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.
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.
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