Thursday, November 23, 2006

Nueva Aldea Mill Tour: Part One

NOTE: I first published this blog in November 2006 at and it's now published here in the interest of continuity. Thanks for reading.

My visit and tour of the offending pulp mill:
Tuesday, November 21, 2006.

The train ride out of Santiago is gorgeous but not very fast. As I sit in my seat I watch skyscraping Andes mountains as a vertical wall to my left; in the foreground are vineyards, small snowmelt rivers, giant monoculture agricultural fields dotted with roaming horses; the distant coastal mountains to my right contain the millions of acres of Oregon pine and Australian eucalyptus that feed Chile's infamous forestry industry. At 7 AM the train is full of affluent agricultural engineers and winemakers talking on their cell phones as they travel to their fields from Santiago for the day. These guys are the scientists and managers behind the mass-produced wines, table grapes, oranges, tomatos, apples and asparagus that arrive jet-set fresh to your local supermarket during the northern hemisphere winter. Their prime export season is just now beginning.

But this is not a tourist brochure nor an article for Travel & Leisure; I've watched this gorgeous landscape pass by at 80 KPH a thousand times before; today I meet my nemesis, "Complejo Forestal e Industrial Nueva Aldea" (Nueva Aldea Forestry and Industrial Complex): a US$1.3 billion-dollar city of industry built to produce what we all want more of: bleached paper kraft pulp, cheap lumber and plywood. And your newspaper, office fax, surf magazine or bathroom remodel will soon contain some product from this very place. Chile's trees grow three times faster than the same tree grown in North America. Who can argue that they don't have the right to produce such a much-needed product?

Five hours later after getting off the train I get in a car and drive another 50 km southwest to what was once a small rural village. Now the village has a rather large new neighbor that is constantly lit up with 300 giant floodlights and 200-foot-tall vapor-spewing smokestacks. Vineyards still border the edges of the pulp factory. One of them is an organic vineyard, and this year 80,000 bottles of its wine was rejected by Swedish authorities because of its proximity to the new pulp mill.

I approach the heavily guarded gates (site of many citizen protests, including a Greenpeace stunt in late June of this year in which four climber activists, one of them a surfer, hung a giant banner reading, CELCO: ENOUGH POLLUTION ALREADY) and I announce my name to the rent-a-cop. This time I am not holding a protest placard; this time I am an invited guest of the Plant Manager and the guard waves me through with subservient authority. What rhetoric will I be showered me with today? How will the beast be painted by its human custodians? I suspect the "local jobs and economy" argument will be heavily promoted. I merely have a few pointed questions to ask, and a strange desire to stare deeply into that chlorine- and sulfur-spewing cauldron of industrial ingenuity. Some people come to Chile to walk for days to stare into sulfur- and toxin-spewing volcanoes. Is my journey today that much different? Ultimately I seek self-knowledge and redemption, and getting to know my enemy helps tremendously in getting to know myself. Today I am the lotus flower: growing in mud yet undefiled by it.

Tomorrow's blog: the public relations slide show and the very stinky water treatment plant..