Casa de las Animas (Wed., 3/11/09) – Getting Religion

Arauco reforms it’s strategy on the environment.

Black-necked Swan(cygnus melancoryphus)
Black-necked Swan(cygnus melancoryphus)

In 2004 and 2005, the attention of the World Wildlife Fund, the government of Chile and a local citizen group called Action Group for the Swans was turned on Chile’s Carlos Anwandter Nature Sanctuary and the Cruzes River.  In question were the emissions of a new paper mill owned and operated by Arauco, Chile’s leading forestry company and supplier of 6% of the world’s wood pulp.  Swans were dying by the hundreds and an intolerable smell drifted down the Cruzes River valley into the town of Valdivia.  Independent analysis from WWF and the Chilean government confirmed the suspicions of the locals.  Pulp mills bleaching with chorine dioxide release dioxins and furans that are then absorbed by luchecillo and other waterweeds, a staple in the diet of the migrating black-necked swan.  Though Arauco resisted the findings, the plant went through a series of voluntary and forced closings at direct and painful cost to the company profits.  At the same time, a public relations war waged on.

Fast forward to September 2006 when this same company wants the world to know they get it. In that month, Arauco’s Nueva Aldea pulp mill began operations as an embodiment of lessons-learned.  Engaging community stakeholders at the outset and building a state-of-the-art mill whose emissions are so benign, the company added a vineyard and olive orchard next door just to prove the safety of the effected soil and water.  None so righteous as the recently converted.

We spoke today to Charlie Kimber, vice-president of marketing and sales for Arauco.  It was clear in his characterizations of the Valdivia fiasco that he and his company had been through a powerful experience.  Mr. Kimber spoke with conviction about the err of Arauco’s ways saying that “we had a very bad attitude” in dismissing the local community and their concerns.  According to him, Arauco had since embraced their responsibilities as a global and local corporation. “Being global starts at home,” said the reformed executive.  Still, a tinge of victimhood remained in his tone as did hints that the company was innocent of any wrong-doings beyond their “bad attitude.”  So one might fairly question whether Arauco has discovered a fully authentic sense of stewardship for the land and waters they use and the trust of communities on whom they depend for their business.


What is clear is that Arauco has embraced a message of sustainability and is investing aggressively.  Nueva Aldea is just one component of an overall sustainability strategy that includes an assessment of the company’s full carbon footprint including everything from source materials to processing, operations and transport of final products to their destination. Through these and similar programs, Arauco may be setting the standard for triple-bottom line sustainability amongst forestry companies in South America.  So do we really care whether Arauco’s leaders have had a true conversion or are “just” being strategic?

The black-neck swan might. In addition to pursuing their environmental responsibilities in the large, Arauco needs to address the damage to this bird population by sponsoring a recovery strategy in the region to create and maintain habitat. After that, as long as they maintain a brisk and steady march to the promised land of full sustainability with accountability, transparency, and scientific rigor along the way, we will celebrate their transformation.

2 thoughts on “Casa de las Animas (Wed., 3/11/09) – Getting Religion

  1. Actually there was no “group”. It was, and it still is, a social movement that managed to get together individuals representing a wide variety of sectors, both in Chile and overseas too. The name of this movement is “Action for the Swans” (Acción por los Cisnes).

    But the Rio Cruces Sanctuary is not the only area affected. Should CELCO insist on an underwater garbage shute to eliminate untreated liquid effluents further out, the problem would persist, just in a different area.

    The case is particularly interesting in the present worldwide context. CELCO did what most companies have been doing over the years. So what has changed? Not much, it’s just that our planet cannot keep on taking it anymore. Both companies and individuals, we all have to become responsible citizens, and we have to do it fast.

    1. Thanks for your comments and corrections, Lilly. Indeed, if the environmental is just being piped to some other location, we cannot call this progress. The importance of groups like yours to holding Arauco accountable cannot be understated.

      By the way, since the Nicholas School’s trip to Santiago has completed, I’ve reposted this entry to my personal blog at Should you have further thoughts on the issue, I invite you to post them there.

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