Uruguay is one of the most politically and socially stable countries in Latin America. It has a high quality of life index and outstanding macroeconomic indicators. However, Uruguayan society has growing concerns and among those facing new president Luis Lacalle Pou is the issue of environmental protection.
Lacalle Pou began his presidency a few weeks ago as part of a coalition of political parties. At 46, he is the youngest president in the history of Uruguay and his devotion to the conservation of the sea has already generated some optimism among environmentalists.
His first proposal signals a move in that direction: the creation of a dedicated Ministry of Environment and Water. Can Lacalle Pou, a surfer and sea lover, respond to louder calls for a healthy environment?
For now, it's surely the toughest wave he will have to ride.
Lacalle Pou and environmental conflicts
Uruguay is facing a number of water-related challenges. Excessive use of fertilisers and untreated effluents from cities and reservoirs that limit river circulation have allowed microalgae and cyanobacteria – aquatic organisms that photosynthesise, or make their own food – to flourish in Uruguay’s waterways, affecting oceanic beaches.
Meanwhile, the construction of a third giant paper pulp plant that will absorb millions of litres of water from Uruguay's main internal river, the Río Negro, has sparked environmental protests. It remains to be seen if the new government will review the project, as it has proposed.
On land, the monoculture forest that serves as the main input for paper-making at the plant occupies more than one million hectares, some 6% of this small country’s surface area. This exceeds even the extent of native forests in Uruguay and has a strong impact on biodiversity and water demand.
A new Irrigation Law, which seeks to boost agricultural production by damming water basins, is under consideration by the Supreme Court after various organisations and unions demand it be annulled on constitutional grounds.
The ocean agenda
Almost half of Uruguay’s territory is aquatic, distributed between the Atlantic and the estuary of the Río de la Plata. But fishing here has been in decline for over two decades.
The number of industrial vessels fell by 50% in the last decade and, along with artisanal fishing, is threatened by high operating costs, poor water water quality and competition from imports of cheap, poor crop species such as the shark catfish (Pangasianodon hypophthalmus) from Southeast Asia that are served in Montevideo's restaurants.
the drop in Uruguayan industrial fishing vessels in its waters in the last 10 years
Marine biodiversity is further threatened by dozens of ships of different nationalities that operate right on the edge of Uruguay’s Exclusive Economic Zone, and sometimes within it, capturing species that were previously only sought-after by local vessels. Worldwide, overfishing is pushing ships to look for catches in new locations, as in Uruguay's case.
These same vessels that deplete Uruguay’s resources unload the catch in the port of Montevideo, where they are exempt from taxes and controls, and labour and sanitary conditions are often poor too. Local vessels are asked to meet stricter measures.
In recent years, Montevideo has sat top of NGO Oceana and the US State Department’s global rankings of ports that support illegal fishing and slavery on board vessels.
A major challenge for Uruguay’s new administration will be to regain control of Montevideo's port and clean up the 'pirate port' image that it has earned after years of harbouring ships that regularly commit illegal fishing and human rights abuses.
Although Uruguay is not a major actor on the global climate stage, it is an example for the world in that it has an almost completely decarbonised energy matrix - 98% of its generation comes from wind, solar and hydraulic energy, even exporting its overstock.
The creation of a Ministry of Environment is a great announcement, but that alone will not be enough to resolve socio-environmental conflicts in a society that demands more, especially since the South American country’s tourist board promotes it as “Uruguay Natural".
A rethink of the country's destiny is necessary. Uruguay could either become a great plain of monocultures with polluted rivers or limit the growth of agribusiness and emphasise organic farming and the protection of its land, rivers and seas.
Activities such as responsible tourism, sustainable fishing, organic agriculture and renewable energy can generate employment and income for the country, closing a virtuous circle for society, the economy, and the environment. In order to do this, the new government must engage Uruguay’s discontents and increase transparency around environmental information.
Lacalle Pou and his team hold the answer. They must balance the demands of sectors such as agriculture and the groundswell of support for a healthy environment that they promised during the campaign. By doing so, the new government can help reinforce Uruguay’s reputation as a South American beacon of stability.