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Chilean Pulp Mill Poisons Swans in Their Sanctuary

SANTIAGO, Chile, November 21, 2005 (ENS) - A new pulp mill in Chile has destroyed one of South America's most biologically outstanding wetlands, killing its famous population of black necked swans, along with most other bird life, a team of ecological investigators said today.

"What was probably the largest population of black necked swans in South America has been wiped out in less than a year. It is an environmental catastrophe," said investigator Clifton Curtis, director of World Wildlife Fund's Global Toxic Program.

The Carlos Anwandter Nature Sanctuary covers more than 12,000 acres of wetlands along the Cruces River in the southernmost Chilean province of Valdivia. An officially designated "wetland of international importance" under the Ramsar convention, it was inhabited by two endangered species of birds - the Coscoroba swan and the white-faced ibis.

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Black-necked swans in the Carlos Anwandter Nature Sanctuary before the pulp mill began operation in 2004 (Two photos by E. Jaramillo, G. Contreras & L.Figueroa courtesy WWF and Austral University of Chile)
"Before the pulp mill, there were more than 5,000 black necked swans in the Carlos Anwandter Nature Sanctuary," said Curtis. "When we visited the core of the sanctuary in August, we could find only four."

"It was heartrending. We talked to people in Valdivia who said they saw emaciated swans fall from the sky, landing on rooftops and cars," Curtis said. "They were so weak they were unable to carry their own weight."

The sanctuary was also inhabited by more than 100 species of rare and vulnerable birds, and was the largest nesting area in South America for the black necked swan, the region's iconic species and a major tourist attraction.

"This was an area that was once teeming with water birds," said David Tecklin, WWF's Valdivia ecoregion coordinator. "Now, within the space of just months, it has become an empty expanse of brown, polluted water. It is a water desert. Words really can't describe the magnitude of the disaster here."

Pulp waste from the plant owned by CELCO, Chile's largest timber conglomerate, is most likely responsible for the catastrophic collapse of the swan population, according to the findings of the ecologists, who included Delmar Blasco, former secretary general of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the world's primary treaty on wetlands conservation.

The investigators, who made two visits to the area, in August and October, affirmed earlier findings by the Austral University of Chile.

The scientists concluded then that contaminants from the plant contributed to a massive die off of luchecillo, the aquatic vegetation that was the swans' main food source.

Opened just upstream from the sanctuary in 2004, the CELCO plant was twice temporarily shut down earlier this year for environmental violations.

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A dead black-necked swan in the former sanctuary
Residents in Valdivia, 30 miles away, complained of noxious odors from the plant and the investigative team found the facility's waste treatment, storage and disposal safeguards to be appalling.

The company had years of warnings. "Twenty-two months after the beginning of its construction and almost five years behind schedule" the Valdivia mill started operating in the Lakes Region on January 31, 2004, according to the World Rainforest Movement (WRM) of Montevideo, Uruguay.

The delay was due to the resistance of citizensí organizations, environmental activists, indigenous peoples, peasant women and especially the residents of the coastal town Mehuin, who for over three years successfully campaigned to prevent CELCO from dumping its effluents into Maiquillahue Bay, WRM wrote in the June 2004 issue of the organization's newsletter.

The investigators found widespread toxics. Tecklin said, "Filter ashes, which can contain dioxins, and other potentially toxic waste were simply being dumped together in an open air site, where the wind can disperse them."

The mission team, which included Rune Leithe-Eriksen, an expert on pulp technologies and executive director of Ecology and Pioneering, prepared a report containing 25 key findings and recommendations.

The team is now urgently calling upon the Chilean government and CELCO to take immediate remedial measures to protect the sanctuary and develop a plan to end pollution from the mill.

As a matter of urgency, the team says, further research is needed to determine the full impact of the pollution on the environment and on human health.

A growing citizen's movement has kept case under the spotlight, as never before for an environmental issue in Chile.

Although a series of lawsuits and other actions to force stronger action against the company have not so far succeeded, the case is now being heard by the Interamerican Court of Human Rights.

"The sanctuary has suffered so much damage that we won't know, without more research, how long it may take to restore it. The first priority now should be strict measures to reduce pollution at the source," Tecklin said.

"At the same time," he said, "urgent human health and socio-economic impacts must be addressed. Thousands of families living in this area are heavily dependent on tourism and on fishing along the coast, where CELCO now plans to discharge liquid waste."

The investigators' report is online at: http://www.worldwildlife.org/toxics/pubs.cfm



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