Hydrocarbon exploitation invades Mapuche territory
The Neuquen province in Argentina’s Patagonia, which has been the
principal oil and gas producer since the 90s, is experiencing a fall in
production since only proven reserves are being exploited, without any
investment in new explorations.
However, the Mapuche indigenous population opposes the definitive
transformation of their lands into oil fields. Their resistance to oil
activity began in the mid-90s in Neuquen as a reaction to the pollution
in the Kaxipayiñ and Paynemil communities which are located on the
country’s largest gas deposit, Loma de La Lata. For a decade, they have
suffered police repression, threats and trials. Today they face the
arrival of anthropologists and bullies who accompany the new transformations.
“We only make demands according to our rights,” said Martín Velázquez
Maliqueo, an authority, or lonko, in the Mapuche Logko Puran community,
located 25 kilometers (16 miles) from the Neuquen city Cutral Co.
In June, Velázquez was absolved along with three other traditional
authorities after being charged with “disturbance to property” in a
trial started in 2001 by US company Pioneer Natural Resources, today
Apache Corporation, for blocking roads and supposedly impeding the
normal function of the site. Currently, this community has blocked a
road built by its members and which leads to the deposit, so the
company’s wells and gas compressor plant are paralyzed.
“Oil revenues controlled political administration [in Neuquen], in the
country, and when someone tries to complain or oppose hydrocarbon
exploitation, the historical demands of the first peoples are
criminalized,” he said.
Extending the oil front
The heightened price of oil has sparked companies’ interest in secondary
areas, expanding the extractive front.
In 2007, Argentine company Pluspetrol took over a concession in Zapala,
in the center of Neuquen, to exploit an area containing 14 of the 17
indigenous communities in the region. The Mapuche immediately opposed
the concession on their lands and formed the Central Zone Council of the
Neuquen Mapuche Confederation in order to unite their efforts.
“The oil companies have used and keep using all ways possible to try and
enter our lands, in the beginning without causing conflict,” said Relmu Ñanko, spokesperson for the Central Zone Council.
But according to Ñanko, if the company fails to persuade the community,
“The most concrete case is what’s going on in the Huenctru Trawel Leufu
community,” she said. “The company Petrolera Piedra del Águila has
invested resources in the unemployed people [who say they could get jobs
if the company is allowed to work] and with the oil union, which has
unleashed its bullies in the community’s territory so that the conflict
appears in the public’s eyes as just a confrontation of poor against
poor, and the government and company wash their hands.”
Since November of last year, there have been various acts of violence,
including setting the car and house of some community members on fire.
Though there have been formal dialogues with the provincial government,
Verónica Huilipán, a spokesperson for the Confederation, stressed the
state’s responsibility for the situations generated by the entry of oil
“It is a conflict that has dragged on for more than a decade and that
the state has created since it has awarded resources within communities’
territories without the consent of the Mapuche people,” she said.
The Confederation fights to implement previous and informed
consultation, as stated in the International Labor Organization’s
Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, which Argentina has
signed. The provincial constitution also recognizes indigenous peoples’
rights in the administration of natural resources.