World Rainforest Movement

Chile: Pulp mill destroy biodiversity and people’s livelihoods

Black-necked swans used to have their habitat in the Carlos Andwandter Nature Sanctuary on the Cruces River, a Ramsar site located in the northern zone of the city of Valdivia in the Tenth Region. The black-necked swan (Cygnus melancoryphus) is a migratory bird native of South America. Its landscapes are the wetlands of the south of Brazil, Uruguay, nearly all Argentina and Chile from the Fourth to the Tenth Region. It feeds on plants and in the Cruces River on a waterweed, the luchecillo (Egeria densa). In addition to the fact that the black-necked swan became part of the local identity, the Rio Cruces Sanctuary led to the development of a considerable inflow of tourists, resulting in an important source of income and labour for the local people.

The Arauco and Constitución (CELCO) pulp mill started operating at the beginning of 2004, located at 32 kilometres to the southeast of the wetland. The mill operates with the ECF bleaching system (using chorine dioxide) and is fed by pine trees from vast monoculture plantations. It discharges its effluents into the Cruces River.

The mill had been operating less than a month when the communes of San José de la Mariquina in the west (close on 6 Km from the mill), Lanco and Loncoche in the north (some 30 Km away) and Valdivia in the south (some 60 Km away), protested because of the insupportable smell coming from the mill (see WRM Bulletin No. 83). In October of that same year there was an alert because of an anomaly in the wetland, corroborated by the presence of dead and dying swans, attributed to the lack of food as it was found that the luchecillo and other waterweeds had dried up. The Austral University of Valdivia presented a report showing that the heavy metals (including aluminium) that the mill was releasing into the water had destroyed the luchecillo, causing the death of 500 birds out of a total of 5,000 that rapidly migrated.

Furthermore, the diagnostic set out in a report by the World Wildlife Foundation made public on 22 November 2005 confirmed the reiterated complaints that the citizen movement of Valdivia had been making for over a year and that had remained unanswered by the authorities. In turn the Chilean Agriculture and Livestock Service made an analysis of the concentration of polychlorinated dioxins and furans in black swan tissues (“Study on the origin of the death rate and drop in the population of water fowl in the Carlos Anwandter Nature Sanctury in the province of Valdivia”) carried out by a laboratory in the United States. The results reveal the presence of polychlorinated dioxins and furans, showing that pulp mills bleaching with chorine dioxide release dioxins and furans, extremely toxic substances that bio-accumulate in the environment.

To face the Rio Cruces catastrophe, the 320 thousand strong population of Valdivia, responded immediately by setting up an association, Action Group for the Swans (Acción por los Cisnes). Multitudinous and unceasing participation and complaints provided a political status to the environmental problem, bringing it to international spheres. Some Euro-deputies became interested in the catastrophe and promoted a revision of the Free Trade Agreement between the European Union and Chile. However, it is ironical that it is the countries of the North that are promoting the unsustainable consumption of paper and it is their demand for raw material that encourages the export of pulp from the South, with the social and environmental disasters this gives rise to. The production of pulp for export has become installed in many countries of the South, prodigious in productive land, benign climates, cheap labour and indebted governments. The good business for some is carried out at the expense of the environment and local populations, which suffer doubly, due to the destructive effects of the monoculture tree plantations and due to contamination by the pulp industry.

Although the CELCO mill was subject to fines and temporary closures during 2005, imposed by the National Environmental Commission (Comisión Nacional de Medio Ambiente – CONAMA), the mill still has the support of the Chilean government. Many ecologists believe that pressure had been put on CONAMA under the presidency of Eduardo Ruiz-Tagle to obtain approval for the project of the mill.

In the meanwhile, the swans have died or migrated, the mill continues to contaminate, the neighbours continue to get poorer with the disappearance of tourist activities and the contamination of their crops and their health is affected by the emissions and effluents from the mill. However, the mobilization of the people of Valdivia in defence of their biodiversity also continues without reprieve. The Citizen Movement Action Group for the Swans, the Lonko Council of Pikunwijimapu, the Tralco Indigenous Community and the Steel Workers Trade Union Association of Valdivia have filed lawsuits: one is a criminal investigation at the Prosecutor’s Office in Valdivia and the other a legal petition to the Council of State Defence. Furthermore, since the CELCO mill in Valdivia started operations, two actions for the enforcement of rights have been lodged, although both have been reversed. Mobilizations have not ceased. In January this year, over 2 thousand people marched against the pollution of the rivers of Valdivia and demanded that CELCO be closed down.

The slogan is: “for a new river region without pollution!” “We do not want to be told in a year’s time that the Sanctuary is contaminated because we all know it. We ask for CELCO to be closed as it is an open secret that the company is responsible for the ecological disaster,” pointed out Jose Araya, from the Action Group for the Swans.

Article based on information from the Acción por los Cisnes site: ; “Las papeleras de Michelle”, by Eduardo Basz,; “Plantas de celulosa que utilizan dióxido de cloro emiten dioxinas y furanos: la evidencia chilena”, press release by RAPAL-Uruguay, 8 November 2005,

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