Protesting against fracking in Argentina

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Protesting against fracking in Argentina

The Mapuche people in Argentina are saying no to the transnational companies trying to frack their lands. At the same time, the government is offering the companies very nice deals. Grace Livingstone reports.


Indigenous spokesperson Lorena Bravo, in a Mapuche flag, looks towards a gas plant at Campo Maripe. EMILIANO LASALVIA/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

In the early hours of a Monday in February 2022, 50 Mapuche women, men, and children of the Fvta Xayem community came together. Some were on horses, others were on foot. They came to block the entrances to a fracking site in Vaca Muerta, western Argentina.

They stood together by the gates of the Loma Campana fracking installations, and they held up the red, green, and blue flag of the indigenous Mapuche people. The YPF oil and gas company was fracking on their land without any discussion or their agreement. The Mapuche people came to say they would stop the fracking.

The Argentine state-owned YPF and the US multinational Chevron work together at the Loma Campana installations. It is the leading fracking site in Vaca Muerta (‘Dead Cow’), close to the town of Añelo, now the centre of the fracking industry here. Many other companies have fracking operations nearby. Multinational companies including Shell, ExxonMobil, and BP subsidiary Pan American Energy are all working there.

Vaca Muerta is home to 34 Mapuche communities; it also has the world’s second-biggest shale gas reserves. Community members say fracking is destroying their land, contaminating water supplies, killing livestock, and causing earthquakes.

Industrializing the land

Fracking began in Vaca Muerta in 2013, and when I first visited in 2016, these lands of northern Patagonia were already full of gas wells. But things have moved very quickly in the last six years: there are now more than 2,451 wells. There are also more pipelines, roads, waste dumps, sand mines, and oil landfills.

Fracking uses a lot of water. They put 90 million litres of water, with chemicals and sand, into each well to release the shale gas and oil in the layers of rock under the ground. ‘Our animals are really suffering,’ says Jorge Nawel from the Neuquén Mapuche Federation. ‘There is very little vegetation to eat, the land is drying out because the industry has taken all the water.’

About a quarter of the water returns to the surface, contaminated with heavy metals such as mercury, chromium, lead, cadmium, and arsenic. They put the wastewater into old fracking wells, says Nawel. ‘The animals drink this contaminated water. Then we find them dead. We also have animals born with deformities such as an extra hoof, the animal's foot.’

Fernando Cabrera is from the Observatorio Petrolero Sur (Southern Oil Observatory), an Argentinian NGO. He says, ‘It is difficult to know exactly the effect on these lands of this very big industry with its new machinery and drilling equipment, its use of water, the building of roads and pipelines. It is very important that we do studies and tell everyone the results.’

Legal actions by the communities show us some of the effects. People from the town of Allen, in the province of Rio Negro, in the southeast, have made a legal complaint. They are saying that people living near one drilling site have asthma, stomach pains, and are vomiting.

At the same time, two communities in Neuquén province, in the northwest of Vaca Muerta, have made legal complaints about the earthquakes with the help of Eduardo Romero, the chief of the Wirkaleo Mapuche community. He told me, ‘There are earthquakes day and night when the fracking work is going on. The houses shake, the land moves, the children start crying, the animals start bleating and running about. It is causing great anxiety, we never felt anything like this before.’

Andres Durán is a fruit farmer. He also raises goats, sheep, chickens, turkeys, and geese. He had to leave his home in Sauzal Bonito, by the river Neuquén, because earthquakes made big cracks in the walls and the floor. His community’s freshwater is also contaminated. ‘Twenty of my animals died. Some of my neighbours lost everything. Before we had clear water here, but now we have to buy it in plastic tubs. The situation is very bad, but no one is listening.’

Nice deals for the companies

In 2021, the Argentine government gave new subsidies, $1bn a year for four years, to oil companies working in the Vaca Muerta gas field. And in 2019, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a US agency, gave $450m for fracking here. Citi, Credit Suisse, and Morgan Stanley have also subsidized projects in Vaca Muerta, and BlackRock, BNP Paribas, and Goldman Sachs hold shares in YPF.

The Argentinian government is in serious debt and so it has promoted fracking and said producing gas will reduce the need to spend on imports. But environmentalists say the Argentinian government has given billions of dollars, such as tax breaks and guaranteed prices, to the fossil fuel industry. Both the state and consumers have paid the bill.

‘For countries in the Global South, it is expensive to change to renewable energy,’ says Santiago Cané, a lawyer for FARN. ‘Big multinational companies should help to pay for the change to clean energy. They should not take subsidies to invest in fossil fuels.’

US Energy Information Agency says Vaca Muerta has shale gas the same as 16.2 billion barrels of oil and 308 trillion cubic feet of gas. They would create 23.9 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions – more than two-thirds of the world’s annual CO2 emissions at the moment.

But, as an answer to the climate emergency, oil companies say they should take shale gas from Vaca Muerta more quickly because of the increasing pressure for an end date for fossil fuels. ‘We’re racing against time,’ says Danny Massacese from Pan American Energy. ‘If we don’t act quickly… we will miss the opportunity.’

After a week of blocking the gates to Loma Campana, the Mapuche protesters won an important victory – the Argentine government and YPF said they would call a meeting of all locally affected groups to make an agreement before more fracking.

This is after years of direct action by indigenous communities in Vaca Muerta. They have climbed oil towers, chained themselves to machinery, and formed human chains around fracking wells.

Jorge Nawel says this new agreement is an important step forward, but he is sorry that the landscape is already covered with roads and paths, and that native species of animals have disappeared. ‘We used to see rheas running across the land – not any more. Patagonian hares, capibaras, maras: they have gone. ‘For us fracking means death – we will continue to fight for life. Fracking is making our lands into cemeteries.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)