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By Víctor L. Bacchetta
The decision of President Tabaré Vázquez to entrust the Army with the defense of the pulp mill of the Finnish company Botnia marks not only a worsening of the escalation of the conflict with Argentina as a result of the location of the factory on the border of the Uruguay River, but also the failure of the social communication strategy of the Botnia project.
Uruguay defends pulp mill with the army
The plant under construction on the banks of the Uruguay River already has a 100 m high chimney and several buildings clearly visible from the Argentine coast. Until this moment, the work had a discreet surveillance over the mainland facilities in charge of the Police and security companies hired by the company, while the Naval Prefecture and the Navy took charge of the coast and the Uruguayan part of the waters from the river.
The decision to incorporate the Army was based on President Tabaré Vázquez on "the sovereign right to protect material and human assets." The Vice Minister of the Interior, José Bayardi, was more explicit and admitted that
they handle three hypotheses of attacks to try to destroy the work: an invasion by Argentine special forces, a surface-to-ground missile from the neighboring country and a sabotage from workers infiltrated in the plant.
The Argentine government, through the mouth of President Néstor Kirchner, expressed its rejection of this measure, which came to classify it as "an affront" to his country, with which the
Tension around the conflict only worsened. And this happens just at a time when the Spanish ambassador Juan A. Yáñez, acting as an emissary for King Juan Carlos, is in the Río de la Plata listening for approaches to overcome the conflict.
The Botnia company has declared to the press that the decision to introduce the Army is made by the Uruguayan government, but in fact it means the militarization of the plant, where it has been working in a climate of great tension and mistrust. The security and intelligence tasks carried out include the surveillance of the workers in all their movements both inside and outside the plant, in the neighboring city of Fray Bentos where they are staying.
This evolution of the Botnia project in Uruguay constitutes a resounding failure from the angle of the framework of peaceful coexistence with workers and neighboring communities that every industrial project needs to guarantee its sustainability. Botnia's error lies in a social communication strategy that uses a large amount of technical and material resources, but does not establish a real interaction with the communities.
Botnia communication strategy
Botnia's social communication strategy to obtain the acceptance of the project by the population on a national and local scale has been little analyzed until now.
For some, the Finnish company policy in this regard is an example of the highest level of excellence and, by the way, it is something completely unprecedented in the Uruguayan experience, since there is no history of projects of similar dimensions.
A brief review of Botnia's activities in this regard includes a profusion of press releases and various press conferences, outreach publications, meetings with NGOs, public information meetings, scientific seminars, raffle for trips to Finland among residents of Río Negro and Soriano, gifts for Christmas 2003, visits to Finland by two groups of journalists and a group made up of local mayors, members of political parties and official bodies (CARU and Dinama).
By the way, as corresponds to a company of the size of Botnia, part of these tasks were entrusted to listed institutional communication companies and were accompanied by systematic surveys of local and national public opinion by consultants in the field. But, beyond technical or professional excellence, the key issue of this communicational approach is that it is top-down, it is one-way.
In other words, what is sought is to disseminate and convince, without feedback. Disseminate, providing (to a certain extent only) information about the project and convince. The alternatives left to the recipient of the communication are the acceptance, doubt or rejection of the proposal, but without return on the side of the company. This approach does not contemplate another form of relationship with the public or participation of neighboring communities.
Today, in the face of growing conflicts that have arisen around undertakings of great social and environmental impact, this communication methodology is increasingly considered obsolete. The concept of the Social License to Operate, which synthesizes a new form of relationship with the communities, is recognized by the companies most committed to social responsibility as the only guarantee of the project's viability.
Another relationship with the communities
The global organization Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), which advises its member companies to carry out their projects in ways that respect the values
ethics, people, communities and the environment, considers that the fulfillment of social expectations in relation to a given project is recognized when it achieves what is called a Social License to Operate.
Having obtained the Social License to Operate (LSO) means that the company has achieved the support of the interested parties for the execution of the project, in addition to complying with the legal requirements for its exploitation.
The main conditions, according to the aforementioned source, to obtain this license imply that:
1. The company fully informs the community of its operations;
2. The company communicates the required information according to the needs of the local community;
3. The community has the opportunity to participate in the decisions that affect it; Y
4. The project is carried out taking into account a framework of sustainable development.
Businesses tend to promote certain positive social impacts, such as increased employment and local income, greater commercial and business diversity, etc. But those who take the LSO seriously make a real social investment in education, health, environment, local economy and institutional strengthening, aiming at the consensus of the community and the sustainability of their operating environments.
To this end, they allocate resources for the construction and provision of educational and health infrastructures, training and strengthening of grassroots community organizations, support for ethnic groups, support for agricultural activities, establishment of cultural and educational agreements, the constitution of cooperatives. and associative companies, the creation of environmental groups, youth prevention networks, etc.
LSO and project feasibility
From the LSO's angle, Botnia's social communication strategy was clearly insufficient and with its determination to advance at all costs, even ignoring a request from Presidents Vázquez and Kirchner to temporarily halt the works and negotiate a solution, it contributed to aggravating the problem. The population near the plant residing in the Argentine city of Gualeguaychú felt increasingly ignored.
This aspect was made crystal clear by the World Bank's Ombudsman, Papua New Guinea attorney Meg Taylor, when in her report at the end of 2005 she said: "very little emphasis has been placed on the cross-border nature of the potential impacts of these undertakings and there has not been sufficient recognition of the legitimacy of the concerns and fears of the communities located in the project area ".
And he warned at the time that "more information and scientific facts will not be enough to address the lack of trust that exists at the moment among those who are concerned about the projects." The Ombudsman expressly urged the IFC to strive "so that people who believe they will be impacted can have confidence in the process as well as in the results of any additional studies." The flaw in the IFC's decision in this regard is obvious, no matter how many votes the resolution received.
The "intransigence" attributed by the Uruguayan government and most of the local press to the Gualeguaychú Environmental Citizen Assembly, lies precisely in the fact that each step taken by the Botnia company, the governments and the financial organizations, instead of addressing the concern of the population, plunged it into the greatest mistrust.
Who is responsible for not having done what is necessary to obtain the consensus of Gualeguaychú? Is a project viable if it does not have the consensus of the neighboring communities? Is it sustainable an industrial investment that becomes the axis of a border conflict where the countries turn to the army to protect the project? If no alternatives are opened to this situation, it is only possible to expect even worse referrals.
* Victor L. Bacchetta
Journalist, editor and translator