For the fifth year running a massive concentration of Argentine environmentalists and picketers marched Sunday across an international bridge linking with Uruguay to protest against a pulp mill built on the Uruguayan side and which has been at the heart of a bilateral political and diplomatic dispute between the neighbouring countries.
The Fifth March on the General San Martin International bridge, linking Gualeguaychú with Fray Bentos on the Uruguayan side begun the previous night with a camp of tents, bonfires and singing preparing for early Sunday when the area was virtually flooded with cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles and riders who came to join the midday walk across the bridge up to the Uruguayan Customs and Coast Guard post.
The bridge remains closed to all traffic by Argentine pickets since November 2006, to protest the building of the huge 1.2 billion US dollars Finnish Botnia complex, which is already in full production and abiding by European Union environmental standards and regulations.
Carrying banners saying “Botnia contaminates” and “Let us save the River Uruguay” marchers packed the bridge, sang the Argentine and Uruguayan national anthems and read a public statement, in Spanish and English, blasting Uruguayan authorities for authorizing the pulp mill and “its disastrous consequences for the shared environment and for Argentine sovereignty”. A huge 80 metres long banner was hanged from the bridge “Finland is to blame, Go Home”. Argentine Border police estimated the protest convened 15.000 people. Organizers claimed 75.000.
Along the river Uruguay there was also a display and parade of boats, yachts, vessels with Argentine flags, banners and loudspeakers condemning the Botnia mill.
Press representatives from Argentina and Uruguay covered the event as well as international journalists including from Finland the country at the heart of the dispute.
Argentina and Uruguay have clashed over the pulp mill since its inception with Buenos Aires arguing that the River Uruguay shared administration treaty dating to the seventies, obliges both sides to consultations.
Uruguay says it informed Argentina, but the administration of former president Nestor Kirchner denies such procedure was followed. The matter is currently before the International Court of Justice in The Hague that is expected to rule on the issue sometime late this year.
Meantime Argentina promoted pickets which have blocked the Gualeguaychú head of the San Martin Bridge. However they have become increasingly autonomous and refuse to accompany any diplomatic attempt promoted by Buenos Aires to find a solution.
Since the appearance of the pickets the Uruguayan position has been that no negotiations are possible as long as pickets remain: once they are lifted Montevideo will talk about the issue.
In the meantime the pulp mill has been finished and has been in full production, successfully, for months and with no complaints of environmental damage.
Furthermore papers, reports, studies from international organizations, Uruguayan authorities, the World Bank and even independent Argentine sources have confirmed Botnia is not invasive or aggressive to the environment and complies with the strictest of EU standards.
But this has not convinced picketers and environmentalist organizations.
However this year’s march was marked by two events: a public opinion poll taken in the province of Entre Rios to which Gualeguaychu belongs showed that seven out of then interviews supported the peaceful march, however 52.4% believe pickets should be lifted.
The Ibarómetro poll indicated that 80% of the 1.085 interviews believe there are better methods to oppose and protest the Botnia pulp mill. Actually 45.5% favour collecting signatures country wide and only 12.6% believe the most effective tool are the permanent pickets blocking access to the bridge.
The other event is that a young motorcyclist died when he crashed against a trailer parked across a major highway as part of the organization of Sunday’s protest.
The accident occurred at one in the morning, when Walter Maulucci was heading for Buenos Aires. Although it was a foggy dawn the trailer had no lights or indications it was parked across the highway.
The parents of Maulucci said they are considering initiating legal actions against the environmentalists’ organization.