Uruguay: A place where the lies about plantations are all too obvious

Everywhere in the world where large-scale monoculture tree plantations are established, their arrival is preceded by a series of promises used to trick the local population into welcoming these ventures. After a few years have gone by, people start to realize that these promises are not being kept, and that things are actually even worse than before. But by then it is too late. The companies have taken over the area and set up their plantations.

The town of Tranqueras, in the northern Uruguayan department of Rivera, is perhaps one of the most notorious examples of this deception. Before the advent of tree plantations, Tranqueras was known as the “watermelon capital of Uruguay”, because the sandy soil in the surrounding area was ideal for growing this particular crop. Of course, Tranqueras did not live by watermelons alone; a number of other crops as well as livestock were also raised in the area, for the most part on small and medium-sized family farms.

Today Tranqueras has been renamed the “watermelon and forestry capital” of Uruguay, although you would be hard pressed to find a watermelon grown in the area, since all of the suitable soil has been taken over by vast pine plantations. In the town itself there is a large sawmill where the pine timber is processed.

If all of the promises about job creation and development had been true, Tranqueras would be booming today, since the employment generated by the plantations would be combined with the employment provided by the sawmill. This is a far cry from the reality in Tranqueras, however, as the testimonies gathered during a visit to the region in November 2009 reveals:

“There is no sign of the prosperity that the plantations were supposed to bring to Tranqueras. On the contrary, there used to be two banks, two petrol stations, an agricultural cooperative, a rice mill, a pasta factory, a tax office, and other things. Today almost all of that has disappeared. Tranqueras has grown, but in what way? In the number of people, with unskilled labourers, who earn unskilled labourer wages, and have unskilled labourer mentalities. A population with a primary school education, whose greatest aspiration is to have a tree to prune. Is that progress?” According to the local inhabitants interviewed, 90% of the jobs created by the plantations involve seasonal, unskilled manual labour.

Perhaps the situation can be summed up best by the testimony of a beekeeper, who gives classes in beekeeping as a potential alternative source of income outside the plantation industry. “We have to learn to live with cancer,” she said, referring in this way to the pine and eucalyptus plantations. “We have no choice, which is why we have to try to get what we can out of this cancer.” In this case, they can merely try to make the best of a bad situation by producing honey, taking advantage of the flowering of the pine tree plantations (which only supply pollen) and the eucalyptus plantations (which are better suited for honey production, but are relatively scarce in the area).

Referring to the plantations as a cancer is a particularly apt metaphor, given the fact that their spread has severely affected the health of local ecosystems and the survival of the local population.

Every person interviewed, without exception, stressed the impact of the plantations on the water supply. One local resident noted that “the streams and rivers are shrinking and wells dug eight to ten metres down have gone dry.” Another reported, “It is plain to see that the soil is drying up. Areas that used to be marshes are now dry and you can drive over them in a car.”

The scarcity of water makes it impossible to grow any other crops, and people find themselves forced to sell their land… to the very plantation companies that caused the problem. For example, there are some local residents who would like to start up an organic vegetable farm, “but the problem is that we have no water. Twenty-metre-deep wells have gone dry, and today you have to dig semi-artesian wells, 60 metres deep, which costs at least 4,000 US dollars.” Watermelon farming has disappeared as well, “because there is nowhere to plant them and because there is no water.”

What’s more, the little water left is contaminated, both by the toxic agrochemicals used on the tree plantations and by the enormous amount of pollen produced by the pine trees, which all end up in the area’s waterways. One person told us that “the water is poisoned. I know someone who rented a field near the plantation and he had to give it up because the animals wouldn’t drink the water, and if they did, they died.” A local government representative from Tranqueras described the situation this way: “When they start up a plantation, the first thing they do is kill everything that’s living. Work teams head out with containers of poison and a spoon, 14 or 15 people working about seven metres apart; every five steps or so they stop and dump a spoonful of poison. And so the whole countryside is filled with poison, and when it rains the poison gets washed into the waterways and leaks into the aquifer. Around two years ago – I don’t know if it was from an overload of pine pollen or because of these poisons or because of very low temperatures – a lot of fish suddenly died.”

The pollen problem “is terrible in July and August and up until September. It gets in everywhere, under the doors, all over the furniture, in pails of water, which turns to slime. You see dead fish in the river covered with a layer of pollen,” recounted a local resident. “There are a lot of cases of conjunctivitis and allergies caused by the pine pollen,” added another.

As for other species of flora, “under the pine trees nothing survives, everything dies.” This problem is especially obvious to beekeepers, whose bees have access to nothing but pine and eucalyptus trees for producing honey.

With regard to fauna, there have been serious impacts resulting from both the use of toxic agrochemicals and the alteration of local ecosystems. “Partridges, armadillos, lizards, etc., etc., they all died from the agrochemicals sprayed on the plantations, sometimes from planes,” reported a local resident. In the meantime, other animals have migrated to the area. Wild boars have become a veritable plague, to the extent that “you can’t keep sheep anymore.” “Boars can cover up to 50 kilometres in one night, and there are people who start out with 90 sheep and end up with 15 because of the boars, which sometimes even attack calves. The problem gets worse every year, and while there are usually around five or ten boars in a herd, you sometimes see as many as 50.” There has also been an upsurge in the fox population, which has obviously had an impact on livestock production. Native bird species like owls have also disappeared, as a result of poisonous chemicals and other changes in the ecosystem. According to one person interviewed, “there is a kind of beetle that the owls used to eat but now they have turned into a plague because of the disappearance of the owls.”

From a social viewpoint, the expansion of tree plantations has led to the expulsion of the rural population. A local resident told us, “Before the plantations there were around 200 families living in the countryside and there was a school with around 100 kids. Now, after the plantations came, there are 150 abandoned houses and the school was left with four students, and finally shut down.” One former rural resident recounted how the plantation company offered to buy his land for more than its market value, and he decided to sell. He moved to the town and tried to get a job on the plantation. Things did not turn out as planned: the money from the sale of his land was “eaten up” by basic living expenses and he ended up in the urban poverty belt that has grown up around Tranqueras.

When it comes to employment, not only do the jobs on the plantations pay extremely meagre wages (“barely enough to eat”), but salaries for sawmill workers are equally poor. “You leave for work first thing in the morning, at 6:00, and get home at 6:30 in the evening, and we make 10,000 pesos [roughly 500 dollars] a month, the same as 10 years ago,” commented one sawmill worker.

The fact that tree plantations are now almost the only source of employment in the area makes many people hesitant to speak out against the industry. As a local family farmer explained, “The people who have work don’t complain. But when it comes to people who don’t depend on the plantations, they all complain.”

After more than 20 years of plantation-based “development”, the “forestry capital of Uruguay” has just one paved street – the town’s main street – and it does not even have sidewalks. This means people are forced to walk on the road, running the risk of being hit by a car or truck.

The situation is concisely summarized by the following comments from local residents: “How have the people benefited? People had to leave the countryside and move to the city. Some of them work on the plantations, not because they like it, but because there’s nothing else. The benefits are for the people who come from the outside and for people who have money. The young people here have no future.” “The cost of living has gone up, buying power has gone down, and there are more poor people now.”

To the disgrace of those who continue to support the FSC certification scheme, the plantations owned by the leading forestry company in the area (FYMNSA) have been FSC certified for years. Meanwhile, transnational forestry giant Weyerhaeuser is in the process of obtaining the FSC “green label” for its plantations here through the certification company SGS, which is slated to conduct its main evaluation during the last week of January 2010. Given the FSC’s past record in Uruguay, there is little doubt that the granting of the FSC label will be a mere formality, and the people of Tranqueras will not only have to “learn to live with cancer,” but also put up with its greenwashing.

Source: Testimonies from interviews conducted by Grupo Guayubira in November 2009

Published in WRM’s Bulletin Nº 150 – January 2010

About Grupo Guayubira

El grupo "Guayubira", fue creado en mayo de 1997, para nuclear a personas y organizaciones preocupadas por la conservación del monte indígena y por los impactos socioeconómicos y ambientales del actual modelo de desarrollo forestal impulsado desde el gobierno. El grupo aspira a tener incidencia a nivel nacional y local para implementar medidas que ayuden a la conservación del monte indígena y a modificar el actual modelo insustentable de desarrollo forestal basado en los monocultivos de árboles a gran escala.
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