Hundreds of Argentine environmentalists crossed into Uruguay Sunday to protest a huge wood pulp plant near the border they say will pollute a river that feeds Argentine farms and tourist sites.
Uruguay denies the plant will pollute Argentina and says it is key to the small nation's economic development. Argentina's government has sided with the environmentalists and says the mill violates a river protection treaty. On Sunday, Uruguayan riot police manned roadblocks and newly built security fences around the plant near the Uruguay River, which serves as a shared border. No incidents were reported as the car protest caravan was kept more than a mile (2 kilometers) away from the plant. Argentine protesters have sporadically blockaded three cross-border bridges, but this is the first time they entered Uruguay. Uruguayan immigration and customs officials inspected each car and let them cross after seizing dozens of sticks used as poles by demonstrators carrying large Argentine flags. They said some 800 demonstrators in 220 cars took part. "No to the paper plants!" read signs lofted by demonstrators from car windows as the caravan rolled into this city of 25,000 people. At US$1.2 billion (E880 million), the plant being built by the Finnish consortium of Oy Metsa-Botnia AB and Kymmene Corp. is the largest foreign investment in this small South American country. Uruguay says it will turn fast-growing eucalyptus trees into so much wood pulp that overall Uruguayan exports should grow by 10 percent annually. Daniel Alcaide, the Argentine consul in Fray Bentos, said the protest caravan was being conducted "in a peaceful manner" and estimated about 100 cars with 300 demonstrators had entered Uruguay by midday. Protesters charge the plant, which makes the raw ingredient for paper, will irreparably damage farmlands, citrus crops and tourist areas all around. One Argentine protester, Adolfo Weinberg, called the pulp plant an attempt by foreign investors to "loot our natural resources." Maria Rosa Rodriguez, a Gualeguaychu resident, wore a face mask to call attention to pollution claims. "I'm afraid about pollution." Omar Lafluf, a Fray Bentos government official, said residents are "deeply concerned" about Argentine protesters entering Uruguay, a move that ratcheted up cross-border tensions. The dispute has soured relations between the countries for two years, and is currently pending before the World Court. Washington Abdala, an opposition Uruguayan lawmaker, complained the socialist government of President Tabare Vazquez should have blocked any protesters from entering the country. "This a very painful and worrisome situation." Last Wednesday, Vazquez inaugurated a shipping terminal for the plant as naval patrols shooed away motor boats carrying Argentine environmentalists waving banners. Uruguayans, keen to upgrade their largely rural economy, are generally pleased with the project, which is quietly due to start full operations this month. No grand opening ceremony is planned.