Pulp mill dispute between Argentina and Uruguay intensifies
Argentine minister lashes out at Botnia
The diplomatic dispute between Argentina and Uruguay concerning the construction of two pulp mills, one by the Finnish company Metsä-Botnia and the other by the Spanish company Ence in Fray Bentos in Uruguay, is intensifying. Both countries say that they will take the matter before the International Court in The Hague. Uruguayan lorry drivers have now threatened Argentina with a trade blockade.
The conflict focuses on road blocks set up by opponents of the pulp mills on the Argentine side of the river that forms the border between the two countries. The Uruguayan truck drivers now threaten to prevent imports of Argentine goods by road and by sea.
Tensions escalated last week, when a planned meeting between Argentine President Néstor Kirchner and Uruguay's President Tabaré Vázquez was cancelled after Botnia said that it would suspend construction of its facility for only ten days. A moratorium of 90 days had been set as a precondition for the meeting.
The shorter period was not sufficient for Argentina, which has called for an independent assessment of the environmental impact of the factories.
After the Argentine protesters manned the barricades again after a break of two weeks, Uruguay said on Friday that it would stop direct negotiations with Argentina. Uruguay also said that it plans to file a complaint both in The Hague, as well as with Council of Mercosur, the free trade organisation of South America.
Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taína blamed Botnia for the collapse of the agreement in a newspaper interview on Sunday. He also blamed Uruguay for cutting off the talks "just as we were reaching an agreement".
Under a treaty signed by Argentina and Uruguay in 1975, matters relating to the Uruguay River, which marks the border between the two countries, are to be agreed upon jointly.
The opposition in Uruguay has risen to defend Botnia.Jorge Larrañaga of the Partido Blanco party has said that "the legality of the companies cannot be compared in any way with the illegality of the road blocks". The country's former President Jorge Batlle, who was in office when the decision to build the mills was made, criticised attempts to blame the companies involved.
"Vázquez' secretary Gonzalo Fernández should, as an experienced lawyer, give better advice to the President, who is a doctor and knows nothing about international law", he said.
The dispute took on personal overtones when Argentina's Interior Minister Aníbal Fernández criticised Vázquez for what he sees as a lack of authority.
"Instead of Vázquez, Kirchner should hold meetings with Botnia on solving the conflict. Kirchner and Botnia's management appear to be the only ones with any decision-making power", Fernández said in a radio interview. He denounced the ten-day moratorium as "practically a joke".
"The decision sends the message that there is no possibility that the government of Uruguay would stop the construction work. If Vázquez does not even have the power to stop the construction, would he have the power to stop the factories, if they cause pollution?" Aníbal Fernández asked.
The comments from the Argentine interior minister provoked angry reactions in the Uruguayan government.
Vice President Rodolfo Nin Novoa criticised the Argentine government, saying that it had "lost its sense of proportion", and Transport Minister Victor Rossi denounced Fernández' declaration as "stupid".
Botnia suspended the construction of its plant for ten days on Friday, as a gesture aimed at easing the conflict that has been brewing between Argentina and Uruguay in recent months.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Pulp mill protesters dismantle one roadblock on Argentina´s border with Uruguay (22.3.2006)
Up to 10,000 demonstrate in favour of Botnia pulp mill in Uruguay (17.3.2006)
Uruguay´s President backs out on deal with Argentine counterpart - paper plant construction goes ahead (15.3.2006)
Metsä-Botnia continues construction of Uruguay pulp mill despite appeal by two presidents (13.3.2006)
Botnia pulp factory centre of dispute between Argentina and Uruguay (10.1.2006)