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Kirchner-Vázquez due to cellulose conflict

Kirchner-Vázquez due to cellulose conflict

By Víctor Bacchetta

A gesture of dialogue between Presidents Kirchner and Vázquez can restore rationality to the conflict caused by the construction of two pulp mills on the Uruguay River and which set off reactions of intolerance and xenophobia. But to reach a solution it is necessary to create a framework of trust and participation among all the actors, in particular with neighboring populations concerned about the impacts of these projects.

TO Kirchner-Vázquez sane due to pulp conflict

90 days to find a solution

A gesture of dialogue between Presidents Kirchner and Vázquez can restore rationality to the conflict caused by the construction of two pulp mills on the Uruguay River and which set off reactions of intolerance and xenophobia. But to reach a solution it is necessary to create a framework of trust and participation among all the actors, in particular with neighboring populations concerned about the impacts of these projects.

From Santiago de Chile, on the occasion of the inauguration of the new president Michelle Bachelet, the presidents of Argentina, Néstor Kirchner, and Uruguay, Tabaré Vázquez, called for the suspension for a maximum of 90 days of the construction of two pulp mills over the Uruguay River, and the simultaneous interruption of the cuts that prevent the passage of two of the three bridges that unite the two countries in that area, and then seek an agreement that allows overcoming the conflict.


Although the presidential gesture was just a request addressed to the Botnia and Ence companies, to stop the works, and to the social and environmental organizations of the Argentine province of Entre Ríos to lift the cuts, and although it does not imply a solution to the conflict , constitutes a political fact of the utmost importance, because it relocates the dispute in its proper terms, after going through tense levels of confusion and exacerbation.

Until now, Uruguay's official position had encouraged an unprecedented wave of xenophobia in this country, but not alien to the region and the world, where nationalism serves to distract from other problems. And here it was no different. Without satisfying the environmental and social questions against the plants, both internal and external, exclusive sovereignty rights were alleged in a decision regarding a natural resource shared with Argentina.

Beyond the singularities of the case, the dispute over the pulp mills on the Uruguay River is another example of a new type of environmental conflict that has been taking shape in the region and whose common characteristic is a much greater participation of local communities. The presence of this new actor or, if you prefer, an old actor, but with a new behavior or attitude, alters the usual analyzes, judgments and actions of others.

Realignments in Uruguayan society

Governments, companies and organizations such as unions and NGOs, had been until now the usual social actors and with well-known rules. Usually, with a government of the right and more identified with companies, the left was in opposition alongside social organizations. But now, with a left-wing government, not only have these roles been upset, but they react to new situations with old standards.

Historically, the right has always ruled by ignoring social organizations and / or fighting them in various ways, in particular with media campaigns under their control. The common method has been to ignore or disqualify their leaders and leaders to isolate them from their social base and, in the face of mobilizations, assign the intention of altering public or legal order to social actions, to justify direct repression.

In the case of pulp mills, the government assumed by Tabaré Vázquez in March 2005 decided - unexpectedly, considering the previous positions of the Broad Front - to give continuity to the projects approved by his predecessors. The white and red right wing happily greeted the unexpected turnaround and, with the approval of the companies, agreed to call that decision "state policy", a fact without near precedents.

In the Uruguayan unions, the decision of the new government generated surprises and some doubts, because the central PIT-CNT had a congressional decision against the pulp mills. However, the uncertainty was quickly overcome just at the beginning of the works in Fray Bentos, jobs that involved the hiring of hundreds of construction workers and metallurgists. The gunner's reason - the union lives if there is work - prevailed over all others.

In this context of "national union" after the cellulose projects and its immediate correlate, the substitution of agricultural culture for that of forestry, only environmental NGOs, convinced militants and some individuals from culture, academia were left out. and the law. A minority opposition, although firm in its foundations and in the challenge, even in the legal instances available, of government decisions.

In any case, the Uruguayan opposition to cellulose seemed easy to counter. The right-wing press was joined by a left-wing press that went on to defend the positions of the government and companies, reducing to a minimum the space for discordant voices. However, a factor practically ignored, the population on the other side of the Uruguay River, began to change the situation from the cutting of the bridges coinciding with the start of the tourist season.

Disgust in the face of Argentine resistance

Until January 2006, the "fait accompli policy" of the Uruguayan government, expressed in the persistence of the construction of the plants despite the Argentine request for suspension in order to discuss its implications, seemed to be the most successful. For more than six months, a binational commission of high-level technicians (CTAN) exchanged information, but without the commitment that its decisions could be binding on the projects.

In fact, the CTAN's work served to confirm that the Uruguayan government does not have more information and guarantees than those provided by the companies. At the conclusion of the CTAN sessions without an agreement, the Argentine government took a new formal step and announced its willingness to appeal to the International Court in The Hague. Although in Uruguay it was valued as pressure or threat, it is the dispute settlement mechanism provided for by the Uruguay River Treaty.

Meanwhile, the Argentine opposition to the plants was gaining strength, especially in the towns of the province of Entre Ríos. The Uruguayan government underestimated this fact, confused it with the demagogic games of the governor of that province, Jorge Busti, and attributed it to simple immediate electoral interests or mere economic rivalries. The situation was analyzed in the usual terms among politicians: there are always some frictions, but everything ends up being fixed.

In February, when the cutting of the San Martín bridge went from being a symbolic act and became permanent, that of the Paysandú-Colón bridge was added to it and the traffic of tourism and commerce was much more affected, stopping trucks at the border that They carried materials for Botnia's works, that perception changed. They began to speak of violation of international treaties, of great material damage and mistrust grew.

For the Uruguayan press from the right and left, the first obstacle was the environmentalists, who came to be called "piqueteros", "patoteros", "extremists" (a certain modesty perhaps prevented calling them "terrorists").

But when seeing that the provincial and federal governments did not act to prevent the cuts, distrust spread to neighboring authorities and the population in general, in what came to be considered an aggression from one country to another.

An unsuspected litter of specialists in geopolitics (the pseudoscience used by the military to justify wars) and in the history of controversies between Argentina and Uruguay appeared on the pro-government left, to explain the ultimate reasons for the conflict, which were obviously to overwhelm Uruguayan sovereignty . Under pressure from the government, practically the entire press joined in the "climate of terror", as an honest journalist was encouraged to call it.

When reality is out of the picture

In this surprising evolution of the conflict, a new actor has emerged whose presence, position and forms of action were not expected and who questions the assessments made in the process by traditional actors: they are the environmental citizen assemblies of the populations of Entre Ríos. They do not respond to a political party, a union, an environmental NGO, or a sum of them, it is simply the local population discussing how they want to live.

Although the entrerriano citizen-environmental movement questioned the pulp mills since 2003, when Ence's first project was announced, and it has an even longer history, which dates back to the fight against hydroelectric projects of the time of Carlos Ménem, ​​the The current Kirchner government underestimated it. The April 2005 demonstration of tens of thousands of people on the San Martín Bridge woke him up, having relied on the reports of the indolent CARU (1).


From the Uruguayan side he was underestimated much more. It was first thought to be a move run by Governor Busti that would last until the October 2005 elections.

Then it was thought that Kirchner would put the governor in line - some of that he did - and also the people, considered simple "piqueteros." And, finally, it was thought that if they did not comply with the order, the National Gendarmerie would intervene to free the bridges from this illegal action.

As the expected did not happen, it was not thought that there could be something different, the analyzes went off to the more conservative and trite side: Kirchner, is he friend or foe?
Do Argentina and Uruguay have common interests? Brainy left-wing analysts began to speak of "piquetera diplomacy", of pre-war or directly warlike actions. In the midst of madness, others began to propose warlike drumming and even pseudo-military instruction for the young people.

The recommendations of the World Bank ombudsman were not even recalled, now that new admirers of this institution have appeared: "The complexity and sensitivity of these huge projects, in a transboundary area and on a shared river basin, makes the consults with potentially affected people, "said Dr. Meg Taylor, noting the lack of trust generated by the fait accompli politics.

Instead of addressing the problems raised, the Uruguayan government opted for the easy path of demagogic speeches, government campaigns that demonize and seek to cover the mouth of the opponent and, ultimately, the call for repression. Not having yielded to this pressure is the product of a policy of the Kirchner government that did not start in this conflict, but which must also be attributed to the solidity of the entrerriano citizen-environmental movement.

Responsibility of governments and peoples

The agreement announced on March 11 in Santiago by Presidents Néstor Kirchner and Tabaré Vázquez is a glimpse of the sense of balance and stature of responsible statesmen, amid the confusion and morass created in this conflict. By the way, these conditions were very well exploited by the declining political right, the venal press, bad businessmen and even human rights violators still unpunished.

And they follow their game. A few days after the presidential gesture, the main leaders of the Uruguayan right spoke of "treason" (Jorge Batlle), of "illegal act" (Luis A.
Lacalle), of "piquetera arrogance" (Chamber of Industries), that the "Argentines beat us by a landslide" (Pedro Bordaberry). The crude disqualifying adjectives and
the association with a football match is another example of the irresponsibility of some politicians who still do not know why they do not have votes.

There is a new actor in this story, with whom they are not used to dealing with the right (they no longer knew how to deal with traditional social actors) and neither is the left who has just arrived to the government, which in many cases shows authoritarian features similar to those of the right. The way out of this conflict does not even depend on the willingness to dialogue of the governments, if they do not agree to create instances of participation for all the actors.

The need for participation in the development of neighboring populations to the projects, whether in the form of community, indigenous, citizen organizations, etc., is not an outdated idea of ​​old revolutionary conceptions, as some would have you believe to disqualify the proposal , but is found in the most recent recommendations on the conditions to ensure socially and environmentally sustainable development.

These recommendations can be found in the official documents of practically all international development organizations today. They have been accompanied by governments, financial institutions, business entities, unions, NGOs and community or grassroots organizations in discussions on how to overcome the growing environmental deterioration and the increase in poverty on the planet.

Putting in place processes of broad social participation to delineate, control and evaluate development projects is not easy at all, but the haste
executives and technicians, looking for quick and easy economic and political results, you know where they lead. What exists today is also a new social conscience, where local communities actively claim their right to decide on their life model and their future.

(1) CARU, Administrative Commission of the Uruguay River, a binational body in charge of ensuring compliance with the Uruguay River Treaty and the preservation of natural resources.

* March 13, 2006


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