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Pulp mills on the Uruguay River

Pulp mills on the Uruguay River

By Ricardo Carrere

In its search for alternatives, the industry turned to the South. Pulp production clearly fell into that category.

Pulp mills on the Uruguay River. A conflict created by the northern paper industry


In terms of pollution, there was already a tendency in the North to begin to move its polluting industries to poor countries willing to accept any type of investment. The industry also had a problem with the supply of raw materials. Homogeneous raw material was needed, which does not exist in the heterogeneous tropical and subtropical forests, but is achieved in monoculture tree plantations

Traditionally, pulp and paper production was developed in Northern countries, particularly in North America (United States and Canada) and Europe. The reasons were basically two: the abundance of cheap raw material (forests) and a huge consumer market for paper and cardboard.

However, the growth of organized environmental awareness in many of those countries began to hamper this industry. On the one hand, the serious pollution of lakes and waterways linked to the production of cellulose generated increasingly strong resistance processes, which finally forced governments to impose increasingly stringent environmental standards on this industry. On the other hand, the gradual disappearance of forests for their transformation into pulp and paper was the trigger for equally strong movements against the destruction of forests resulting from this industry, which also forced the States to establish limits on logging.

For its part, the industry itself had been in charge of promoting the growing use of paper and cardboard in all sectors of the economy, particularly in packaging and advertising, for which reason all estimates held that the consumption of paper and cardboard would continue to grow . Faced with this anticipated increase in demand, the industry faced an uncertain future in terms of the supply of raw materials (which would therefore become more expensive), while its industrial operations became more expensive due to the constraints on raw materials. environmental care.

Moving to the South

In its search for alternatives, the industry turned to the South. Pulp production clearly fell into that category.

The industry also had a problem with the supply of raw materials. Although in principle many trees are suitable for the production of cellulose, a homogeneous raw material was needed, which does not exist in the heterogeneous tropical and subtropical forests, but is achieved in monoculture tree plantations.


Since the 1950s, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) had been promoting plantations of eucalyptus, pine and other fast-growing species in the countries of the South and already in the 1960s Plantations began to be established in many countries. The pulp industry could then count on planted areas and - more importantly - on the accumulated experience on the adaptation of different species to different types of environments and on their growth speed.

Although there were already plantations, what was needed was their expansion and concentration to make the installation of large pulp mills viable. In other words, it was first necessary to convince governments about the advantages of this type of undertaking, and then to get them to adopt promotional measures.

In addition to FAO, multilateral actors such as the World Bank (WB) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), consulting companies, cooperation agencies, export credit agencies and the industry itself intervened in this process. he added the almost unrestricted support of the forestry profession formed in the ideology of FAO.

All this with the aim of continuing to supply excessive consumption of paper and cardboard in the North. Indeed, the annual consumption per per in the countries of the South where large plantations are installed and cellulose is produced is much lower than that of the countries of the North: that of Chile is 53 kilos, South Africa 41, Uruguay 40, Brazil 38 and Indonesia 21, while Finland's is 430, the United States 331, Sweden 280, Canada 263, Germany 233 and Japan 250.1

The Uruguayan case

Uruguay is a typical case. In the 1950s, FAO sent two missions to the country, which recommended the plantations. In the 1960s, the forestry law was approved, focused on promoting monocultures of eucalyptus and pine trees. The law did not have the expected results because it did not receive funding from the State. In the 1980s, a mission from the Japan International Cooperation Agency arrived in the country, which elaborated a "Master Plan" for the installation of forest monocultures. In 1987 a second forestry law is passed and the State adopts the Japanese Master Plan as its own forestry plan. The World Bank provides the financial resources necessary for the promotion. The State is in charge of defining types of soils of “forestry aptitude” (although they were never covered with forests) in which plantations are promoted at the expense of the original prairie ecosystem. The companies receive subsidies (50% of the planting cost is returned to them per year); total tax exemptions and soft credits. In a few years, a planted area of ​​750,000 hectares is thus reached. Although the Uruguayan State never developed a specific policy regarding the use of planted wood, it was clear that the objective of the eucalyptus plantations was the production of cellulose. From the beginning, wood exports served to supply pulp mills in Europe, from the same companies that had their plantations in Uruguay: Ence (Spain) and UPM / Kymmene (Finland).

From the year 2000, rumors began about the possible installation of the Ence and Metsa Botnia pulp mills, which had bought the part of the multinational Shell in the plantations that it had developed with UPM / Kymmene.

The process is accelerated and both companies receive the full support of the Colorado Party government. First, Ence's environmental impact assessment is approved and in the last days of that government, Botnia's is approved. In both cases, public hearings are held, in which the multiple objections of civil society are ignored. In the throes of his government, President Batlle grants a free zone to each of the companies to set up their factories there.

Internal and external opposition

Since 1997, the Uruguayan environmental group Guayubira had been actively opposing the advance of forest monocultures. When cellulosic projects arise, they are the first to oppose them, both because they would imply the consolidation and expansion of the questioned forestry model, and because of the specific impacts of the cellulose industry on society and the environment. Despite the abundant and well-founded information documented and disseminated by Guayubira, both the Colorado government and the current government of the Progressive Encounter choose to ignore environmental impacts and continue to support the forestry-cellulosic model.

The Argentine opposition arose much later, only in early 2005. Although there were already some opposition environmental groups before, it was only then that the people of the city of Gualeguaychú organized against the pulp mills that would be installed on the other side of the river. shared between both nations, with widely known consequences.

Although the Argentine intervention strengthens opposition to the installation of these industries, it weakens the Uruguayan opposition, turning what was initially an internal conflict into a confrontation between two countries, and thus awakening national sentiment, which almost condemns ostracism to the internal opposition in Uruguay.

Both the Uruguayan and Argentine organizations (and their government) have taken the fight to different areas. The international finance corporation planned to finance both projects, but pressure has so far prevented loan approval.

Spanish organizations are exerting pressure so that their government does not finance Ence. Others from various countries managed to prevent the ING Bank from financing Botnia. The Argentine organization CEDHA has filed formal lawsuits with various agencies, while the Argentine government filed a lawsuit with the Court in The Hague, partially dismissed (see Villalpando, this page). Although Botnia continues to build its plant as if nothing were happening, the truth is that –as Ence has recognized– the future of these plants is still uncertain. The outlook is further aggravated by announcements of new cellulosic projects for the country, including that of the Swedish-Finnish company Stora Enso, as well as Japanese and Canadian investors.

For Uruguayan opponents, the problem goes far beyond monoculture tree plantations and these two pulp mills. What is at stake is a country model. They argue that the people voted for the current government because they promised change and that the cellulosic-forestry model represents precisely the opposite. They argue that afforestation concentrates and foreignizes the land, destroys the country's main resources (soil, water and biodiversity) and generates less employment than any other agricultural activity. Added to this is the fact that pulp mills employ very few people, destroying existing sources of employment in the tourism, fishing, beekeeping and organic agriculture sectors, while the profits go almost entirely abroad. That is not the model of the country that the people voted for.

* Ricardo Carrere
International Coordinator of the World Movement for Tropical Forests
October 18, 2006 (Published in Le Monde Diplomatique, September 2006)
Rel-IUF / IUF


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