Southern pulp friction

Argentina and Uruguay turn local paper mill fight into an international spat.

Some six miles from the Uruguay River, which divides Uruguay from Argentina, Nelly Pivas sits beneath a makeshift tent in the middle of a two-lane highway. Flies are circling her freshly cut Argentine potatoes.

"We are out here because if the Uruguayans go ahead with this, it will contaminate everything," says the 65-year-old Argentine, condemning two massive pulp mills being built on Uruguay's side of the river in nearby Fray Bentos, a port town of 23,000.

Convinced by environmentalists and some Argentine politicians that the two plants will spew deadly toxins into the shared ecosystem here, Ms. Pivas and hundreds of other Argentines in recent weeks have used trucks, tractors, and their own bodies to block two of three international bridges connecting their Uruguayan neighbors to the regional economy.

In recent days, as Argentines continue to turn away traffic, meeting nightly over barbeque, drums, and bitter Argentine yerba mate tea, a straightforward environmental protest has devolved into an unusually tense diplomatic row that threatens to spawn a regional crisis with potentially significant economic impact.

The plants, together worth $1.8 billion, represent Uruguay's largest investment ever. One, belonging to Spain's Grupo Empresarial ENCE SA, plans to churn out 600,000 tons of paper pulp annually. The other belongs to Finland's Oy Metsa-Botnia AB and Kymmene Corp., and plans to produce 1 million tons per year.

A spokesman for Botnia says the plants employ the latest technology and will meet the stringent environmental standards of the European Union. But such claims do little to appease environmental activists, business groups, and Argentine politicians.

With the plants moving steadily toward production, both governments are posturing.

On Friday, Uruguay sent a ranking official to discuss the roadblock issue with Jose Miguel Insulza, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), even though the international body can do nothing unless both sides request intervention.

Uruguayan President Tabare Vasquez, who says the facilities will put $400 million annually into the Uruguayan economy, has appealed to his Argentine counterpart, Nestor Kirchner, to intervene to stop the costly blockades. So far, President Kirchner has refused to step in.

Mr. Vasquez has also called on Argentina to pay Uruguay for economic losses, and recently suggested Montevideo may even pull out of Mercosur, the regional trade bloc dominated by Brazil and Argentina.

Argentina, which co-administers the river according to a bilateral agreement, has threatened to take Uruguay before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague for failing to consult it before the plants were approved.

"Both governments are buying time," says Gerardo Caetano, director of the Political Science Institute at Uruguay's public University of the Republic, "all this is about political tactics." He says the ICJ will not accept a hypothetical case, and even releasing an opinion on the matter could take years.

The solution, Mr. Caetano says, will likely have to come through bilateral talks.

The bulk of the blockades' economic pain falls on Fray Bentos, which depends on cross-border trade.

Locals feel economic impact

On Friday, dozens of community and business leaders met inside the town's two-story Colonial style town hall. Attendees spoke of lost jobs and dwindling revenues at service stations, restaurants, hotels, and transportation companies. Fiorella Lapalma, a cashier at La Rotunda, a restaurant that seats 500, says the place is normally full during the summer season. Now, a weekend night brings only 20 to 30 customers.

Mayor Omar Lafluf asked the group to tally how much they've lost from the roadblock, and later stressed the plants' importance to a region with 8 percent unemployment. Already the mills are providing 6,000 construction jobs, Lafluf says, and collateral benefits, such as the construction of some 300 new houses for workers and company officials, a remodeled golf course, a 60-room hotel, and and expanded pier.

Others are more concerned about the near future. Erica, a 26-year-old Uruguayan who along with 18 co-workers lost her job in a duty-free shop, says she is fed up with Uruguay being bullied by bigger neighbors Argentina and Brazil. "We are between two bigger countries and they always absorb us," she says. "When we finally get something that will bring jobs, they want to shut it down." What's more, she says, echoing many residents here, Argentines are "revolutionary types," with little respect for institutions, preferring to affect political change through radical protests.

Her mother, Mirian, agrees, adding that she now dreads doing business across the border in Gualeguaychú. She recently visited an Argentine seamstress who she contracted to design a wedding dress. "She was showing me the dress and then she mentioned the pulp mills and suddenly she became aggressive," she says.

Still brothers

Despite high-level diplomatic barbs, many Uruguayans and Argentines are quick to couch the confrontation in brotherly terms.

Elena Laguzzi, tourism coordinator for the nearby Uruguayan province of Soriano, says Uruguayans, and especially media outlets, should avoid prejudices and stress respect, tolerance, and solidarity.

Luis Otto, an Argentine agricultural engineer with friends in Uruguay, says he supports the blockade but hopes the conflict can be resolved and relations mended. Even Pivas, still peeling Argentine potatoes by the highway, points to an Uruguayan flag that's rolled up, leaning next to the red 20-foot trailer blocking the highway.

"I brought that flag here because I have family in Uruguay," she says. "We are brothers. This is not about Uruguayans. This is about the environment and nothing more."

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