Argentina and Uruguay signed Monday in Montevideo the agreement which puts an end to an ongoing years-long litigation over the construction of a pulp mill along a shared river.
The agreement basically establishes the joint environmental monitoring of the river Uruguay which acts as a natural border between the neighbouring countries and was at the core of the dispute.
The agreement was signed by Uruguayan Foreign Affairs minister Luis Almagro and his Argentine counterpart Hector Timerman.
The first step is the implementation next Thursday of the scientific team (two for each side) which will be responsible for taking samples from a “regionalized” river Uruguay, starting at the UPM/Botnia plant on the Uruguayan side (the core of the dispute) and the Gualeguaychú river along the Argentine coast.
The monitoring missions will then continue in Argentina in a spot that will be chosen by Uruguay's government and will then follow alternately in either country. This means controlling the Uruguay River and all industrial, agricultural and urban centres that transfer their waste into the river's waters.
The timetable agreed states that the scientific team will have 60 days to establish a road map and agenda, and 90 days later must be presenting its first full report. The team will report to the Administrative Commission of the River Uruguay (CARU) whose newly nominated members recently took office. CARU a long created office is responsible for ensuring the compliance of the 1975 River Uruguay joint administration treaty.
According to the document the scientific team will be allowed into the UPM/Botnia pulp mill twelve times a year, accompanied by Uruguayan officials to take samples of the water and effluents.
On the Argentine side, the scientific committee includes Juan Carlos Colombo, who has a doctorate in chemistry, and engineer William Stephen Lyons, both of whom were appointed by the Foreign Ministry last week.
The members of the Uruguayan side are Eduardo Lorenzo, hydraulics engineer and former CARU president and Alberto Nieto a former dean of the Uruguayan School of Chemistry.
Timerman praised the agreement reached, “I’m most pleased, because it will also be a model for similar situations in other parts of the world”. In a clear message to pickets that for years blocked a river linking both countries, Timerman emphasized that Monday marked the end “to any kind or need for protests regarding the issue”.
Almagro said that Uruguay was satisfied with the agreement which ends a long standing dispute in a friendly fraternal way, but also said that Uruguay expects to address other issues of the pending bilateral agenda: dredging the access canals to the River Plate and a decision allowing Bolivian natural gas, which must cross Argentine territory, to be delivered to Uruguay.
The dispute took off in 2006 when Finland’s Botnia begun the construction of a large pulp mill on the Uruguayan side, involving an investment of 1.8 billion US dollars. Across the river in Gualeguaychú, residents and environmentalists protested the plant would be contaminating and demanded its relocation.
They supported their protests with pickets blocking the international bridge linking Gualeguaychú with Fray Bentos on the Uruguayan side. Pickets were originally sponsored by President Nestor Kirchner’s administration that was not on good terms with his then Uruguayan counterpart Tabare Vazquez.
In 2004 before the Uruguayan presidential election Vazquez asked for support from Kirchner to block the pulp mill project. However on winning the election Vazquez immediately gave the green light, something which Mr. Kirchner never forgave his “left wing” colleague, and sponsored the pickets which were formalized in 2006 following several frustrated attempts to reach an agreement.
Both sides said they were willing to address the issue but Uruguay demanded the lifting of the pickets before sitting to the table.
The dispute was then presented to Mercosur and the International Court of Justice. Mercosur under the auspices of Brazil said it was a “bilateral issue”, but the Court in April 2010 ruled that Uruguay had not fully complied with treaties which demanded it had to inform the counterpart about the use of the water course for a pulp mill. But the Court also said the plant did not contaminate and there was no need to relocate.
In the meantime Jose Mujica was elected president of Uruguay and in 2007 Cristina Kirchner took over from her husband. Chemistry between Mujica and the Kirchner couple proved repeatedly positive enabling the current solution to the dispute, although Uruguay would like to include other bilateral issues, basically the dredging of the River Plate access canals.
Uruguay has a growing port in Nueva Palmira, which is seen by Argentina as a viable alternative to Buenos Aires, and the Argentines (the Kirchners and previous governments) have been dragging their feet about clearing the canal leading to the Uruguayan coast.