GUALEGUAYCHU, Argentina — Every afternoon, Roberto Marchesini drives up the San Martin Bridge that overlooks the flat, humid plains of central Argentina and looks at the enormous pulp mill that opened recently on the opposite side of the Uruguay River.
Sometimes, the 49-year-old brings along instruments to measure the level of harmful particulates he thinks the factory is emitting from its 400-foot smokestack. Other times, he accompanies visitors who've come from all over Argentina to learn about the long battle that Marchesini and his neighbors have waged against the mill.
"I feel outrage, impotence that this plant is here," Marchesini said on a recent afternoon while the mill's lights twinkled. "But over all, I feel we can't give up the just fight."
Residents in Gualeguaychu, on the Argentine side of the river, say they've already felt symptoms of the plant's pollution, with some reporting irritated lungs and burned skin.
"The wind blows southeast from the plant and comes straight over to Gualeguaychu," said activist Nelly Pivas, who said she's experienced skin irritation she blames on the pulp mill. "We're fighting for our lives here."
Florencia Herrera, a spokeswoman for the Finnish company Botnia that built and operates the mill, said that ongoing tests have showed minimal contamination, but an independent study of the plant has yet to be completed.
Botnia officials insisted that the company has used state-of-the-art environmental controls that have proved safe in its mills in environmentally conscious Finland. Those include water treatment facilities that process and recycle 80 percent of the 23 million gallons of river water the plant uses every day.
"We think once the plant functions fully, all the questions that different communities have will be answered," said Herrera. "People will see that all the controls we've promised are working."
The battle over the mill began nearly three years ago when tens of thousands of Argentines marched up the bridge to protest plans to build the $1.2 billion plant across the river in Uruguay, the biggest capital investment ever in that tiny, 3.5 million-person country.
Then came months-long roadblocks, naval showdowns between Uruguayan police and Argentine activists trying to cross the river and a diplomatic cold war between Argentina and Uruguay, which historically have been allies. Tensions peaked when the two countries took each other to the World Court in The Hague to settle the mill and roadblock dispute.
Despite the protests, Botnia opened the mammoth mill in November and is turning locally grown eucalyptus and other wood into 2,600 tons of paper pulp every day. Most of the pulp will be made into paper at its mills in China and Europe. The remainder will be sold.
Botnia began investing in Uruguay after the tiny country pushed its forestry sector in the late-1980s, covering thousands of acres with eucalyptus, pine and other trees. Company officials said the mill, which is now operating at 80 percent capacity, has created nearly 7,000 jobs and accounts for 1.7 percent of Uruguay's gross domestic product.
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who took office in December, has shown little appetite for the protracted dispute, and she told activists earlier this month she opposes their 15-month blockade of the bridge, the main land link between the two countries.
Visitors now ask Marchesini if the fight has been worth it, but he and his fellow activists say they aren't giving up. As long as the factory is there, they say, they'll be camped out amid the soybean fields, blocking the most important highway for hundreds of miles.
"The way they put the plant in here showed they underestimated the response of the people," said local activist Luis Correa. "We're not giving up until the plant leaves."
Such determination may win the people of Gualeguaychu accolades across their 40 million-person country, but it looks like stubbornness to the residents of Fray Bentos, the sleepy town at the Uruguayan end of the bridge.
Because of the blockade, many in Fray Bentos haven't seen friends and family across the river for more than a year, and hardly any Argentine tourists come to bathe at the town's river beaches anymore. On a recent summer afternoon, the main plaza was deserted, and vacation homes that used to vibrate with visitors sported for-sale signs.
"The people who started this aren't looking for a way out of this problem," said clothing vendor Carlos Sosa of his Argentine neighbors. "There are no reasons they give and no arguments. There's just resentment on their side."
Fray Bentos Mayor Omar Lafluf said the dispute has damaged what long had been a close-knit, cross-border community, with some Uruguayans even on the lookout for Argentine sabotage.
"Before, crossing the bridge wasn't like crossing from one country to another," Lafluf said. "It was like going to another neighborhood to see friends. I think it's going to be very difficult to go back to that again."
Because the plant sits on a river shared by both countries, Uruguay is required by a bilateral treaty to consult with its much larger neighbor about any project that could pollute the river. The Argentine lawsuit in the World Court accuses Uruguay of failing to share such information about the pulp mill.
Uruguayan officials insist that they complied with the treaty and alerted the Argentine government, which didn't speak up until the mill was under construction. Uruguay also has sued Argentina for not clearing the roadblock, which has snarled traffic throughout the region.
President Fernandez de Kirchner reportedly told activists that the World Court decision, which is expected late this year, would put the matter to rest as far as she's concerned.
"The government is trying to bring this conflict to a close, even as the activists get more radical," said Argentine political analyst Carlos Fara. "But if the plant shows any signs of contamination, it's a whole other game, and the government will be forced to act."
Even some Argentines, however, are tiring of the fight, and especially of the intermittent roadblocks that have been shutting down the only three cross-border bridges between the two countries for about three years.
On a popular Argentine beach facing the mill, several visitors said the residents of Gualeguaychu would ultimately lose their battle.
"It's not going to be easy to settle this," said Claudio Norana, a resident of the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires. "There's a lot of money involved, and money always wins."
The activists countered that their protests stopped the Spanish company ENCE from opening a similar mill nearby and will in the end force Botnia to leave.
So the activists of Gualeguaychu are digging in. Some of them have even built cabins alongside the roadblock, while others sleep in trailers and tents.
On one trip up San Martin bridge, visitor Luis Rolero studied the giant mill in the distance and then turned around and rested his hands on Marchesini's shoulders.
Looking the activist in the eyes, Rolero said: "Here's the 10 million dollar question. The plant, it's already there. It's operating. What's the alternative?"
Marchesini didn't miss a beat.
"The plant goes away," he said. "There is no plan B."
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