How Extreme Energy Leads to Extreme Politics

Authorities in Argentina and beyond are cracking down on indigenous communities that protest resource extraction — while re-writing laws to promote fossil fuels.

By Aldo Orellana López and Sian Cowman,

Relmu (with right arm raised) at a demonstration. (Photo: winkulnewen.com)

Relmu (with right arm raised) at a demonstration. (Photo: winkulnewen.com)

As corporations and governments around the world scramble to access harder-to-reach fossil fuels in fracking wells and tar sands, the struggles of communities on the front lines of this expansion of extractivism are becoming more extreme — and more visible.

And so is the backlash against any who resist.

Indigenous peoples who find themselves “in the way” of extractivist projects are increasingly finding their territorial rights, among others, violated.

A particularly salient example is playing out in Argentina. There, facing a shortage of traditional energy sources, the government has intensified the exploitation of shale oil and gas deposits. Along with these changes in energy policy has come a crackdown on those resisting fuel exploitation in their communities.

Among the hardest hit are Patagonia’s indigenous Mapuche, whose ancestral territories are at the center of petroleum companies’ plans. Facing environmental contamination, violence, and eviction, they’ve stepped up their resistance.

Now the Argentinean government is cracking down. The case of Mapuche community leader Relmu Ñamku is particularly emblematic. The grassroots activist faces trial in October on charges under Argentina’s revamped anti-terrorism law, which could land her with a 15-year prison sentence — all for defending her community from forced eviction due to the expansion of a gas project. Her trial was recently postponed for the third time.

The criminalization of protest is part and parcel of the way extreme energy — including intensive extraction measures like fracking — is leading to extreme politics, in which laws have been changed to benefit resource exploitation by transnational corporations. Meanwhile, citizens are ignored, displaced, and charged with crimes when they resist. This can have a chilling effect, dissuading people from protesting at all.

This phenomenon isn’t unique to Relmu’s case. It’s happening elsewhere too, from Latin America to Europe.

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