The Unitán biomass power plant, which went into operation in December in the municipality of La Escondida in the northeastern Argentine province of Chaco, cost 18 million dollars to build and will supply the country’s electricity grid with up to 6.6 MW. CREDIT: Courtesy of UnitánBUENOS AIRES, Feb.19 (IPS) – Forest is the primary resource in the Chaco, a vast plain shared by Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay. And how to use it sustainably is the hardest question. Two recently inaugurated power plants powered by forest biomass offer one possible answer, although not free from controversy.
The plants in northeast Argentina generate electricity from waste from the production of tannin, a wood extract traditionally used to tan leather.
The international tannin trade peaked in the early 20th century before declining. However, over the past 15 years research has opened the door to the development of new uses in areas such as animal husbandry and paper and board manufacturing, replacing chemical additives.
“The main threat to native forests today is deforestation to make way for agricultural production. However, at other times it was irrational management of forestry that remains one of the main job generators in the province,” said Luciano Olivares . Undersecretary of State for Forest Development in the Argentine province of Chaco.
“That is why we believe that using the waste from tannin production to generate renewable energy is an environmentally friendly solution, especially in a province like ours where half of the 100,000 square kilometers is covered by indigenous forests,” he added in an interview with IPS by phone from Resistencia, the provincial capital, around 1,000 kilometers north of Buenos Aires.
The facilities were inaugurated on December 2nd with the virtual presence of President Alberto Fernández of Buenos Aires, who announced them as a good example of the way “we must build” to overcome the pandemic.
The poverty rate in the Chaco has always been one of the highest in this huge land of the southern cone with 44.5 million inhabitants. However, due to the pandemic, the poverty rate has risen to almost 50 percent of the provincial population of 1.1 million.
In a forest in the Chaco region in northeast Argentina lies a freshly felled trunk of willow-leaf-red quebracho. This straight trunk tree, native to South America, is valued for its high tannin content and hardwood, which is why the name “quebra hacho (ax breaker)” originated in Spanish. CREDIT: Courtesy of Riccardo Tiddi The President said the sustainable use of the forest could contribute to both “better income distribution” and “the possibility of using renewable energies in production”.
Power generation was carried out in the region by two companies with more than 100 years of experience in extracting tannin from the willow-leaf red quebracho (Schinopsis balansae), a tree that forms forests in the Chaco and is known for its high quality hardwood.
Unitán said it had invested $ 18 million in the construction of its power plant with an installed capacity of 6.6 MW. The facility, built by the other company, Indunor, cost $ 25 million and will add 10 MW to the national grid in addition to what it uses to power the factory itself.
These are two of the most important private companies in a province where public sector jobs and welfare are particularly important. Both are closely involved in the life of the two small towns in which their industrial plants are located: Puerto Tirol and La Escondida.
Tannin is obtained by immersing crushed wood in hot water, much like brewing tea. The wood residue is sent to a boiler where it generates high pressure steam that drives a turbine to generate electricity.
Indunor’s power generation turbine is operated in the small town of La Escondida in the Argentine province of Chaco using heat from tannin waste. CREDIT: Courtesy of Indunor “There was a massive deforestation process in Chaco, Argentina, at the beginning of the 20th century, which had to do with the tannin industry and the provision of sleepers for the expansion of the railroad,” explained Adrián Zarrilli. Professor at the National University of Quilmes, specializing in environmental history: “This stalled in the 1940s, partly because chemicals were created that were more effective than tannin in tanning leather.”
Zarrilli criticizes the current use of quebracho trees to generate electricity. “I believe that sustainable development models can be developed in the Chaco, such as integrated forest management and animal husbandry. But what remains of the native forest is cut down to produce tannin, a replaceable product, and then with the Generating electricity from waste seems irrational to me, “he said in Buenos Aires.
However, the companies claim that their activities are far from harming the environment, but rather help to regenerate the native forests in the Chaco. This ecoregion accounts for most of the deforestation in Argentina, which according to official figures amounted to 179,000 hectares per year in the period 2014-2018.
Michele Battaglia, President of Indunor, told IPS: “Our factory has two sources of quebracho. Unfortunately, one is deforestation by agricultural producers. The other is sustainable forest management.”
Battaglia, a descendant of an Italian family who first entered the plant extract business in 1854 and came to Argentina in 1925, explained: “In the Chaco we only get five tons of quebracho per hectare, of the 70 to 100 available.
A man walks an old, abandoned railway line in a rural area of Argentina’s Chaco region, where most of the native forest has been cleared. This region accounts for most of the nearly 180,000 hectares of forest that are officially lost in Argentina every year. CREDIT: Daniel Gutman / IPS “We’re removing the largest trees so the little ones have room to grow and not waste energy competing with each other,” he said on the phone from La Escondida.
Battaglia explains, “Contrary to what environmental activists have said, a forest that is left untouched in the Chaco becomes too crowded and contains less carbon and water than a well-managed forest. Therefore, it is best to manage forests. In the Chaco.” We have the opportunity to carry out a social, economic and ecological revolution if we generate economic activity with the underutilized forests today. ”
The Vice President of Unitán, Ariel López Mato, also mentioned electricity generation to IPS “as another way of generating income and at the same time protecting the environment”.
He also highlighted the new value of tannin, which is now used as a natural antibiotic for cows, pigs, and chickens whose infections were usually treated with zinc oxide.
“There are many uses for the forest, especially when the waste products from industrial processes are used in what is known as circular energy. We are now experimenting with using wood ash to replace lime in brick making and road repair,” added López Mato from Puerto Tirol by phone.
A truck carries freshly cut local tree trunks in the town of Miraflores in the northeastern Argentine province of Chaco. Forests are an important resource in one of the poorest regions in the country, and some of the wood extracted comes from the clearing of land by agricultural producers. CREDIT: Daniel Gutman / IPS However, environmental organizations are not convinced of the rationale of continuing to fell quebracho trees for the tannin business that decades ago attracted dozen of companies, of which only Unitán and Indunor are left today.
“If these companies had hundreds of thousands of acres of their own land to fell quebracho trees that they planted themselves 50 or 100 years ago, that would be one thing. But almost everything that goes into the tanneries comes from private farms or indigenous reserves and this promotes deforestation, “Riccardo Tiddi, a physicist of Italian descent from Resistencia, told IPS.
“They use many tons of quebracho a year and most of it is bought from third parties so the companies are not responsible for where the material comes from,” added Tiddi, who has lived in the province for years and is part of Somos Monte Chaco, an environmental collective of farmers and indigenous people.
According to official figures, 12,648 hectares of forest were lost in the province in 2019, 52 percent under permits and the rest illegally.
Figures provided by Undersecretary Olivares to IPS show that around 350,000 tonnes of wood have been mined annually in the province since 2010. 195,000 tons of this was used for the production of charcoal, 10,000 tons for furniture, 4,000 tons for doors and windows and 44,000 tons for tannin.
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