Frack off! says the Mapuche resistance

Clara writes*

The myth that exploiting the unconventional reservoir of oil and gas of Vaca Muerta in the Patagonia region would “save Argentina” has been spreading fast in the country. Both right- and left-wing governments have claimed that exploitation would make Argentina the new Saudi Arabia of Latin America and that energy sovereignty would be finally achieved.

Vaca Muerta is a rock layer at 3000 meters depth containing large endowments of fossil fuels over an area the size of Belgium. Exploiting the reserve requires fracking — or hydraulic fracturing — which works by drilling wells and using water at high pressure to extract the fuels. Fracking has been controversial due to the high socio-economic and environmental impacts connected to it – such as pollution, higher risk of earthquakes, and displacement of people. Recent governments are pro-fracking because they prioritize economic growth. Environmentalists, indigenous and local communities oppose fracking because they prefer sustainable social development and environmental justice.

Source: “El Federal

Fracking in Vaca Muerta has brought new clashes with the Mapuche indigenous people, revealing different perspectives on development and the human-nature relationship. Pro-fracking actors argue that fracking occurs in unpopulated Patagonian areas, but Jorge Nahuel — the representative of the Mapuche Confederation in Neuquén — disagrees: in his province alone, fracking is affecting fifty Mapuche communities by displacing them from their land and polluting their environment.

The Añelo Lof – the main social organization of the Mapuche people –  already  suffers from water and air pollution that damage their flora and fauna, affect community life, and alter their traditional worldview. Pollution is blamed for the death of the Lof Gelay Ko’s chief from respiratory problems. Furthermore, the expansion of the extractivist frontier has also challenged indigenous land sovereignty. The Lof Campo Maripe have endured a long judicial processes to affirm that they, not fracking industries, are owners of the lands.

The tension between indigenous people’s rights and the economic gains that come with the extractive industry reflects the different understandings of development and the role of nature between the pro- and anti-fracking actors. The State hopes that economic growth save the country and catalyze development through capital inflows and energy self-sufficiency, but it ignores the negative environmental outcomes in Vaca Muerta.

The Mapuches have a broader definition of development embedded in their worldview of Kvme Felen (or “living well”), a holistic viewpoint that sees harmony and circularity in the different components of life such as politics, environment, and spirituality. In their perspective, nature and humanity are in a constant synergetic relation, with nature sustaining and premitting life.

Vaca Muerta reveals the tension between economic growth and sustainable development. The Mapuches communities have long resisted “fracking-as-savior” in favor of a Kvme Felen, or integrated development, framework.

Bottom Line: Argentina’s government supports fracking at Vaca Muerta, choosing economic growth over sustainable development and environmental justice. This position has displaced Mapuche communities, violated their Kvme Felen worldview, and radically altered their synergistic relation with nature.


* Please help my Economic Growth & Development students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

2 thoughts on “Frack off! says the Mapuche resistance”

  1. Hi Clara, great blogpost! The content made me wonder how the natural resource endowment can actually be connected to development. In many other regions of the world, the presence of natural resources has led to conflicts and even amplification of inequalities (as in most Gulf states, or Nigeria). Especially in the case of oil, the resource extraction is often not actually beneficial for local communities. I am curious if you think that it would be possible, in the current institutional framework in Argentina, to include the Mapuches as beneficiaries from the resources. It seems to me, especially after reading about the different views on development held by this indigenous community, that it would not be desired by them to actually extract fossils in any situation. Would you argue that this is true? Or do you think that including the Mapuches in resource governance, for instance through community-based natural resource management or indigenization of the industry, that by increasing the stake economic interests of the state and social interest of the Mapuches can be reconciled?

    1. Hi Jakob, thanks for your comment! If you are interested in the “resource curse” and human development, I can recommend “Natural Resources, Human Capital and Growth”, by Nancy Birdsall. Your questions about Vaca Muerta and community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) pose an interesting perspective on the issue and definitely could be an alternative solution that should be looked at.

      I think that there are two aspects that are worth considering: on the one hand, whether communities would agree to engage in CBNRM in Vaca Muerta; on the other, if it is possible to include them at all in resource governance and extraction.

      First, I think – as you mention in your comment – that the Mapuche worldview of Kveme Felen is fundamentally different from the extractive mindset. Especially in Vaca Muerta, the extraction process through fracking is very invasive and has several negative environmental impacts. I believe this is where the Mapuche resistance arises, not from them not getting economic gains. Jorge Nahuel (the representative of the Mapuches in the Neuquén province) said that they feel “invaded”, and that the Nature that supports their livelihoods is being threatened. So I think the issue is more about land sovereignty and environmental justice, than a matter of inclusion in something that they perceive as inherently wrong.

      Second, the viability of the indigenization of the industry is low, considering the stakeholders that are currently operating in Vaca Muerta. Fracking is a very expensive technique that requires big investments of money and that is not always profitable – depending on the volatility of oil and gas prices -. Some of the big companies operating in Vaca Muerta are Shell and YPF. From how I understand the situation, and how the relation firms-Mapuches are structured I see it very hard that the communities will be given a say in this circumstance. Partly this goes back to how communities have been historically perceived (rebellious, bad)…, and the no-recognition of their land ownership. I think that how easy it is to “ignore” the Mapuches and their needs, in addition to how costly it is to extract, does not give room to joint management.

      I hope this answers your questions 🙂

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