Indigenous Mapuche travel to Europe to highlight impacts of fracking megaproject

Fracking site Vaca Muerta in Argentina. Image shows industrial oil and gas operations on the Patagonian landscape.
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Representatives of the Indigenous Mapuche community, along with a Human Rights Defender (HRD) from Neuquén in Argentina, are touring Europe throughout May. The delegation is calling on European fossil fuel companies and their investors to stop fracking Indigenous land.

European oil majors own and operate wells in a large-scale fracking megaproject which is devastating communities. On top of that, their operations also threaten the biodiverse environment of the Patagonian region.

Moreover, the Mapuche representatives hope to call attention to the huge social and environmental costs these polluters are pushing onto their communities. The group will join activists and environment defenders from across Europe to denounce the complicity of companies and financiers in the Vaca Muerta fracking megaproject.

Fracking megaproject in Argentina

The Vaca Muerta shale basin in Argentina is the second-largest reservoir of shale gas in the world. Additionally, it holds the fourth-largest deposits of shale oil globally. The oil field is found mostly in the Neuquén province, and spans an area the size of Belgium.

Climate justice group has estimated that if companies fully exploit the oil and gas in this field, they will blow through 11.4% of the global carbon dioxide budget. This refers to the volume of CO2 that the world can emit between now and 2050. Specifically, this is the amount that scientists have calculated will limit warming to 1.5C.

Since Argentina nationalised its oil company in 2012, the government has been aiming to dramatically increase the extraction and export of oil and gas. In particular, the government plans to increase petroleum exports to address the country’s spiralling debt and poverty.

In December 2022, the country’s external debt was nearly 80% of its GDP. Meanwhile nearly 40% of the citizens of Argentina were living in poverty in 2022.

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Argentina’s 30,000 square kilometre Vaca Muerta shale basin holds the key to unlocking 19.9bn barrels of oil and 583tn cubic feet of gas. The government has therefore been pinning its hopes on the exploitation of this oil and gas field. In the previous administration’s national energy plan report, it predicted that oil and gas could overtake its major export in agricultural products. The report estimated that exports of petroleum could reach $34bn by 2027.

However, far from addressing poverty, Vaca Muerta has devastated communities in the area. Moreover, commissioned a report in July 2022. It estimated that the potential societal costs and losses of the project could amount to 13 times the country’s national debt.

Fracking harms communities

Between 29 March and 5 April 2023, an international environmental delegation conducted a fact-finding visit to document the impacts of fracking on the communities in Neuquén.The Delegation of the International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature found that the projects caused huge environmental damage and social harms.

For example, the delegation report identified that the Mapuche community has suffered exacerbated water scarcity. Hydraulic fracturing – informally known as fracking – is a water intensive process. This is because fracking involves injecting a high pressure water, chemical, and sand mix to fracture rock. The high pressure mix causes the release of methane gas.

The Stockholm Environment Institute estimated that each fracking well in Vaca Muerta uses 50,350 cubic metres of water over its 30-year lifetime. Furthermore, it stated that if companies drill more than 1,000 wells per year after 2035, fracking there could require more than 50m cubic metres annually. The report suggests that this would equate to approximately 1.3% of the projected water demand for the area. However, most of this water use occurs within the first six months after a company sets ups the fracking operation. Consequently, as fossil fuel firms develop more wells, this will result in increasing pressure on water availability.

In addition, some communities in Vaca Muerta are primarily reliant on groundwater sources. This is because surface water access is limited in some areas. As a result, in the town of Añelo for instance, residents do not have access to safe drinking water.

Indigenous rights ignored

Alongside water access, fracking has subjected communities to earthquakes, along with the health impacts associated with frequent air, noise, and toxic waste pollution.

Moreover, the delegation’s report highlighted that where fossil fuel extractivism was taking place, communities continued to face poverty. Crucially, fracking companies had dispossessed the Mapuche from their cultivable lands.

The community has lost access to fertile ancestral lands in the productive areas of the Alto Valle de Río Negro and Neuquén. In short, the loss of land-based livelihoods has further entrenched poverty for the Indigenous community.

Under international law, the Mapuche should have been consulted over fracking on their ancestral lands. Argentina ratified the International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (169) in July 2000. In spite of this, the government permitted the fracking megaproject. It did so without the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of the Indigenous community.

Blind extractivism

In response, residents of the region are therefore traveling round Europe. They are doing so to bring these issues to the attention of the big fossil fuel companies and their investors.

Member of the Mapuche community Fernando Barraza, said:

Fracking and blind extractivism is desertifying our lands, as well as gradually destroying drinking water throughout our region. Companies such as Equinor and Total are directly responsible for our rivers dying, our territories being polluted and our animals suffering, our water being poisoned, our families going bankrupt.

Here, Barazza refers to TotalEnergies who are a fossil fuel company making staggering profits. Some of the impacts Barazza describes will be familiar to people in Europe who have fought against fracking in their communities. While the practice remains banned in multiple European countries like France, Germany and the Netherlands, the destructive process is still being imposed on the residents of Neuquén.

In other words, European fossil fuel companies are, as usual, exploiting Indigenous and marginalised Black and Brown communities of the Global South. In their voracious hunt for profit, they render Indigenous territories as sacrifice zones. It’s clear that, to every big polluter and bankroller, the lives of marginalised peoples outside the Global North are disposable.

However, the delegation is determined to hold them accountable. As the climate crisis intensifies, solidarity between Global South frontline communities and Global North activists is more important than ever.

Feature image via Al Jazeera/Youtube screenshot 

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