Surrounded by the trappings of an Argentinean corporate executive, Lalo Moreyra is an unlikely environmental campaigner. But from his comfortable office in the province of Entre Rios, this Pepsi distributor and football fanatic leads an environmental dispute that’s pitting Argentina and Uruguay – normally friendly neighbours – against each other.
‘We blocked the roads illegally in exercise of our universal right to defend our land and our way of life,’ he says. ‘Yes, we have cut the right of free movement. But we did it to show the world that there are, here, people who are fighting for their environment. And we are getting there. Today the world knows that there is a town here where whole families and people with disabilities walked 20 kilometres in a protest to say: “Yes to life, and no to the pulp mills.”’
That slogan adorns the shop windows and bumper bars in Moreyra’s hometown of Gualeguaychu, which sits directly across the Uruguay River from the proposed pulp mills. Locals say that the mills will contaminate the river and kill the wildlife that depends on it. For the past year, they have blocked one of the roads that join the two countries, costing Uruguay up to $400 million in lost tourism and trade.
The mills – if they went ahead – would be Uruguay’s largest-ever industrial investment and would boost the country’s GDP by an estimated 1.6 per cent. Uruguayans say that Argentina is upset because they missed out on the projects. But Moreyra disagrees: ‘If these investments, which come from Finland and Spain, bring us the garbage that they can’t accept in the First World, then they are lying if they say that they are bringing us investment. They are bringing us poverty.’
The community’s stance has elevated this local conflict into an international dispute, one that is threatening the future of the regional trading bloc that operates in parts of Latin America, called Mercosur. The World Bank, which is financing part of the project, has suspended its loans to the companies pending the results of further environmental impact assessments. The Bank’s President, Paul Wolfowitz, has met with Uruguay’s President, Tabare Vasquez, as well as Argentina’s Economy Minister, Felisa Miceli, to try to resolve the problem. In early June, the countries took the dispute to the International Court of Justice. At times the legal arguments sounded like a political punch-up, with Uruguay’s team implying that Argentina had rampant corruption problems.
But no matter what the politicians and the courts decide, Moreyra says that the local community will not accept the mills. ‘We are not going to permit that these plants are installed here… and nor are we going to give them, as a gift, one single litre of water in order that they can make their extremely white, extremely expensive paper, which is not just expensive to buy, but also costly to the health and the future life of this planet.’
Moreyra persuaded locals to lift their blockade and wait for the ICJ’s decision, as long as it comes quickly. ‘We are sending an SOS to the World Court: please resolve this for my people because we want to keep living the way we are now. And we hope that the Court will act quickly, because slow justice is no justice.’
Uruguay says that the roadblocks violate treaties with Argentina, and wants to take its arguments to the dispute resolution body of Mercosur. But Argentina, which is presiding over Mercosur at the moment, has been blocking that move because it thinks it will get a better result in The Hague. In response, Uruguay has threatened to leave Mercosur and negotiate a free-trade deal with the US. Seeing this as the worst possible result, the other regional heavy-hitters, Venezuela and Brazil, have weighed in to try to find a solution.
Whatever the outcome, it will need to win local approval. President Kirchner was part of the left-wing youth movement that opposed Argentina’s military dictatorship during the 1970s and early 1980s, and he has promised never to bring in troops to remove peaceful protesters. Short of that, Moreyra says that the only way the protesters will open the road permanently is if they are satisfied with the diplomatic decisions. ‘Here in our province we have 41,000 kilometres of rivers. We have three aquifers between 10 and 90 metres deep. And farther, deeper down, we have the Guarani aquifer; the main source of fresh water for the future generations of this continent. We will not give these companies the social licence to send, from outside, the polluting part of their production into our South American lands.’
Lalo Moreyra talked with Sharona Coutts