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ARGENTINA-URUGUAY: Another Stab at Resolving Pulp Mill Conflict

Marcela Valente and Darío Montero

BUENOS AIRES, Apr 17 2007 (IPS) - The governments of Argentina and Uruguay are tight-lipped ahead of a meeting Wednesday in Madrid, brokered by Spain with a view to paving the way to a solution for the ongoing conflict between the two South American countries over the installation of a paper pulp mill on a border river.

In public, the stances taken by Montevideo and Buenos Aires remain intransigent. The Argentine government continues to insist that it will demand that the plant, which will be completed in October by the Finnish company Botnia, be moved away from the Uruguay River, which forms part of the border between the two countries.

The Uruguayan delegation, meanwhile, remains adamant that the pulp mill will not be relocated, and that the government will not negotiate while protesters in Argentina continue blocking traffic along the international bridges linking the two countries.

For the past three summers, protesters in the town of Gualeguaychú, 25 km from the plant, have been staging roadblocks across the bridges, causing significant damages to the Uruguayan tourism industry, which depends largely on Argentine visitors to the country’s beaches.

But the points that the two delegations may discuss in Madrid include modifications of the treaty for the joint administration of the Uruguay River, to incorporate environmental protection clauses which were not taken into consideration when the agreement was negotiated in the 1970s; a ceiling on the factory’s output; and the construction of a drainpipe that would discharge the plant’s effluents farther downstream.

The initiative to bring together representatives of the two countries, who broke off talks 14 months ago, arose from the efforts made since November by Spain’s ambassador to the United Nations, Antonio Yáñez, who was designated by Spain’s King Juan Carlos to help broker a solution.

Uruguayan government officials have said over and over that they are pessimistic. They also repeat that Uruguay will not negotiate until the roadblocks on the bridges are definitively lifted, and add that Argentina’s demand that the plant be relocated is impossible.

However, IPS was told that one of the formulas that could be discussed by Montevideo, in case negotiations are kickstarted, is the construction of a drainpipe that would carry the plant’s waste several kilometres downriver, in exchange for agreeing to a reworking of the Uruguay River treaty, which dates back to 1975.

The drainpipe, which would carry the pulp mill’s effluents nearly to where the Uruguay River runs into the Río de la Plata, would be a kind of environmental insurance that would be activated in case of pollution, and would be paid for jointly by Uruguay and Argentina, said the anonymous Uruguayan source.

The government of Tabaré Vázquez will continue offering Argentina the possibility of joint environmental oversight of the factory’s operations, “to demonstrate Uruguay’s goodwill in its determination to overcome the dispute,” the head of the delegation, Foreign Minister Reinaldo Gargano, said Monday.

Uruguay is inviting “our neighbour, who shares the administration of the Uruguay River with us, to take part in the construction and management of a plant in Uruguayan territory, where the government exercises sovereignty and where plants must be built according to national laws,” said the minister.

Argentina’s demand that the plant be relocated, as well as Uruguay’s offer for joint environmental monitoring, were already on the negotiating agenda of the binational high-level committee that worked for a year before its efforts failed in early 2006.

The Uruguayan delegation is made up of Gargano, presidential chief of staff Gonzalo Fernández, the director general of the Foreign Ministry, José Luis Cancela, and environment director Alicia Torres.

Newspaper reports have suggested that Argentina will back down on its request that the plant be moved away from the Uruguay River, and instead will ask for a ceiling on production. The press has also reported that the government of Néstor Kirchner could also accept the Uruguayan proposal for the joint monitoring of water quality.

But these reports were denied by Kirchner’s cabinet chief, Alberto Fernández. “We aren’t planning on suggesting any such thing,” he said in allusion to a possible appendix to the Uruguay River treaty that would limit the Botnia plant’s output.

A Foreign Ministry source told the Argentine daily Clarín that the Kirchner administration “has never had the intention of renegotiating the treaty.”

“To do that would be in open contradiction to one of the key elements of our position with regard to the conflict: that Uruguay has repeatedly violated the treaty,” the source said.

But Buenos Aires decided not to publicly respond to a five-point letter presented Monday by the Gualeguaychú citizen environmental assembly.

In a two-hour meeting with Alberto Fernández Monday night, the activists from the northeastern Argentine town urged the government not to budge in its position in the meeting held in Madrid.

A source with the Argentine government told IPS that there would be no public response to the activists, and that the Argentine delegates were heading to Spain mainly to hear what Madrid proposes.

According to the activists, Fernández assured them that the delegation would uphold the demand for the relocation of the plant, but he asked them to discontinue the roadblocks on the bridges to Uruguay, which have intermittently blocked traffic for a total of several months since late 2005.

The activists left the meeting in a positive mood. “We want the new location of the pulp mill to be outside the Uruguay River basin, and if possible, outside of South America,” José Pouler, a member of the Gualeguaychú assembly which mobilised 200 activists to travel to Buenos Aires to seek a meeting with the government, told IPS.

The Argentine delegation will include Fernández, Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana, legal counsel for the Foreign Ministry Susana Ruiz Cerutti, Secretary of the Environment Romina Picolotti, and Sergio Urribarri, the governor-elect of Entre Ríos, the province where Gualeguaychú is located.

The delegations will be received by Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos, after which an open agenda of issues will be discussed at several meetings, presumably until Friday.

Buenos Aires took the conflict to the International Court of Justice in The Hague last year, claiming that the Uruguayan government had violated the Uruguay River treaty by authorising the installation of two pulp mills, Botnia’s and another belonging to the Spanish firm ENCE, which later chose to move to another location.

The last time Vázquez and Kirchner met to discuss a possible solution was on Mar. 11, 2006, in Chile. They agreed that construction work should be suspended for 90 days in order to carry out environmental impact studies. However, Botnia refused to interrupt construction, and the agreement collapsed.

The conflict broke out in 2003, when Uruguayan and Argentine environmental activists began to protest the installation of the pulp mills because of the potential threats to tourism and agriculture on both sides of the Uruguay River.

The protests grew to large proportions on the Argentine side. Buenos Aires turned from partially accepting Montevideo’s proposals to rejecting them outright, in line with the growing and increasingly hard-line campaign by Gualeguaychú residents.

The fundamental issue presented in The Hague was the interpretation of the consultation procedures stipulated in the treaty for establishing projects that could affect the river. While Montevideo maintains that neither country has the right to veto initiatives in the other country’s sovereign territory, Buenos Aires claims otherwise.

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