Union Members Protest US$8.9 Million Agreement on Aqueduct Construction

Six members of the 1st Fishermen’s Union of the seacoast village of Mehuín burned a photocopy of an agreement between their union and the forestry company CELCO on Thursday afternoon. Proclaiming that “our seas are not for sale,” the fishermen lambasted the agreement, on which their own signatures appeared, and said they had been tricked into signing it.

The fishermen were referring to a contact signed Wednesday by 99 local fishermen in Mehuin agreeing to allow CELCO to construct a waste pipeline from its Valdivia cellulose plant through the town in return for US$8.9 million.

The agreement - the result of months of negotiations - commits CELCO to give nearly US$6,000 to each of the local fishermen, with more payments to come once the project is approved and then later, once the project begins operation.

The agreement also commits the two sides to work together to get approval for the project’s Environmental Impact Study (EIA). A successful EIA is a crucial first step for the hugely controversial and drawn out project.

CELCO officials had hoped that the agreement with the Mehuín fishermen groups would facilitate the EIA and resolve their “community relations” troubles for their Valdivia cellulose plant. Community leader Joaquín Vargas, head of the 3rd Fishermen’s Union in Mehuín, said he approved agreement on Wednesday, calling it “a positive development, considering the shortage of work in Mehuín.” His union is currently in negotiations with CELCO, looking for a similar payoff.

Other reactions, however, were not as favorable. Labor activist Eliab Viguera, the president of the Committee for the Defense of the Sea, warned CELCO to “remember what occurred in August of 2006” – a reference to the destruction of CELCO boats off of Mehuín by protestors. He predicted that workers would ultimately reject this most recent agreement. “I am not interested in negotiation,” he said. “I only want to tell CELCO that soon we are going to see the true face of Mehuín.”

“We are not going to let our sea become a garbage dump,” said Jimmy Becerra, one of the fishermen involved in Thursday’s demonstration. “CELCO plays dirty. They convinced nine fishermen from our union who are illiterate to sign a contract they could not even read. They brought in people from Punta Arenas and Aysén, who don’t even work in Mehuín.”

CELCO first received approval to build a paper pulp plant in Valdivia in 1996 under the government of President Eduardo Frei (1994-2000) and planned to dump the plant’s waste into the ocean near several fishing villages. That same year, however, a group of workers from the tiny fishing village of San José de Mariquiña blocked the work of experts sent by the company to explore the possibility of building a waste duct there. In several cases, fisherman physically prevented the CELCO employees from carrying out water tests in the bay.

After that incident, CELCO redesigned its liquid waste disposal plans, opting to dump the waste material from its Valdivia plant into the Río Cruces. That project later became a nightmare for the company when in 2004 thousands of black-necked swans turned up dead in the nearby Carlos Anwandter wetland sanctuary just weeks after the company began dumping their waste in the river. The Regional Environmental Authority (COREMA) quickly determined that pollution from the CELCO plant was to blame.

The facility was closed briefly in June of 2005 after residents in Valdivia claimed the plant was also polluting the city’s drinking water and destroying Valdivia’s tourism industry. The site reopened two months later under special permission from former President Ricardo Lagos, but only after CELCO officials agreed to operate the plant at 80 percent of its capacity (ST, Sept. 25).

Since then, CELCO officials have been looking for new alternatives to dispose of the factory’s waste in an effort to win approval to return to full operating capacity. On September 13 the company was denied its request to overturn the decision that imposed the limitations, arguing that it had complied with its environmental obligations.

SOURCE: La Tercera by Teddy Kahn ({encode="" title=""})