By Hernán Scandizzo
While new techniques of hydrocarbon drilling, such as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in new areas are lauded by some as a solution to Argentina’s energy imports, the indigenous communities who live in areas where these resources can be found argue the activity is a threat to their communities.
Members of the Mapuche community say the Argentine government’s aggressive push to increase energy supplies by allowing oil companies to explore in their lands will cause irreversible environmental and social damage.
According to Argentina´s Energy Secretariat, close to 87 percent of Argentina’s energy is generated from fossil fuels. The government agency said that in 1988 Argentina had enough gas supplies for 36 years. But by 2009, this outlook was slashed to seven years. Oil supplies fell from 14 to nine in the same period.
Additionally, starting in 2003, when the economy was stabilizing after its financial collapse two years earlier, consumption of fossil fuels increased sharply. A report of the US Energy Information Administration said that the use of oil and oil products increased more than 37 percent between 2003 and 2010 in Argentina, while gas consumption increased 23 percent in the same period. To cover its energy needs, Argentina’s fuel imports, mainly of liquefied natural gas, gasoil and fuel oil, increased more than seven times, from US$549 million to US$4.5 billion, according to Argentina’s Economy Ministry.
In December 2010, Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales, or YPF, owned by the Spanish firm Repsol, announced it found a large shale gas reserve, in Loma de la Lata in the southern Neuquen province, and then it found an even bigger one in the same site.
Now other oil companies, including the US-based Chevron, Exxon and Apache, and the France´s Total, are exploring in Neuquen.
According to the US Department of Energy, Argentina is home to the world’s third-largest potential reserves of unconventional gas, with a potential 774 trillion cubic feet, behind only to China with 1.28 trillion cubic feet and the United States with 862 trillion cubic feet.
There is also hydrocarbon exploration in Rio Negro province. The provincial governments of Mendoza and Chubut are evaluating whether to allow for exploration there, too. The Entre Rios province, which has no history of gas exploration, signed an agreement with Repsol-YPF in 2009 for unconventional hydrocarbon exploration, and established an agreement with Uruguay for cross-border exploration with the state oil company Ancap.
New conflicts emerge
But there are consequences for the indigenous groups who live in the path of the expansion.
“There is no doubt that all of the official announcements about these mega-fields are a direct and clear threat to the life and culture of the affected Mapuche communities,” said Jorge Nahuel, a member of the Xawvnko Area Council of the Neuquen Mapuche Confederation.
Last November, members of the Gelay Ko community in Neuquen blocked work on a gas well on their land that US oil company Apache had been drilling, saying that they were not previously consulted of the project. They demanded that the provincial government create two commissions, one to evaluate the social, cultural and environmental impact, and the other for control and monitoring.
Fracking uses millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals and sand at high pressure, to break through rock like shale to free natural gas and oil.
“There is no policy in place to measure the impact of this new technology,” said Nahuel. “That is what the communities are reacting to, in Loma de la Lata and in the central part of the province.”
Oil and gas exploration began 60 years ago, and indigenous residents estimate that there are 200 wells there and they have been demanding an end to the activity in the area for the last decade.
Mapuche community authority Cristina Lincopán of the village, said the government brings water each month in trucks to the area from Zapala, a city 60 kilometers (38 miles), because the water is so contaminated from the oil industry.
She said that community members are suffering from blindness, skin diseases and diarrhea.
“The truth is the company Apache is killing us day after day,” she said.
In September 2001, German consultancy Umweltshutz provided the Kaxipayiñ and Paynemil communities an environmental impact study that found 630,000 cubic meters of soil contaminated with chromium, lead, arsenic, naphtaline and pyrene, as well as other heavy metals in the water above legally accepted levels.
Gabriel Cherqui, a werken, or spokesman from the Kaxipayíñ community, said that since early 2011, they blocked YFP from exploring in the region because local government officials failed to clean up the current environmental damage. In 2002, his community, along with the neighboring Paynemil village filed a lawsuit against Repsol-YPF for social-environmental and cultural damage. Back then the cleanup cost was estimated at US$445 million, and is now at US$1.6 billion, according to Cherqui.
Even though Argentina ratified Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization on indigenous peoples, one of whose main points is the previous consultation of indigenous groups, the state has not ensured this.
Now it is an issue local courts are evaluating. In February, Judge Mario Tommasi in Cutral Có town in Neuquen rejected an injunction request by Petrolera Piedra del Águila to do seismic testing in the Huenctru Trawel Leufú Mapuche community. Meanwhile, in March, the provincial Supreme Court approved an injunction against Chinese company Emprendimientos Mineros for copper exploration in the Mellao Morales community.
James Anaya, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Indigenous Peoples, who visited Argentina in late 2011, said the country’s institutions need to do more to defend indigenous peoples’ human rights.
In a press conference, he said the government needs to regulate the consultation process before extractive industry projects can receive a green light.
Other encroachments on indigenous lands
According to figures from the Neuquen Observatory on Indigenous Peoples’ Indigenous Rights, there are 59 Mapuche communities in the region, 19 of them affected by the oil industry or on the radar of companies looking to expand exploration.
Five of them – Logko Purrán, Gelay Ko, Antipan, Kaxipayiñ and Paynemil – are home to gas exploitation. Oil is being extracted from Wiñoy Folil, Maliqueo and Marifil; and in 11 others, there are concessions for exploration of either.
Salta, in northern Argentina, is also the scene of conflicts over extractive industry in or near the lands of indigenous peoples. In October and November of 2011, the Wichí Lewetes Kalehi and Lote 6 communities in the municipality of Rivadavia Banda Norte tried to stop seismic testing on their lands and reported being harassed by the company Wicap, which was contracted by the Unión Transitoria de Empresas Maxipetrol, as well as by police.
In the Chubut province, in Patagonia, an exploration/exploitation concession in Ñirihuau Sur, in June 2011, put Mapuche Tehuelche communities on alert. In mid-October, they held a trawun, or parliament, to evaluate the impacts of the industry, in which Neuquen Mapuche also participated.
It was a similar story in Chaco, where the province was divided into 12 blocks, some of them including Wichi, Qom and Moquit lands. In mid-2011, the Servicios Energéticos del Chaco-Empresa del Estado Provincial and Argentina Energy Service, a state-owned company, started exploring for hydrocarbons.