Mapuche Tactics Against the Drillers of Vaca Muerta

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Throughout the Americas, settler colonies not only established nation states on Indigenous lands, they also exploit the depths of the earth’s resources. M7Red and Arena Documenta describe how Mapuche communities are organizing against oil companies in the Vaca Muerta region.

Article published in The Funambulist 31 (September-October 2020) Politics of Food. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

“One of the most polluting companies that had operated in the continent will soon arrive in our territory,” announced a manifesto written by the Mapuche Confederation on the Mapuche new year. An Ecuadorian delegation of the Kofan and Siona peoples had visited Vaca Muerta to warn their brothers and sisters about the terrible damage caused to their territories by the activities of U.S. oil company Chevron in the Amazonian jungle. That night at the ruka of the Lof Campo Maripe a joint decision was reached: two oil drilling rigs will be taken by the community with the cooperation of the Mapuche Confederation and other allied organizations.

Security Forces arrived at Campo Maripe community territory the 16th July 2013 at 6AM with eviction orders. That same day, the agreement between Argentine oil company Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales (YPF) and Chevron would be signed at the provincial legislature. A small group of people of this Mapuche community went to the nearest town and bought lots of bottles of floor cleaning products. “We went to the towers, but first we stopped by the trailers where the oil workers sleep and told them: ‘Don’t worry, nothing’s happening’.” They started filling 5-liter fuel cans with the cleaning product — fuel as far as what the police could tell — and started pailing the tower base with firewood branches. “If you don’t leave right now we set this on fire!”, they warned the police forces. In the meantime, a group of women climbed the tower and chained themselves to the structure. For 48 days, six oil workers teams were stuck and were unable to work.

Arena Documenta Funambulist (2)
Mabel Campo, longko (chief) of the community at that moment, points to the last cairn that indicates the west ending of their ancestral place. / Photo by Arena Documenta (2019).

The Vaca Muerta oilfield formation covers a total area of 30,000 square kilometers (approximately the size of Belgium), most of them in the province of Neuquen in the Argentinian side of north Patagonia. This province is quite new in the process of consolidation of the Argentine territory. Neuquen (Newenken in mapudungun, the mapuche language) was a national territory before it was created as a province by decree in 1955 by Juan Peron, president at the time and military strategist. 

This process illustrates the everlasting tensions between exploitation of natural resources, Mapuche land claims and cultural heritage, the Argentine federalist system and the role of state-owned companies in the incorporation of Patagonia territory, a disputed territory in the 19th century between the newborn countries of Argentina and Chile. In fact, the conquest of Patagonia by these two nation states ended only through the accomplishment of infamous military expeditions: the “Conquista del desierto” in Argentina (1879-81), and the “Ocupación de la Araucanía” in Chile (1861-83). Both nation states advanced over Mapuche ancestral territory, which in scientific and military cartography appeared as “terra nullius” — an uncharted territory. This apparently uninhabited land was known as the “Wall Mapu” or ancestral territory of the Mapuches.