Vaca Muerta, or Dead Cow, is the unlikely name of a supergiant shale oil and gas field in Argentina, the third largest of its kind in the world. Wanting to frack it for all it’s worth is Argentina’s largest corporation, the majority state-owned oil company YPF, hooking up with the US giant Chevron.

Mapuche flags flutter in front of YPF's wells in Campo Maripe, Argentina, during a blockade in August by the Mapuche community.
Mapuche flags flutter in front of YPF's wells in Campo Maripe, Argentina, during a blockade in August by the Mapuche community.
Emiliano Ortiz/8300web

Chevron has form in this part of the world. Ecuador continues to fight the oil company in court over environmental damage in the Amazon. And until recently the Argentine judiciary was debating a freeze of Chevron’s assets in the country. So the union with YPF has not been met with cheers all around.

All of Argentina’s fracking projects currently under way can be found in one of the country’s most pristine regions, mythical Patagonia. Vaca Muerta is in the southern province of Neuquén – also the hottest spot in the fight against fracking in Argentina.

Local people are not giving up their resources and their livelihoods without a fight. Grassroots organizations across Argentina are opposing this latest attempt at solving the country’s deep-rooted energy crisis, potentially at a very high environmental and social cost.

At the forefront are indigenous communities, such as the Mapuche people in Neuquén. ‘Our land is already completely polluted by conventional oil exploitation by transnational companies,’ says Lefxaru Nawel from the Mapuche Confederation of Neuquén. Fracking, he says, has only come to make things worse. ‘The Mapuche community of Gelay Ko saw the first fracking well in Latin America. This has aggravated the existing situation – over there they can’t drink the water, a lot of people are sick due to pollution, and six months ago our longko [leader] Cristina Lincopan passed away – she was the biggest fighter against fracking.’

Lincopan died on 14 March 2013 of pulmonary hypertension, after she was unable to receive a lung transplant. She was 30. ‘We strongly suspect that envionmental pollution had a lot to do with her diagnosis,’ said the community’s werken [spokesperson], María Pichiñan, at the time.

The communities are not alone in their fight. Backing them are prominent personalities such as Argentine Nobel Peace Prize recipient Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and the Argentina Without Fracking network, formed by a group of intellectuals and artists.

Sociologist Maristella Svampa from Argentina Without Fracking traces the roots of the relatively new anti-fracking movement to the groups that were already campaigning against mega-mining and for other environmental causes within their communities. By combining a legal strategy with street protests and education campaigns, they have managed to ban fracking in 22 sub-provincial districts. They have also halted exploration in three wells, one of them in the protected area of Auca Mahuida in Neuquén.

Their biggest achievement, however, has been putting the issues of fracking, and the rights of the communities affected by it, on the national agenda. This has helped gain the support of thousands, including some leftwing parties which have incorporated the issue into their political campaigns.

As these small organizations, dotted around the country, slowly work towards an integrated strategy, they also face several challenges. The general population’s lack of interest is one, according to Svampa. But most importantly, she adds: ‘We’re up against massive economic interests, we know how much power the oil lobby has, and that they are investing a lot of money to silence the debate.’

For Nawel, the main enemy is the provincial government and its eagerness to accommodate the oil companies. ‘Our opinion has never been sought. The govern­ment should guarantee the rights of the Mapuche and of all the people in Neuquén, yet they have been absolutely racist, constantly attacking the Mapuche people.’

The next step in the fight is to open up the debate, moving beyond the rejection of fracking. ‘We want to discuss how the country will overcome its total dependency on hydrocarbons,’ says Nawel. ‘If this keeps going on, we can’t think of a dignified future.’