Uruguay’s leader prepares for new fight with Argentina over paper mill

Mujica decides to increase production to 1.2 million tons annually at plant neighbors claim pollute waters

Elvira Palomo
Montevideo -
Environmentalists from Argentina and Uruguay hold a demonstration against the UPM paper mill.
Environmentalists from Argentina and Uruguay hold a demonstration against the UPM paper mill.EFE

The decision by Uruguayan President José Mujica to increase production at a controversial paper mill has once again put his country at odds with Argentina, which has accused its neighbor of polluting the river along their shared border.

This time, however, the leftist president has the support of the Uruguayan environmentalists who sided with the Argentineans during a heated conflict that saw a major border crossing closed for four years.

Owned by Finland’s Metsa-Botnia group, the UPM plant was officially fired up in 2007 despite the waves of daily protests that forced the Uruguayan government to shut down the General San Martín International Bridge connecting the historic municipality of Gualeguaychú on Argentina’s side with Fray Bentos in Uruguay.

Uruguayan officials had feared Argentinean environmentalists would try to sabotage the mill.

Buenos Aires accused the Finnish company, as well as the Uruguayan government, of allowing the paper mill to pollute Gualeguaychú, a city of about 8,000 in Entre Ríos province.

In this conflict all parties have been united; there are no cracks”

But Uruguayan environmentalists who had been opposed to the mill located just outside Fray Bentos, in Río Negro department, are now siding with Mujica and have firmly rejected the complaints coming from their counterparts in the neighboring nation. They said they are angry at the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner for ignoring Montevideo’s offers for dialogue.

“In this conflict all parties have been united; there are no cracks,” said Pablo Mieres, a member of the Independent Party who criticized Mujica in the past for not standing up to the Argentineans. “Kirchnerism is a political movement, which, in general, interprets gestures of goodwill as signs of weakness.”

Argentinean Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman is threatening to take Uruguay to the International Court of Justice at The Hague because he considers the decision to increase production affects his country’s “environmental sovereignty.”

But the Uruguayan government has provided figures that purportedly show that the amount of pollutants that are emitted from the mill, such as phosphate, are some 246-percentage points lower than the average produced in other plants around the world. At the same time, UPM operators have promised to install an additional cooling system.

The company decided to increase production “without modifying the current procedures” because it has made certain improvements in efficiency and productivity, said plant spokesman Matías Martínez.

The mill at Fray Bentos produces 1.1 million tons of cellulose paste annually, which will now be increased to 1.2 million tons. Some 850 people – 99 percent of them Uruguayans – work at the plant, which also generates 3,400 direct jobs through the entire production line, from caring for saplings at nurseries to delivering paper supplies at the ports.

According to the latest report by the Uruguayan foreign trade office, paper products made up 11.7 percent of the country’s total exports last year. This positive figure has given the government the incentive to study opening another plant.

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