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URUGUAY-ARGENTINA: Roadblock Ruling Heats Up Pulp Mill Dispute

Darío Montero and Sebastián Lacunza

MONTEVIDEO, Jan 24 2007 (IPS) - In the wake of an International Court of Justice (ICJ) verdict that was unexpectedly favourable to Argentina in its pulp mill dispute with Uruguay, the two countries are now reworking their strategies, pinning their hopes on the Spanish facilitator who arrives in the region Friday.

After three international rulings against it, Argentina finally scored its first victory in the conflict over the pulp mill being built by the Finnish company Botnia on the Uruguayan side of a border river between the two countries.

The ICJ, based in The Hague, ruled Tuesday by 14-1 to turn down a request by Uruguay to force Argentina to put an end to the blockades of bridges connecting the two countries.

The main border bridge has been blocked since December by activists from the city of Gualeguaychú, located 25 km away from the nearly completed plant. Another of the three bridges joining the two countries over the Uruguay River has also been intermittently blocked.

The Court, to which Buenos Aires had earlier turned with a complaint that Montevideo had violated a bilateral treaty governing the border river – for which a decision is not expected for months, or perhaps years – ruled that the roadblocks posed no imminent, irreparable risk to Uruguay’s rights.

The ruling was a blow to the leftist government of President Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay, which had triumphed in three earlier decisions.

These were handed down by the ICJ itself, when it turned down an Argentine request in July to order an immediate halt to construction until the final decision on the river treaty is delivered; by the Mercosur trade bloc’s dispute settlement body, which condemned the roadblocks; and by the World Bank, which approved a 170-million dollar loan for Botnia despite the opposition from Argentina.

“There is basically no other international body to turn to,” Uruguayan Tourism Minister Héctor Lescano told IPS. He said, however, that Spanish facilitator Juan Antonio Yáñez could bring fresh ideas when he reaches Montevideo Friday, and added that Uruguay will not refuse to consider the proposals set forth by the diplomat, who was appointed facilitator by Spanish King Juan Carlos.

There are several initiatives being discussed on the technical level. But Lescano stressed that Uruguay will not negotiate until the roadblocks are lifted, as the government has stated since the protests were resumed in December.

Residents of Gualeguaychú opposed to the factory because of fears of pollution first began to block traffic on the international bridges in late 2005, at the start of the southern hemisphere summer.

“Just as we responded before without celebrations and with great restraint when the Court in The Hague found that Uruguay was in the right, we are not going to tear our hair out this time because of the adverse ruling,” said the minister.

With similar moderation, Argentina’s centre-left President Néstor Kirchner said Tuesday that his “arms are open to our Uruguayan brothers and sisters.”

“Our people and our governments have the capacity to overcome these problems,” he added in a speech given in the seat of government. “We are not intransigent, we believe in constant ongoing conversation” to work things out, he added.

He also expressed his gratitude for “the support and efforts by the king” of Spain to help resolve the conflict by offering the services of a facilitator, but said he hoped that “with imagination and creativity, and respecting the Uruguay River Treaty, we and our Uruguayan brothers and sisters can find a solution.”

The ICJ verdict was welcomed by authorities in Argentina and celebrated by the protesters from Gualeguaychú, which is located on the river of the same name, a tributary of the Uruguay River.

Some 100 activists from Gualeguaychú who have been blocking traffic began to cheer wildly Tuesday when they heard the news of the ICJ ruling by radio and the Internet.

Estela Vence, a Uruguayan who has lived for several years in Gualeguaychú and one of the pioneers of the blockade, told IPS that the activists had welcomed the decision “with rejoicing” because they had had “low expectations.”

On Tuesday, more activists gathered at the roadblock. “Lots of people have come, and that encourages us to carry on the struggle. Every little bit counts after so many defeats,” Vence said.

“We’re all overjoyed and surprised. People are very happy,” said Jorge Fritzler, a representative of the Gualeguaychú Environmental Assembly, who proposed building a shelter to house the activists participating in the roadblock “until Botnia leaves.”

In Colón, the Argentine city located at the second bridge over the Uruguay River which links it with the Uruguayan city of Paysandú, Poli Echeverría is a leader of the assembly that organises intermittent seven-hour roadblocks in solidarity with Gualeguaychú.

“We weren’t expecting a decision of this sort; we expected the verdict to go against us,” she told IPS.

“In any event, we were prepared to support Gualeguaychú” if the decision was unfavourable, “but this changes the outlook and we have greater peace of mind about our periodic roadblocks” over the international General Artigas bridge.

The people of the province of Entre Ríos, where Gualeguaychú and Colón are located, were surprised by the ICJ ruling because the decision was awaited with wariness in Argentina and with confidence in Uruguay.

The roadblocks have prevented vehicle and goods traffic between the two countries, and to and from other countries in the region. But during the southern hemisphere summer they mainly affect tourism in Uruguay, where tens of thousands of Argentines spend their holidays, traditionally accounting for 80 percent of Uruguay’s summer visitors.

Lescano told IPS that the roadblocks were responsible for a fall of 116,800 in the number of Argentines who came to Uruguay last summer, compared to the previous summer season. This represented a loss of between 70 and 90 million dollars. This season the number of Argentine tourists is expected to drop by a further 20 percent.

Meanwhile Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana said that the decision puts a stop to excuses not to address “the real problem.” He was referring to Argentina’s demand that the plant be relocated.

“The great thing about the ruling is that it signals the end of the smokescreen set up by Uruguay as an excuse to refuse to dialogue,” he stressed, after expressing confidence in Spanish facilitator Yañez’s diplomatic efforts.

In the meantime, Uruguayan Foreign Ministry official José Luis Cancela pointed out that the ICJ decision does not in any way legitimise the Argentine roadblocks, and emphasised that the judges in The Hague urged Argentina to refrain from taking action that may exacerbate the dispute and put hurdles in the way of the proper administration of justice.

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