In the Argentine Chaco region, the forest is also a source of electricity – global issues


The Unitán biomass power plant in the municipality of La Escondida, in the northeastern province of Chaco, which began operating in December, has cost $ 18 million to build and will provide up to 6.6 megawatts of the country's electricity grid.  Credit: Courtesy of Unitán
The Unitán biomass power plant in the municipality of La Escondida, in the northeastern province of Chaco, which began operating in December, has cost $ 18 million to build and will provide up to 6.6 megawatts of the country’s electricity grid. Credit: Courtesy of Unitán
  • Written by Daniel Gottman (Buenos Aires)
  • Inter Press service

The factories, located in northeastern Argentina, generate electricity from the waste produced by producing tannin, a woody extract traditionally used for tanning leather.

International trade in tannins peaked in the early 20th century before declining. But in the past fifteen years, research has opened the door to the development of new uses in areas such as animal production, paper and cardboard manufacturing, to replace chemical additives.

“The biggest threat to the local forests today is clearing of forests to make way for agricultural production. But at other times the management of the forest industry, which remains one of the main generators of employment in the province,” said Luciano Olivares, Undersecretary of the Ministry of Forestry Development of Argentine Chaco Province .

He added in a conversation with IPS: “This is why we believe that using the waste from the production of tannins to produce renewable energy is an environmentally friendly solution, especially in a province like ours, where indigenous forests cover half of the 100,000 square kilometers.” By phone from Resistencia, the provincial capital, about 1,000 kilometers north of Buenos Aires.

The factories were opened on December 2, with the hypothetical presence of President Alberto Fernandez of Buenos Aires, who described them as a good example of the path “we must build” to overcome the epidemic.

Poverty rates in the Chaco have always been among the highest in this vast Southern Cone country of 44.5 million people. But due to the epidemic, the poverty rate has risen to nearly 50 percent of the province’s population of 1.1 million.

The president said sustainable use of forests could contribute to “better income distribution” and “potential use of renewable energies in production.”

Electricity generation in the area was carried out by two companies with more than 100 years of experience extracting tannin from the leaves of the red quebracho willow (Schinopsis balansae), a forest-forming tree in the Chaco famous for its high-quality hardwood.

Yonatan It stated that it had invested 18 million dollars in building the power plant, which has a production capacity of 6.6 megawatts. The factory built by the other company, EndonorAt a cost of $ 25 million, it will contribute 10 megawatts to the national grid in addition to what it uses to supply the plant with fuel.

These are two of the most important private companies in a county where public sector jobs and social assistance play a particularly large role. Both are closely involved in the life of the two small cities where their industrial factories are located: Puerto Tirol and La Escondida, respectively.

Tannin is obtained by immersing shredded wood in hot water, similar to brewing tea. The wood residue is sent to a boiler, where it generates high-pressure steam that powers a turbine to produce electricity.

Adrián Zarrilli, a professor at the National, explained that “in the Argentine Chaco region, there was a large-scale deforestation process at the beginning of the twentieth century, which had to do with the tannin industry and the provision of rail links for a railway expansion.” University of Quilmes specialized in environmental history. “This stopped in the 1940s, among other things because chemical products appeared to be more effective than tannins for tanning leather.”

Zarrelli criticizes the current use of caprachu trees to produce electricity. “I think sustainable development models can be developed in the Chaco, such as integrated forest management and livestock. But cutting down what is left of the original forests to produce tannin, which is an exchangeable product, and then generating electricity from waste, seems irrational to me,” he said in Buenos Aires.

However, the companies assert that their activities, far from being harmful to the environment, are helping to regenerate the local forests of the Chaco. This ecoregion accounts for the bulk of deforestation in Argentina, which amounted to 179,000 hectares per year in the period 2014-2018, according to official data.

Michele Battaglia, President of Indunor, told IPS that “our plant has two sources from quebracho. One, unfortunately, is deforestation resulting from agricultural producers, and the other is sustainable forest management.”

Battaglia, a descendant of an Italian family that first participated in the botanical extract trade in 1854 and came to Argentina in 1925, explained that “in the Chaco, we extract only five tons of caprachu per hectare, from 70 to 100 tons available.

“We remove the largest trees so the little ones have room to grow and not waste energy competing with each other,” he said over the phone from La Escondida.

“Contrary to what environmental activists say, a forest that is left untouched in Chaco becomes very congested and holds less carbon and water than well-managed forests. This is why it is better to manage forests. In Chaco we have the opportunity to do,” Battaglia says. In a social, economic and environmental revolution, if we create economic activity using currently unexploited forests. “

Unitán vice president, Ariel Lopez Mato, also mentioned to IPS electricity generation “as another way to generate income with an eye on the environment”.

In addition, he highlighted the new value of tannin, which is now used as a natural antibiotic for cattle, pigs and chickens, which usually treats infections with zinc oxide.

“There are many uses that can be given to the forest, especially if industrial process waste is used, in what is now called circular energy. We are now experimenting with using wood ash as an alternative to lime. In brick making and road repair,” added Lopez Mato of Puerto Tirol via the phone.

However, environmental organizations are not convinced of the rationality of continuing to cut down the capricho trees for the sake of the tannin trade, which for decades attracted dozens of companies, of which only Yonatan and Indonor remain today.

“If these companies have hundreds of thousands of hectares of their own land that they cut down the caprachu trees that they planted themselves 50 or 100 years ago, that would be one thing. But almost everything that goes into tanneries comes from private farms or original reserves, and this encourages removal. Forests, “Ricardo Teddy, a physicist of Italian descent from Resistencia, told IPS.

Teddy, who has lived in the county for years and is part of Somos Monte, added: “They consume a lot of tons of caprachu annually, and most of them are bought from third parties, so the companies are not responsible for the source of the materials.” Chaco, an ecological community made up of peasant farmers and indigenous people.

According to official data, 12,648 hectares of indigenous forests were lost in the province in 2019, 52 percent under permits and the rest illegally.

Figures provided by Undersecretary Olivares to IPS indicate that about 350,000 tons of timber have been mined annually in the province since 2010. Of this total, 195,000 tons have been used to make charcoal, 10,000 tons for furniture, 4,000 tons for doors and windows and 44,000 tons. Tons of tannin.

© Inter Press Service (2021) – All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service


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