Shale gas has become a focal point of interest for central and eastern European governments, with oil corporations (not only) from the West ready to start drilling as soon as possible. But protests have sparked across the region from Zurawlow in Poland to Pungesti in Romania. We spoke with two anti-fracking activists working on the Neuquén province in Argentina where the struggles of local communities against conventional oil and gas exploration are now amplified by even more problems related to unconventional fuels.
, | 29 July 2014
María Carolina García works for Multisectorial Against Fracking and is an environmental expert in the government Department of Protected Areas.
There is a lot of hype about the potential for shale gas and oil in Argentina and the Neuquén province. But how advanced are these developments? How much exploration is happening? By whom? Has extraction already begun?
Diego di Risio: At the moment there are about 400 wells drilled by a number of companies (Shell, YPF, Total, Chevron, Petrobas, etc.) Even though most of them are exploratory wells, ten per cent of oil production and 20 per cent of gas production in the Neuquén region comes from unconventional sources. Only one project – between the Argentinian state company YPF and Chevron in the Vaca Muerta formation in the Neuquén basin – has entered the exploitation stage, about a month ago.
What are the specific impacts of these projects that you are concerned about?
María Carolina García: We have seen huge surface impacts by drilling platforms and highway construction and the intensive transport of water to the wells. It affects the way of live and economic activities of people in the area who grow pears and apples and raise livestock. The platforms themselves and the roads take a lot of space, reducing the size of farmland. The trucks that transport water to the platforms create a lot of dust, drying out plants.
DR: All this is happening in a very delicate, dry environment.
MCG: In addition, the methane that is being released in the extraction process is being burnt by the companies which further destroys the vegetation close to the platforms.
This reduces the available food for livestock and the quality of fruits, which are then harder to export. It will be difficult to conserve the landscape and these peoples’ economic activities after the drillings are made.
And to speak about the people themselves: indigenous communities – the Mapuche community in the Neuquén province – are treated very badly by the government and are called illegals when they are in the way.
There is also an increase in prostitution and the sexual exploitation of women in the vicinity of the extraction sites.
DR: And not only sexual exploitation of locals is a problem, but also trafficking of women from far away, even other countries. This is not only happening with oil and gas extraction, but the problem with the oil and gas industry is the amount of money involved and the concentration of many men in one place.
How many local people are affected?
DR: We’ve never studied the number of affected people living in exploration areas. But the wider economic impacts, including increasing prices, etc. is being felt by the whole country.
MCG: It is important to stress that the impacts will be also felt by future generations.The Neuquén province has a history of a hundred years of (conventional) oil and gas exploitation. A lot of places were deforested and have not recovered after tens of years, natural habitats have been fragmented. Because of this, it will be very difficult to have other economic activities for a long time.
How do the companies like Chevron or Total treat local communities and others opposing unconventional fossil fuels? Are their legal or even physical threats?
DR: One case that is exemplary for many others is that of the Flores family. They have lived for thirty years on their land near the town of San Patricio del Chañar in Neuquén province.
Shell began exploration in the area in 2011 and drilled three wells on their land without holding a consultation with the family. When the dialogue finally happened, the company promised solutions that never materialised. It constructed roads, wells, a big open pool but provided no compensation.
They don’t have electricity or running water. Their main livelihood is based on raising goats. And Shell came and built one hundred metres from the house that enormous pool and an electricity transmission line, while the family remained without electricity and all the infrastructure made their farming activities more difficult and less productive.
When this situation was reported on Dutch televisions, Shell published a statement announcing the family was an illegal occupant of the land.
How is the land ownership regulated?
DR: In the case of this family and in indigenous communities generally a special right usually regulates these matters, that says once you occupy land for twenty years, the land is yours.
The problem is that although the communities should also have land titles, this is not always the case. And the Argentinian state – as in the case of this family – has often not taken any steps to solve the situation and create a land access maps for example. So when oil and gas companies come, they just say these people are illegal.
The people don’t have enough money to hire a lawyer. So they are not only unable to defend themselves from the fracking activities, but also have no legal means to demand from the state to acknowledge them as the land’s rightful owners.
What role does the central government and the provincial governments play? Are provincial governors and parliaments representing their communities’ interests?
DR: The central government basically says there is no alternative to shale. It promotes it and has used violence against those opposing it.
MCG: Also at a provincial level, where the same party rules for 60 years now, the large majority takes a similar position as the central government. Only a few parliamentarians in our region of Neuquén are against fracking, but they are a very small minority.
Coming to the opposition against shale gas and shale oil. Does your resistance have roots in other movements in Argentina?
DR: The resistance built upon many years of struggle by unions (especially teachers’ and public workers’ unions) and on strong social and environmental movements against open-pit mining and the expansion of transgenic soybean monoculture. But also the previous left-wing party and other social movements were involved in creating the anti-fracking resistance.
It was very important for us to see that the issue of fracking were approached by different people and organisations from different angles and with different priorities – from an environmental and cultural perspective (where indigenous groups for example play an important role) to an economic and social one.
Watch highlights of Diego and Carolina’s visit to the Czech Republic.
MCG: Our initiative Multisectorial against fracking for example also includes two feminist organisations who work on the issues of sexual exploitation and trafficking that we’ve mentioned.
DR: With Multisectorial we specifically try to create a balance between these priorities. Fracking and unconventional fuels in general are certainly a big crisis, but they also offer a chance to join forces and try to overcome the barriers between these groups in order to tackle the complex problems our societies face today.
What form does your protest take?
MCG: We have a lot of different activities. We organise protests and blockades at drilling sites when companies expand into protected areas or areas where indigenous people live. We also organise protests where politicians and companies have their meetings. We gather outside the building for a colourful demonstration where we sing, paint messages on the walls and so on.
We approach media with press releases and comments when new developments occur, when a company expands its activities and the like.
DR: In terms of communications one of our goals is to spread the issue on a national level. One of the dangers is that the issue and the discussion around it remains stuck in the region where the extraction happens and no one else notices.
What chances do communities have against the powerful players, governments and companies? Has anything you’ve done been particularly successful?
MCG: A big success for Argentina as a whole is that several municipalities have declared themselves fracking free zones. However, in the Neuquén province, which is very rich in shale gas and oil, it is much more difficult to do that and only one municipality has prohibited fracking.
But also in our region we had some achievements, for example protests and court cases have managed to push companies out of protected areas. Companies that were exposed for disregarding the rights of locals, like the family we’ve spoken about, have finally started dialogues with them.
Unfortunately, so far these are not great success yet. The drilling continues directly next to the protected areas and affects them in the same way. And the dialogues between families and companies has so far not brought any concrete results. In the Neuquén province we weren’t able to completely block drilling activities so far.
DR: Still, the movement against fracking was really effective in raising awareness. Despite a lack of resources and the unfavorable conditions in Argentina, in just one year fracking has become a national issue, all the no-fracking zones Carolina mentioned were established and companies felt the need to react with large PR campaigns claiming that fracking is safe.
Also the fact that the discussion around fracking linked economic with environmental concerns, which usually were much less important in Argentina, was an enormous success for us.
Does public opinion support your struggle?
DR: I don’t have a concrete figure, but a recent survey showed that – with regards to the Neuquén province – the majority of people are not on our side, but think that the Vaca Muerta should be exploited.
MCG: Argentina is so big and our struggle concerns only this one small area, so most people in other parts of Argentina don’t really care. They are more concerned about the prices (of energy) but don’t want to know about other consequences.
Last question: You’ve done an almost three-week tour in Europe meeting other anti-fracking activists along the way. With fracking being an issue whose direct impacts are usually concentrated on a local level, do you think meeting and cooperating with people and groups working on the same issue can help your struggle in Argentina?
MCG: Meeting other people in the same situation helped us understand how the problems are really everywhere the same and that after all we are fighting for the same cause.
We could also see during the tour that even though the problems are the same, the context is different in different countries. For example, while in France or the Netherlands moratoriums and prohibitions are already offering some protection, here in Poland there is a lot of pressure for shale gas and the government rhetoric only focuses on energy security and independence from Russian gas. Poland and Argentina are similar in this regard.
DR: The tour and meeting other activists allowed us to find and apply new tactics and courses of actions, for example exploring legal responsibilities of companies in their home countries (like Total in France), increasing pressure on the companies in their countries by speaking to the media or parliamentarians, or raising questions during company general meetings like we did with Shell.
So this trip was very useful in enlarging our network, but also very concretely to pursue specific activities.
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