Fray Bentos (population 25,000) and opposite the Argentine city of Gualeguaychú (population 90,000), a major regional tourist center.

After three long years, the court ruling came on the morning of April 20. In summary, the court ruled that Uruguay violated the Statute of the Uruguay River in failing to communicate the construction of the factory to Argentina. But the court also states that there is no evidence of contamination levels higher than those set by international standards and calls for both countries to conduct joint monitoring of the river. Although it was criticized by environmentalists because it allows the factory to continue operations, the decision was the beginning of the process that led to the lifting of the bridge blockade.

Reversing a decade of mistakes will not be easy. Uruguayan president Jorge Battle initiated the long list of misunderstandings. He failed to inform Argentina about the factory, to avoid a long process that could have meant the loss of an investment of $1,100 million dollars from Botnia. In Parliament, the Frente Amplio (Broad Front in English) in opposition, voted against the Investment Protection Treaty with Finland, which subsequently conditioned the entire process.

Even worse, in Feb. 2005, just 15 days before the first leftist government took power in Uruguay, Battle gave permission for the construction of Botnia. This does not excuse the Vázquez administration, which changed its stance from one of opposition to support of the pulp mill, but it is clear that the right-wing government left a difficult problem. A series of “unmitigated facts” has generated an unpleasant bilateral climate.

After the ruling by The Hague there were various meetings between Uruguayan and Argentinean authorities. Not only was the lifting of the bridge blockade pending, but Uruguay had also been impeding the nomination of Néstor Kirchner as the secretary general of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). Finally, both presidents accepted that a binational scientific commission should monitor the river, including the pulp mills.

With this agreement, a meeting held in Gualeguaychú on June 16t decided by a vote of 402 to 315 to lift the blockade for 60 days. On June 19, after three years, vehicles began again to cross the San Martin bridge that unites the cities of Fray Bentos (Uruguay) and Puerto Unzué (Argentina). This was a triumph for both governments and a major challenge for environmentalist assemblies.

In the future, the assemblies will closely monitor the work of the scientific commission. They will collect water samples to be analyzed from the pulp mill and from the mouth of the Gualeguaychú River. Each month they will choose an area on each side of the riverbank until twelve surveys are completed per year. There are bound to be surprises.

The future of the environmental assemblies

In all the Argentine cities that border the Uruguay River, environmental assemblies have been modeled after the Gualeguaychú assembly–the first and most active assembly, which launched the resistance against the Botnia paper mill. For these communities the river is life; its many ports and tourist resorts feed their economies and many of the inhabitants make their living from fishing.

The three bridges over the river were blocked several times by environmentalists of Gualeguaychú, Colón, Concepción del Uruguay and Concordia. Concepción del Uruguay is a port city with a population of 70,000. The surrounding environment seems idyllic–green pastures and a river with islands of lush vegetation and thousands of birds. Upon arriving, the city landfills appear—a first sign that something is not right. The members of the Environmental Citizen Assembly point out that the fields are being planted with soy beans, that the agrochemicals used by the producers pollute the rivers, that the city does not have safe waste disposal, and that there are serious environmental problems.

Jorge Bevacqua was one of the founders of the Assembly in 2006. That year the first caravan of 150 vehicles set out to protest against the pulp mill. Later Assembly members blocked the Paysandú-Colón Bridge for 15 days to prevent the passage of trucks carrying construction materials to Botnia. The Assembly functioned in a horizontal manner, with weekly meetings of around 30 members. Up to 500 people have shown up to participate in demonstrations and other activities.

In a few years, the Environmental Assembly became one of the most respected collectives in the city. Its main activity is publicizing the issue. The Assembly has held dozens of talks and conference series with specialists on various aspects that affect the river, from the flora and fauna, to the streams, always with the aim of protecting the environment.

Bevacqua believes that lifting the blockade was a positive move.

“The blockade is a tool that can be beneficial if it is used well, but here it became too dragged out and bureaucratized and it ceased to be a broad-based and participatory blockade. A group of three or four people kept guard in one building with a television, showers, and toilets. This caused the assembly to demobilize. The blockade as a tool was worn out and now is the time to reevaluate.”

He believes that the blockade ended up subjected to the logic of the media, and not the internal will of the collective that drove it from the beginning. While he agrees on the need to monitor the river, he believes it will be very difficult to implement.

“The big problem will become apparent over time, when it becomes apparent that monitoring isn´t a real solution. If it is taken seriously, many things will jump out, including agrochemical pollution that will generate a green sheet of highly toxic algae.”

The problem is that, according to Bevacqua, the two governments intend to keep the monitoring low profile, producing a debate that will be more technical than political. However, the assembly of Concepción of Uruguay has a comprehensive list of environmental issues that go beyond chemical readings in the river.

“The battle of the island and the bridge is going to be time consuming for us,” Bevacqua acknowledges. He notes that they are keeping tabs on a provincial government project to urbanize the Uruguay River island closest to the city and a plan to build a bridge that will allow vehicles access to the island. This work estimates an investment of $25 million dollars, representing three times the annual municipal budget. “The work began in an illegal manner by destroying trees. The environmental impact study commissioned by the government turned out to be our main weapon against the project.”

The disputed project consists of the removal of one million cubic meters of sand to build up an embankment with a nine-meter high coastal avenue built on top. The official study revealed that the island plays a major role in the reproduction of biodiversity, and found new plant species that were not registered in the province, as well as three endangered animal species. “We don’t want the urbanization of the island,” say environmentalists.

The Assembly also denounces the waste problem, noting that the city landfill collapsed in one of the frequent floods of the Uruguay River. The most severe issue is that there is no safe disposal of hospital waste, which is typically burned into the open air. After the allegations of the Environmental Assembly, the city proposed that the landfill be moved outside of the city but materials leach into the stream.

Finally, says Bevacqua, there is the serious problem of agrochemicals in the province of Entre Rios and other parts of the country where they are used without proper regulations.

“Planes spray these agrochemicals over schools, and people have been immobilized by the herbicide glyphosate. We have proposed that herbicides not be sprayed from within 500 to 1,000 meters of urban areas. Furthermore, untreated sewage is being discharged into the river. In Concepcion there is a sewage treatment plant that serves just one part of the city. But other cities have very minimal waste treatment services, or none at all. Everything goes into the river.”

To offset such problems, the Assembly began planting trees in the city, particularly in areas that had been deforested by this kind of “progress.” They started in early September, with 30 specimens of ingá-pitá, a species native to that area. Every Sunday they return to plant, calling on neighbors to participate.

The Assembly also participates in and promotes a discussion of deep philosophical content. In early September, the National University of Entre Rios received funds from a multinational mining company that operates the Bajo la Alumbrera site (Catamarca Province), which has been accused of polluting. The company was prosecuted for environmental violations by the Federal Chamber of Tucumán, charged with trafficking and illegal export and documentation of metals, that is, smuggling gold, uranium and thorium and was also investigated for money laundering.

The Concepcion Environmental Assembly, as part of the Union of Citizen Assemblies where hundreds of collectives that resist open-pit mining congregate, questioned the Supreme Council of the University for accepting “contaminated funds.” They called on the academic community to reconsider because they believe the company should pay their taxes, which are currently very low, and part of this revenue should be distributed among the national universities. As it is, a system of patronage exists in which the multinational companies choose how and to whom they donate small funds or “handouts.”

A River threatened by Development

In early September the waters of the Argentine-Uruguay Salto Grande dam dropped drastically and unexpectedly. The media reported that the drop was a consequence of filling the reservoir of the Chapeco dam, built by Brazil in the upper Uruguay between the states of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul. It’s the fourth Brazilian dam on the river, but ten are foreseen.

There is already one dam built and two more projected in the Pelotas River, which joins with the Canoas to form the Uruguay. The first part of the river runs through Brazilian territory. Then it crosses the border between Brazil and Argentina to finally make it to the border between Uruguay and Argentina. The construction of ten dams in the Brazilian stretch of the river alone, plus the large Garabi dam in the Brazilian-Argentine area, worries environmentalist.

Brazilian biologist Paulo Brack argues that these dams will displace up to 50,000 people that live on the shores of the Uruguay River. Bearing in mind that one of the most important social movements in Brazil, the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB by its Portuguese acronym) was born in this region in the 1980s. At the time, the military dictatorship wanted to turn the country into an energy superpower. Now those development projects are being updated and implemented by the Lula administration.

The current development model promoted power generation and the construction of large dams by private companies. That was the subject of scandals. The environmental impact study of the Barra Grande dam, in the Pelotas River, was conducted by Engevix, one of the companies that built most of the dams in Brazil. But the study hid the existence of a 6,000-hectare evergreen forest that would be flooded. The company was fined 10 million reales, but the job has already been done.

Considering this social and environmental history there is alarm in Rio Grande do Sul. Brack maintains that if all the dams are built, “The Uruguay River will disappear as a river.”

Leandro Scalabrin, attorney for MAB and the MST (Landless Movement), agrees that, “The river no longer exists. It was transformed into a set of artificial lakes.” Even worse, “The number of people settled as a result of agrarian reforms in Rio Grande do Sul in the past 25 years is practically the same as those that were expelled from the fields in the past 15 years.”

These dams not only fragment the river, preventing the migration and movement of fish and affecting biodiversity, but also forces farmers to migrate to the cities as unemployed and without a future. Márcio Repenning, biologist of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul, said that the case of Barra Grande, “was the major environmental disaster of the decade in Brazil” and also “a way to clear the Uruguay river basin.”

The farmers who are relocated in other rural areas abandon traditional family farming and agriculture.

“Those affected by the dams practiced a native agriculture that was oriented towards the family and self-subsistence and sale of the surplus. Crops were produced organically, with their own seeds, and almost always using animal traction to till the land. By relocating them to other areas with different climate and soil, they end up dedicated to the production of soy and corn destined for the market, and produced with the use of pesticides,” states Eduardo Ruppenthal, biologist and rural development specialist at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.

Like China, Brazil is currently experiencing great economic expansion and in 2020 it is slated to become the fifth world power. This entails an energy race. Brazil’s energy consumption is atypical: 46% of energy consumed in 2008 was for industry, while only 24% was for the residential sector.

“This imbalance is a result of energy-intensive industry. The export sectors of aluminum, iron, steel, pulp, and cement gain most of their profits through water and cheap energy sources,” say the members of Amigos de la Terra Brazil (Friends of the Earth Brazil).

Energy consumption in Brazil grows by 8.5% each year, but industry is expanding at a rate of 14%. The Uruguay River now produces 5,186 megawatts of energy, but its potential is 12,816 megawatts–5% of the national potential. In addition to industry, agribusiness is another big consumer: the manufacture of agricultural fertilizers is very energy-intensive.

Energy is a powerful drug. It feeds large companies, destroys the planet, and the current model needs more and more energy keep going.

“Decentralization of production is fundamental to building a new energy matrix model,” says Ruppenthal. But small projects do not generate profits for multinationals.

The deterioration of rivers such as the Uruguay is increasing. But as with the Xingú, where the Belo Monte dam will be installed, the San Francisco, the Parana, the Paraguay and almost all the continent’s water sources are threatened by a seemingly unstoppable process. In the cities, people are too far away to perceive the changes and are numbed by consumerism. Environmentalists continue to be a minority who seem determined to predict the Apocalypse.

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He writes a monthly column for the Americas Program (www.cipamericas.org).

Editor: Laura Carlsen

Translators: Margarita Guevara Flores, Lindsay Hooper, Laura Carlsen


Environmental Assembly of Concepción del Uruguay: http://asambleaconcepcion.blogspot.com/

Brecha (seminar): www.brecha.com.uy

Bruna Cristina Engel and Lucia Ortiz, “Large industrial groups are owners of the River Uruguay,” IHUOnline, September 6 2010.

Instituto Humanitas Unisinos, “Hidrelétricas no Rio Grande do Sul. Impactos sociais e ambientais”, revista IHU Online No. 341, 30 de agosto de 2010

(United Humanities Institute, “Hydropower in Rio Grande do Sul social and environmental impacts,” IHU Online Magazine No. 341, August 30, 2010.)

Raúl Zibechi, interview with Jorge Bevacqua, Concepción del Uruguay, August 6, 2010.