"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 Clifton Curtis, director of World Wildlife Fund's Global Toxic Program. "Before the pulp mill, there were more than 5,000 black necked swans in the Carlos Anwandter Nature Sanctuary. When we visited the core of the sanctuary in August, we could find only four."
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 home to more than 100 species of rare, vulnerable or, in at least two cases, endangered species of birds--the Coscoroba swan and the white-faced Ibis. It was also 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," added 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."
The investigators, who made two visits to the area, in August and October, affirmed earlier findings by the Austral University of Chile that 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.
The scientists concluded then that contaminants from the plant contributed to a massive die off of luchecillo, the aquatic vegetation that wa s the swans' main food source.
"It was heart-rending. 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."
Opened just upstream from the nature sanctuary in 2004, the CELCO plant was twice temporarily shut down earlier this year for environmental violations. Residents in Valdivia, 30 miles away, complained of noxious odors from the plant and the WWF mission found the facility's waste treatment, storage and disposal safeguards to be appalling. "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," Tecklin said.
The mission team, which prepared a report containing 25 key findings and recommendations, 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. Further research is also urgently needed to determine the full impact of the pollution on both the environment and 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. At the same time, 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," Tecklin added.