Standing firm against fracking

The Mapuche people in Argentina are saying no to an influx of transnationals trying to frack their lands. Meanwhile the government offers sweetheart deals. Grace Livingstone reports.

A person draped in a blue, green, red and yellow Mapuche flag stands with their back to the camera, looking towards a gas plant in the distance
Indigenous spokesperson Lorena Bravo, wrapped in a Mapuche flag, looks towards a gas plant at Campo Maripe. EMILIANO LASALVIA/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

In the early hours of one Monday this February, 50 Mapuche women, men and children of the Fvta Xayem community assembled – some on horseback, others on foot – to blockade the entrances to a fracking site in Vaca Muerta, western Argentina.

Standing in the dust by the barbed-wire gates of the Loma Campana fracking installations, they held aloft the red, green and blue flag of the indigenous Mapuche people, and vowed to stop the operations oil and gas company YPF carries out on their land without consultation.

Loma Campana, run jointly by the Argentine state-owned YPF and the US multinational Chevron, is the flagship fracking site in Vaca Muerta (‘Dead Cow’), close to the town of Añelo, which has become the epicentre of the fracking boom. Several other operators have fracking concessions nearby, with multinational companies including Shell, ExxonMobil and BP subsidiary Pan American Energy all active.

Vaca Muerta is home to 34 Mapuche communities; it also holds the world’s second-largest shale gas reserves. Community members say fracking is devastating 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 semi-arid shrublands of northern Patagonia were already dotted with gas wells. But there has been a rapid intensification in the last six years: more than 2,451 wells have been drilled. Related infrastructure for the ‘megaproject’ has also expanded, including pipelines and highways – as well as waste dumps, sand mines and oil landfills.

Fracking uses enormous quantities of water: 90 million litres of water, along with chemicals and sand, is injected into each well to release the shale gas and oil trapped within the layers of rock underground. ‘Our animals are suffering tremendously,’ Jorge Nawel of the Neuquén Mapuche Federation told me. ‘There is a scarcity of vegetation to eat, the land is drying out because the industry has taken all the water.’

About a quarter of the injected water returns to the surface, contaminated with heavy metals such as mercury, chromium, lead, cadmium and arsenic. This wastewater is stored in old fracking wells or dumped into lakes, says Nawel. ‘The animals drink this contaminated water. We find them dead in the lagoons. It is also causing genetic malformations: we’ve had animals born with deformities such as an extra hoof.’

There are tremors day and night when the fracking work is going on. The houses shake, the land moves, the children start crying’

‘It is difficult to quantify the impact of this massive territorial advance of the industry – the introduction of machinery and drilling equipment, the use of water, the construction of roads and pipelines – on this fragile, semi-desert terrain with delicate flora and fauna,’ says Fernando Cabrera of the Observatorio Petrolero Sur (Southern Oil Observatory), an Argentinian NGO. ‘It is vital that studies are carried out and the results made public.’

Legal actions launched by affected communities provide some evidence of the impacts. Residents of the town of Allen, in the province of Rio Negro in the southeast of the formation, have lodged a complaint saying that people living near one drilling site have suffered asthma, stomach pains, vomiting and convulsions.

Meanwhile two communities in Neuquén province, in the northwest of Vaca Muerta, have complained of constant earth tremors in a lawsuit launched by environmental NGO Fundación Ambiente Recursos Naturales (Foundation for Environment and Natural Resources, FARN). Eduardo Romero, the lonko (chief) of the Wirkaleo Mapuche community told me: ‘There are tremors 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, a fruit farmer who also raises goats, sheep, chickens, turkeys and geese, had to abandon his home in Sauzal Bonito, on the banks of the river Neuquén, because earthquakes created gaping cracks in the walls and the floor. His community’s freshwater sources have also been contaminated. ‘Twenty of my animals died. Some of my neighbours lost everything. We used to get crystal clear water here, but now we have to buy it in plastic tubs. The situation is desperate, but no one is listening.’

Sweeteners for the companies

Indeed in 2021, the Argentine government announced new subsidies – totalling $1bn a year for four years – for oil companies operating in the Vaca Muerta gas field. Meanwhile in 2019, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a US agency, approved $450m in financing for fracking here. Citi, Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley have also bankrolled projects in Vaca Muerta, while BlackRock, BNP Paribas and Goldman Sachs hold shares in YPF.

Heavily indebted, the Argentinian government has promoted fracking, claiming producing gas domestically will reduce the need to spend on imports. But environmentalists say enormous incentives worth billions of dollars, such as tax breaks and guaranteed prices, have been provided to the fossil fuel industry. Both the state and domestic consumers have footed the bill.

‘For countries in the Global South, it is expensive to make the transition to renewables,’ says Santiago Cané, a lawyer for FARN. ‘Big multinationals should be helping to fund the transition to clean energy, not taking subsidies to invest in fossil fuels.’

Vaca Muerta holds recoverable reserves equivalent to 16.2 billion barrels of oil and 308 trillion cubic feet of gas, according to US Energy Information Agency estimates. If fully exploited, they would create 23.9 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions – more than two-thirds of the world’s current total annual CO2 emissions.

But oil companies have responded to the climate emergency and increasing pressure for an end date for fossil fuels by suggesting that Vaca Muerta should be exploited at an even faster rate. ‘We’re racing against time,’ Danny Massacese of Pan American Energy told market intelligence firm S&P Global. ‘If we don’t react quickly… we will miss the opportunity.’

After a week of blockading the gates to Loma Campana, the Mapuche protesters won a significant concession – the Argentine government and YPF committed to calling a meeting of all locally affected groups to draw up an agreement on pre-consultation.

This follows years of direct action by indigenous communities in Vaca Muerta, which has included climbing oil towers, chaining themselves to machinery and forming human chains around fracking wells.

Jorge Nawel says this new agreement is an important step forward, but laments that the landscape is already ‘scarred’ with a network of roads and paths, and that native species have disappeared. ‘We used to see rheas running across the land – not any more. Patagonian hares, capibaras, maras: they have gone.

‘For us fracking is a symbol of death – we will continue our struggle for life. Fracking is turning our territories into cemeteries.