– The boom in unconventional fossil fuels has revived indigenous conflicts in southwest Argentina. Twenty-two Mapuche communities who live on top of Vaca Muerta, the geological formation where the reserves are located, complain that they were not consulted about the use of their ancestral lands, both “above and below ground.”
Albino Campo, ”logko” or chief of the Campo Maripe Mapuche community, is critical of the term “superficiary” – one to whom a right of surface occupation is granted – which was used in the oil contracts to describe the people living on the land, with whom the oil companies are negotiating.
“We are the owners of the surface, and of what is above and below as well. That is the ‘mapu’ (earth). It’s not hollow below ground; there is another people below,” he told IPS.
Nor is it hollow for the oil companies, although the two conceptions are very different.
Three thousand metres below Campo Maripe lies one of the world’s biggest reserves of shale gas and oil.
The land that the community used for grazing is now part of the Loma Campana oilfield, operated by the state-run YPF oil company in partnership with U.S. oil giant Chevron.
“More or less 160 wells have been drilled here,” Campo said. “When they reach 500 wells, we won’t have any land for our animals. They stole what is ours.”
Because of the urgent need to boost production, YPF started a year ago to make roads and drill wells in the Campo Campana oilfield in the southern Patagonian province of Neuquén.
The Mapuche chief and his sister Mabel Campo showed IPS what their lands had turned into, with the intense noise and dust from the trucks continuously going back and forth to and from the oilfield.
They carry machinery, drill pipes and the products used in hydraulic fracturing or fracking, a highly criticised technique in which water, sand and chemicals are injected into the rock at high pressure to fracture the shale and release natural gas and oil trapped in the underground rocks.
“They say fracking and everything aboveground doesn’t pollute…maybe it’ll be a while but we’ll start seeing cancer, skin cancer, because of all the pollution, and we’ll also die of thirst because there won’t be any water to drink,” said Mabel Campo.
YPF argues that it negotiated with the provincial government to open up the oilfield, because it is the government that holds title to the land.
However, “we try to have the best possible relations with any superficiary or pseudo superficiary or occupant, in the areas where we work, Mapuches or not,” YPF-Neuquén’s manager of institutional relations, Federico Calífano, told IPS.
The families of Campo Maripe have not obtained title to their land yet, but they did score one major victory.
After protests that included chaining themselves to oil derricks, they got the provincial government to recognise them legally as a community in October.
“Registration as a legal entity leaves behind the official stance of denying the Mapuche indigenous identity, and now the consultation process will have to be carried out for any activity that affects the territory,” Micaela Gomiz, with the Observatory of Human Rights of the Indigenous Peoples of Patagonia (ODHPI), stated in a communiqué released by that organisation.
According to ODHIP, as of 2013 there were 347 Mapuche people charged with “usurpation” and trespassing on land, including 80 lawsuits filed in Neuquén and 60 cases in the neighbouring province of Río Negro.
In the case of Vaca Muerta, Jorge Nahuel, spokesman for the Mapuche Confederation of Neuquén, told IPS that the local indigenous communities were not consulted, as required by International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, which Argentina ratified 25 years ago.
Convention 169 requires prior consultation of local indigenous communities before any project is authorised on their land.
“What the state should do before granting concessions to land is to reach an agreement with the community over whether or not it is willing to accept such an enormous change of lifestyle,” he said.
Furthermore, said Nahuel, “the company should respect our constitutionally recognised right to participate in the management of natural resources. Those rights have been completely violated by the oil company’s arrival.”
The Mapuche leader said similar violations are committed in the soy and mining industries. “Indigenous people are seen as just another element of nature and as such they are trampled on,” he complained.
In this South American country of 42 million, nearly one million people identified themselves as indigenous in the last census, carried out in 2010. Most of them belong to the Mapuche and Colla communities, and live in Neuquén and two other provinces.
Nahuel noted that of nearly 70 Neuquén indigenous communities, only 10 percent hold legal title to their land.
“The logic followed by the state is that the weaker the documentation of land tenure, the greater the legal security enjoyed by the company,” he said. “It’s a perverse logic because what they basically believe is that by keeping us without land titles for decades, it will be easier for the companies to invade our territory.”
Some have cast doubt on the real interests of the Mapuche.
Luis Sapag, a lawmaker of the Neuquén Popular Movement, triggered the controversy last year when he remarked that “some of them have been doing good business…YPF didn’t go to the Mapuches’ land to set up shop….some Mapuches went to put their houses where YPF was operating, to get this movement started.”
“Until Loma Campana was developed, there were never any demands or complaints from a Mapuche community,” said YPF Neuquén’s manager of unconventional resources, Pablo Bizzotto, during a visit by IPS and correspondents from other international news outlets to the oilfield in the southwestern province of Neuquén.
Nahuel compared that reasoning to “the arguments used by the state when it invaded Mapuche territory, saying this was a desert, we got here, and then indigenous people showed up making demands and claims.
“They’re using the same logic here – first they raze a territory, and then they say: ‘But what is it that you’re demanding? We hadn’t even seen you people before’,” he said.
Nahuel said the production of shale gas and oil, an industry in which Argentina is becoming a global leader, poses “a much greater threat” than the production of conventional fossil fuels, which he said “already left pollution way down in the soil, and among all of the Mapuche families in the area.”
“It is an industry that has a major environmental and social – and even worse for us, cultural – impact, because it breaks down community life and destroys the collective relationship that we have with this territory, and has turned us into ‘superficiaries’ for the industry,” Nahuel said.
He added that as the drilling moves ahead, the conflicts will increase.
He said the country’s new law on fossil fuels, in effect since Oct. 31, will aggravate the problems because “it serves the corporations by ensuring them the right to produce for 50 years.”
The logko, Campo, said: “When YPF pulls out there will be no future left for the Mapuche people. What they are leaving us here is only pollution and death.”
Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes