Along the Uruguay River, in Argentinian territory, there’s a small town called Gualeguaychú which has a population of 100,000, plus 10-15,000 more over the summer as the town is an easy and pretty get-a-way destination for the portenos of Buenos Aires. The Uruguay River is 10km away and a small off-shoot, the River Gualeguachú, runs right through the middle of the city.
Across the river from Gualeguaychu, high up on the Uruguayan side, in Fray Bento, a Finnish company called Botnia operate a pulp mill. It opened three years ago and produces cellulose that is shipped to us.
In response to the opening of this pulp mill the people of Gualeguaychú embarked on a massive and enduring protest against Botnia, accusing it of polluting the river, killing its flora and fauna and affecting tourism in the area. During the protest, local people from Gualeguaychu blocked the international bridge that connects the two towns. The bridge remained blocked for almost two and a half years simply by being occupied by thousands of people every single day.
The case against the pulp mill was brought to the courts of law and ended up in the International Court of Justice in The Hague last year. The court finally ruled that the river is contaminated, but that it is not possible to demonstrate that this is solely due to the presence of the pulp mill. This inability to prove guilt is one of the many complications facing those involved in the fight to protect vital water sources.
I came here because I believed that the Gualeguaychú pulp mill dispute affected the Guarani Aquifer and, as such, that it represented a failure in transnational policy to achieve consensus where transnational cooperation is crucial.
What I discovered while here was a very different story. I saw no visible signs of pollution. In fact, I saw active efforts on the side of the authorities in Gualeguaychú to combat pollution. For example, I toured a purification plant in the province (I don’t know how many others there are) and they happily showed me around and explained everything to me, including about how these plants represent the city’s efforts to be environmentally friendly.
Having said this, Gualeguaychú also fails in its efforts to protect its water resources by choosing the economic benefit of spa tourism over water purity. One of the major tourist attractions is a thermal spa, that gets its water directly from the Guarani Aquifer. Once the water is used and discharged from the spa, it returns to the Uraguay River in a salinated state which causes damage to the local flora and fauna.
I left with more questions than answer. This all needs to be researched more, but it gives a taste of how complex the matter is, even on the local level. One thing was clear- the age old conflicts between global vs. local, industry vs. nature and private interest vs. communal activism still exist.
Ultimately, one thing shone through- the relationship between people and water is an intimate one. It’s either an environmental cause, a pastime, a family walk, a quiet escape, a date or a playground, but take away the river and the social and cultural life of Gualeguaychú would go with it. It’s not that the people need the river solely to survive- it’s fundamentally who they are.