Argentina’s indigenous communities unite to stop fracking

Vaca Muerta ("Dead Cow," in Spanish), a fracking site in the Neuquén province of Argentina. (Credit: News Agency/Flickr)

Oil companies looking to expand on fracking have met a great deal of resistance in Argentina, where conservationists and the indigenous Mapuche communities say the gas extraction technique has severely polluted their land and water.

Argentina has been a particularly appealing target for oil companies in recent years, as it has the world’s second-largest reserves of shale gas and the fourth-largest reserves of shale oil, according to estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Agency. Energy experts even predict that fracking could extract enough oil from Argentina to completely cover its demands for oil and gas – with product left over to export – providing the country with cheap energy for centuries.

Much of the country’s shale oil reserves are in formations in the country’s Neuquén province, where a fracking site called Vaca Muerta – or Dead Cow – produces more shale gas than any other place in the world, outside the United States.

But many in the local Mapuche communities now suffer from cancer, and say that fracking has contaminated the groundwater.

“The animals drank the water and then they gave birth to kids with just skin, no hair. That’s never happened before,” Susana Campo, a Mapuche goat farmer, told BBC News. She explained that the 60 baby goats born with the deformity died just a week after birth.

Campo’s sister, Josifa, said the water made her sick to her stomach.

“We know it’s because the water is contaminated, but we have to continue drinking this water,” Josifa told the BBC.

Six Mapuche communities live in the Neuquén region of northern Argentina, together comprising about 1,000 people. Fracking began to plague these communities in 2013, when the state government passed energy regulations aimed at attracting companies willing to invest more than $1 billion in shale development projects.

U.S. oil company Chevron quickly signed a 35-year deal to invest around $16 billion in Vaca Muerta as part of a joint fracking project with Argentina’s state-owned oil company, YPF. So far, the YPF-Chevron partnership has drilled 420 wells, according to the BBC, and plans to drill 200 more over the next two years.

But the projects have exposed the local communities to contaminated elements, since extracting the oil involves injecting thousands of liters of water, chemicals and sand deep into the earth at high pressure to release gas. This process, otherwise known as fracking, is thought to be the cause of a sharp rise in cancer and physical defects in the region, such as underweight births, eyesight loss, oily skin abscesses and livestock deaths from pollution, the Argentina Independent reported.

The Mapuche people have remained firm in their resistance against the oil companies. Many have joined the Mapuche Confederation of Neuquén, which helps provide resources, publicity, representation and a broad network of other communities with which to organize.

This public pressure has led to local fracking bans in around 50 municipalities, which has, in turn, created a power struggle between national and local officials over how communities can prevent energy projects, according to nonprofit Free Speech Radio News.

“We want to have the right to protect our water from pollution, to keep living in our hometowns,” said Ignacio Zabaleta with the Assembly of Fracking-Free Territories, a network of groups opposed to the extraction technique. “It’s a response to the sidelining of the will of the people. It’s about people who have lived in certain areas for centuries being displaced for the benefit of two or three corporations and for the benefit of corrupt and immoral officials.”

The Mapuche people argue that they were never consulted about proposed fracking or energy projects on their land, which violates international accords. Nonindigenous communities and conservationists across Argentina also want a say about energy projects that could pollute their land and call for government policies to favor renewables over the spread of fossil fuel extraction projects.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com