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Where the swans are dying.

In Chile, a land of stunning glacial lakes and primeval forests, citizens and biologists are sounding an urgent alarm. Evidence is emerging that a population of about seven thousand black-necked swans in the Lakes Region's Cruces River Nature Sanctuary has been reduced by more than half in less than a year. The swans, normally seen with their mates and chicks in the river sanctuary beginning in October, have dispersed over larger areas this past year looking for food. Some fifteen swans a day, along with other aquatic birds, have been dying from starvation and disease.

These disturbing changes appear to be the consequence of wastewater being dumped into the Cruces River by a pulp plant that opened in early 2004. Local biologists believe the effluents are killing an aquatic plant that swans and other birds rely on for food. They also believe that contaminants from the plant may be causing neurological harm to the birds.

Jorge Ruiz, a veterinarian, ornithologist, and wildlife enthusiast from Valdivia, told Virginia Vidal of Argenpress: "We are very concerned about the drastic changes that have occurred in the sanctuary. Thousands of swans have left for other areas. People are seeing them everywhere looking for food. Others are dying every day in these wetlands. Though there has been no extensive census in the sanctuary, we can see a clear and dramatic reduction in the numbers of swans, and those that remain are severely undernourished. The same thing is happening to the coots, and it seems to me that other birds are being affected as well. Normally, after October, people can enjoy the sight of swan couples carrying their chicks on their backs."

Yet last year, Ruiz reports, not a single nest was sighted, let alone any chicks. The drastic change, he says, appears to be related to the death of thousands of hectares of Brazilian elodea (Egeria densa), an aquatic plant that is the primary nourishment for the birds.

While Ruiz is reluctant to lay blame before field studies are complete, it is clear, he says, that these events coincide with the opening of a pulp factory near Valdivia. "When the plant began to operate early this year and we began to breathe its foul-smelling, sulfuric emissions, we also began observing changes in the birds. The black-necked swans began to gather in large numbers in the southern area of the sanctuary, particularly on the Cayumapu River. A lot of people were marveling at the beautiful sight, but those of us who work in wildlife--especially the ornithologists--saw it as a first sign that something was going wrong."

Ruiz is not alone in pointing to the Celulosa Arauco pulp mill as the cause of the problem. Lucio Cuenca, representative of the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA), concurs: "The only relevant event that has occurred on the Cruces River in the last year that could explain such a drastic change in the ecosystem is that the Celulosa Aranco pulp mill has begun its operations and is dumping its liquid industrial waste there."

Celulosa Arauco y Constitucion S.A. (Celulosa Arauco) is a production plant for kraft pulp (the main structural element in corrugated boxes, liquid cartons, boxboards, office papers, etc.), and is located just outside the town of San Jose de la Mariquina, thirty-five miles northeast of Valdivia. Twenty miles upriver from the sanctuary, the plant was built a little more than a quarter mile from the banks of the Cruces River. With an initial investment of over $1 billion, it was presented to the country as a model enterprise with "the latest in technology." Celulosa Aranco was the first production plant to be subjected to the Environmental Impact Evaluation System (SEIA) of the General Environmental Law and, according to its top executives, it is one of the few factories in the world to have a tertiary treatment system for liquid waste. In October 1998, Chile's National Commission on the Environment (CONAMA) gave approval for the pulp plant to be built.

Before the plant had been operating for very long, however, it was clear that something had gone wrong. While an environmental impact study had assured the surrounding communities that the total reduced sulfur emissions would not be projected more than sixteen-hundred-forty feet or be detectable by the human olfactory system, in fact, unpleasant odors had traveled over thirty miles from the plant. During its brief existence, Celulosa Arauco has been sanctioned and freed nearly $40,000 for violations ranging from noise pollution and bad odors, to failure to secure permits and the omission of information in its reports.

One particularly disturbing violation was the unauthorized construction of a new disposal pipe for liquid waste. When Arauco made its case for locating on the Cruces River, one of its promises was that it would not alter the ecosystem of the river, where a large part of its waste (approximately 240 gallons per second) would end up. At the time of the factory's approval, the plan was to have only one disposal outlet for liquid waste. It was to be especially designed to diminish the environmental impact. In March 2003, however, according to local residents, another emergency disposal pipe had been built without authorization.

Enrique Suarez, the head of CONAMA in Valdivia, tried to assure citizens that there was no way that untreated waste could be released into the water. According to Suarez, Arauco is one of the few plants "where everything from the temperature of the evacuation to the color of the liquid released into the environment is monitored." (At the same time, however, he indicated that the second disposal pipe did not meet the standards of the original disposal system.)

In the end, CONAMA asked the company only to submit the new disposal system design for SEIA approval and to respond to questions about several other irregularities (including an unreported increase in production). For its part, Arauco admitted that it was an error not to have informed CONAMA previously about the modifications to the original design.

Meanwhile, swans are still dying in catastrophic numbers. News about the disaster began to appear on Visi6n 6 (a local Valdivia cable channel) late last October. A large number of the one thousand to two thousand swans remaining in the sanctuary are not strong enough to fly, and a dozen or so of the birds have actually fallen in mid-flight into urban areas of Valdivia. Those that remain in the sanctuary appear to be slowly starving to death. Coots, coipos (similar to beaver), black-crowned bitterns, and fish are also dying.

The tragedy, of course, is that these black-necked swans, like the other species, were being protected in a sanctuary whose mission is to guarantee a healthy environment for them and provide favorable conditions for their reproduction. (And an added, terrible irony is that these species were never so threatened before this legal "protection" existed.)

The Carlos Anwandter Cruces River Nature Sanctuary was created on June 3, 1981, and is protected by the Ramsar International Convention, which aims to preserve the most valuable wetlands of the planet. Chile is a signatory to the convention. The sanctuary encompasses over twelve thousand acres of land, including riverbeds, islands, and flooded areas of the Cruces and Chorocamayo rivers. It is over fifteen miles long and a mile and a quarter wide.

The sanctuary originated in the great 1960 earthquake, which caused large areas of land to sink and new water courses to form. Emerging vegetation and aquatic plants began to colonize the new wetlands, and many animals found in it a habitat and reflJge where they could live and reproduce. Black-necked swans, coots, ducks, white-necked herons, white-faced ibis, coscoroba swans, snowy-crowned terns, and osprey are among the many species that have found shelter in the wetlands.

The Cruces River Nature Sanctuary attracts foreign tourists and birdwatchers, as well. All year long, thousands of tourists embark from Valdivia on river excursions to various points in the sanctuary in order to see the area's flora and fauna up close. Black-necked swans have always been a special attraction.

But, unless something is done quickly, both the swans and the excursions may be a thing of the past. Their silent agony has enlisted the support of scores of citizens as well as biologists. Residents of Valdivia and nearby areas have formed a group called Accion Por Los Cisnes (Action for the Swans). Last November, over a thousand people participated in a demonstration and march to save the swans. Two days later at a town meeting, four hundred residents signed a petition asking that the pulp plant operations be halted until it could be proven that the plant is not the cause of the poisoning. A second citizen march a month later tripled the November numbers.

Citizens have also been knocking on a lot of government agency doors. CONAMA, which has the authority to shut down the plant, has said it world only do so if the sources of contamination could be definitively identified. In an action announced as a step toward that goal, CONAMA commissioned Chile's Austral University (UACh) to conduct a study of the swans' deaths.

When the UACH study was finally released, however, it did little to clarify the source of the problem. The study focused on thirty-one dead swans and the causes of their death. It confirmed the birds' serious state of malnourishment, including total loss of muscle tissue, and reported elevated levels of iron, copper, and cadinium in their major organs, as well as an unusual number of parasites. The causes of death were determined to be high levels of iron in the kidneys--causing hemocromatosis--and the proliferation of parasites. The study speculates that the elodea plants or other sources of food for the swans might contain high levels of the minerals named, but does not offer any hypotheses of where these minerals may be coming from. The report discarded the possibility that a virus or bacteria could have caused the swans' death--an explanation previously offered by Arauco and by government authorities.

CONAMA has not released any technical opinions about the matter. It's not yet possible to reach any definitive conclusion, the agency says. A second part of the study is still pending, in which international experts from the Ramsar Convention will be asked to participate. At the same time, the Chilean government has resisted allowing the country to be listed on the Montreaux Register of endangered wetlands, which would activate urgent measures of international support to protect the Cruces River Sanctuary.

To date, no official measures have been taken to mitigate this crisis, either by shutting down the pulp plant or by moving the swans to more appropriate places. Accion Por Los Cisnes has proposed an emergency feeeding plan, but this was rejected by the governor of Valdivia as an act that could after "population equilibrium."

Meanwhile the general manager of Celulosa Arauco has declared that the plant management is satisfied that environmental regulations have been complied with. Environmental changes occurring in the sanctuary, says company management, could be the result of natural causes.

As the swans' fate hangs in the balance, wont also mounts over possible dangers to human health posed by contamination from the pulp plant. Doctors from San Jose de la Mariquina have expressed concern that air pollution from the plant may be causing headaches, nausea, vomiting, bronchial obstruction, and nasal polyps. All of these symptoms have been appearing at higher than normal rates over the past year. In addition, as veterinarians begin to report a larger than usual number of deaths of domestic animals who are consuming water from the Cruces River, there is concern over how water contamination may affect not only them but human beings as well.

At this writing, the plight of the swans is an unfinished story. The seasonal and seemingly enduring "splendors" of the sanctuary ecosystem, which I described for Americas' readers last June, are also as delicate and as vulnerable as a dragonfly's wing. From that trip, I remember four swans feeding peacefully amid the wetland grasses, their black necks seeming to form a question mark. May the answer that saves them lie with us.

Last January 18 (as Americas was preparing to go to press), COREMA, Valdivia's regional commission for the environment, announced its decision to temporarily close the Celulosa Arauco pulp mill on the Cruces River due to violations of its operating license. The plant has protested the decision, continuing to deny any wrongdoing. While local citizens and environmental activists are, for the moment, taking heart in this action, the story of the Cruces River Sanctuary is by no means finished.

A frequent contributor to Americas, Ricardo Carrasco Stuparich is a photographer residing in Chillan, Chile. In June 2004, we featured his story "Wondrous Wetland, Crucial Currents," based on one of his many canoe trips along the Cruces River. He appreciates the assistance of translator Kathy A. Ogle in the preparation of this article. Sources include a report published last December, "Posici6n de Parques Para Chile," by the Chilean nongovernmental organization Parques Para Chile.
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Title Annotation:Viewpoint
Author:Stuparich, Ricardo Carrasco
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:3CHIL
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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