Argentina: An anti-paper-mill protest celebrates its fifth year

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    The Botnia paper pulp mill near the Uruguay River.
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A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

GUALEGUAYCHÚ, ARGENTINA – In an odd mix of environmentalism and patriotism, more than 20,000 Argentine activists recently celebrated the fifth anniversary of their blockade of an international bridge that connects Gualeguaychú with Uruguay, demanding a halt to a paper mill they say is polluting the river that divides the two countries.

With an agrarian economy and relatively little industry, the Finnish-built Botnia pulp factory represents the single largest foreign investment in Uruguay’s history – a big boost for jobs and tax revenue. The blockade has damaged local economies on both sides and dampened the flow of tourist dollars.

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But the Argentine government claims it was not consulted about the project as required under treaty. With neither side willing to back down, the minor scuffle has become a big and, at times, outrageous brouhaha. Calling it a “national cause” in 2006, Argentina filed a case against Uruguay at the International Court of Justice.

Three years later, Argentina may now be regretting its militancy. The pulp factory went into operation in late 2007, and multiple inspections have shown that its strict environmental standards have prevented any significant pollution of the river. The inspections did find contamination, however, from sewage and runoff from agrochemicals used upstream.

Though still against the factory, 80 percent of local Argentines polled now say they think there are better solutions than a blockade. But activists on the barricade remain adamant. When recently asked by the government to leave the bridge to allow for negotiations, they refused.

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