April 10, 2008 ARGENTINA
Indigenous resistance to oil company encroachment
Relmu Ñanko, Mapuche werken or spokesperson.
Hernán Scandizzo.

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, violence ensues.

“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, tension persists.

Verónica Huilipán, a spokesperson for the Confederation, stressed the state’s responsibility for the situations generated by the entry of oil companies.

“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.