Mapuche Tactics Against the Drillers of Vaca Muerta



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.

“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. 

The Wall Mapu is represented as a map that covers territories in both countries. It was seen flaming in every protest and rally along with the Mapuche flag during the recent revolts in Chile and became a symbol of popular resistance, although is not officially recognized in any national cartography. The Wall Mapu is simultaneously a historical reconstruction and a vision towards the future.

In 1918 the first oil field was discovered in Plaza Huincul, one of the beginnings of the Argentine oil industry. Together with the building of massive hydro dams, this brought development and jobs to the region and made the province a strategic asset and geopolitical stake of a modern nation state in the south cone. The presence of oil and gas industries in the province, recreated demographic dynamics seen in other drilling areas around the world. Many of the exploration camps later became towns where most of the employment relied on state-run companies and hence the necessity for strong unions. Neuquen province has been governed since its beginnings by a provincial party the MPN (Movimiento Popular Neuquino) started by local politicians and oil union leaders focused on the management of its rich subsoil. Its resources were owned by the province but exploited by state and private oil and gas companies. The national constitution declares that all revenues from natural resources belong first to provinces and then to the nation state.

Privatization of YPF during the 1990s brought unrest to these oil towns. Unemployment skyrocketed, which led to picket lines blocking roads for months in order to make visible the claim of communities which were brutally neglected. This situation enabled the rise of a new political movement: the piqueteros. Piqueteros later embodied the resistance against the hard austerity measures imposed by the IMF during the financial crisis that struck Argentina in 2001. This movement was shaped outside the model of labor union organizing, as their members were formerly unemployed and excluded from unions itself. This enabled an alliance with the incipient Indigenous movement that was slowly growing after the years of military dictatorship in the 1970s. 

The emergency law of 2006 declared a national emergency for all indigenous communities inside Argentinian territory. This law led to a cartographic survey of each community and a historical report of their lineage and territorial origins. Yet the application of this law has been continuously rescheduled, governments use an “intercultural” strategy to officially recognize claims, sometimes, with the intention to extend negotiations as long as possible in order to disregard them. Others, as a positive incentive to unlock negotiations. 

While the productivity of the firsts oil fields in the Neuquen area was going down, in 2010 the reservoir of shale gas of Vaca Muerta was rediscovered. At this time the non-conventional shale gas extraction technologies were in process of being developed globally but, at the time, Argentina was caught in an energetic deficit and lack of investment in the subject. The Vaca Muerta basin has once again been transformed because of its new potential for extraction and it now plays a key role for the government and its negotiation capabilities in the global oil industrial complex. This situation is taking place while social tensions continue to echo the 2001 crisis. The Mapuche communities are the most affected, both by the constant advancement of concessions areas, pipelines and wells on their territories, and by the incipient process of environmental degradation. The Mapuche traditional organization is a loose federation of Lofs (familiar clan or lineage which recognizes the authority of a lonko). The Lof Campo Maripe is located in one of the more fracked areas of the Vaca Muerta basin. Due to its strategic position over the oil fields, the Lof Campo Maripe wasn’t officially recognized then by national and provincial governments, so they were not allowed to access the benefits that came with the Indigenous territorial emergency law recognition.

In response, the Lof, allied with the Confederacion Mapuche del Neuquen, produced an anthropological report in order to verify and consolidate their belonging and ownership of their territories. Meanwhile, the Lof Campo Maripe obtained its legal recognition. The first map was traced to show the historical borders of the community, exposing how the Lof Campo Maripe
territory overlapped with those of the oil concessions of Chevron and YPF. The consequence of this map is important because it forced government and corporations to recognize the Lof, especially since it was not protected by the Indigenous territorial emergency law. Consequently, this map became the starting point of a “counter cartographic process” that brought unease to oil companies and media outlets. Since then, companies and landowners are suing the Lof Campo Maripe for usurpation.

The trial, with all its numerous altercations, has not been resolved yet. But in March 2020, a new political opportunity opened up to make an official survey of communal Mapuche territories. This would constitute a landmark effort to formally place the community on a spatial and political map, in recognizing their legitimate territorial sovereignty. But more importantly, the redefinition of these territories would create a “cartographic front of conflict,” which would unravel in
an uncertain and dramatic scenario for the global oil and gas industry, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Arena Documenta Funambulist (3)
The ladder road is the main access to the plateau region of Campo Maripe community’s place. Each polygon has an average of six oil spills of shale oil and gas. / Photo by Arena Documenta (2019).

The weakening of the modern Argentine State by successive social and economic crises opened up the opportunity of community-based claims. Amongst this, the Mapuche culture of resistance embodied not only a sense of belonging and fight, but also enabled ways of empowering other groups and individuals relegated by the state. While in Chile, the Mapuche activists have been labeled “terrorists” by successive governments, the Mapuche resistance in Argentina, in particular the Lof Campo Maripe, is more ambiguous, since it combines elements of long-dated Indigenous struggles with others, coming from the recent dynamics of social movements, especially those related to labor unions, social organizations, and ethnic minorities.  

In Neuquen, a reconstruction process of the Mapuche people inhabiting the current Argentine territory is happening. The everyday struggles at Lof Campo Maripe show that reconstruction is not possible without fiercely searching for
political and territorial autonomy. But these struggles are now intertwined with those of the social movements with whom they share demands, claims and mutual support among the uncertain dynamics of the Vaca Muerta basin.

The oleophilics blankets are basically a duvet. Bird feathers are the ideal absorbent to control possible oil losses and spills during operation. They are also ideal for a takeover of the Gendarmeria (border guards) outpost. In mid-June 2017, the Gendarmeria broke the locks on the lands claimed by the Campo Maripe community to take control of the land. The following day, the affected Mapuches found their years of oil pit work experience useful when they loaded the oleophilic blankets in their trucks, traveled to the provincial capital and entered the Gendarmeria outpost. The women, once again, chained themselves to the door of the Detachment. Albino, then longko of the community, explained: “We went in and opened all the chicken down blankets. Do you know the smell of that? Even chicken feet are inside those blankets. There were feathers all the way down to the street. We told them that if the Gendarmeria did not leave our land, we would not leave the outpost.” In less than 12 hours, the national security force had withdrawn from the Campo Maripe land. “We told them: Do you feel like your house was taken? We feel the same!”, Albino remembers, between sorrow and humor. ■