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.
Rewriting the Laws
Argentina’s fuel crisis goes back at least to the energy shortages of the early 2000s. Since then, the country has imported billions of dollars worth of fuel in order to meet the industrial and domestic needs of its population.
But in the last few years, Argentineans learned that that the country contains enormous reserves of shale oil and gas, which in part prompted the government to develop an energy strategy which includes extensive development of unconventional hydrocarbons, as well as exploiting hard-to-reach conventional fuels (known as secondary and tertiary exploitation).
The majority of these hydrocarbon resources are in Patagonia. And more than anyplace else, they are found in the Vaca Muerta formation in Neuquén, a province with more than 100 years of history of hydrocarbon exploitation.
To smooth the legal path toward accessing unconventional fuels, the 2012 Hydrocarbon Sovereignty Law laid out a new national energy policy framework. In particular, it expropriated 51 percent of the shares of the YPF oil company from the Spanish corporation Repsol, effectively putting it under control of the Argentinean state.
The following year, a presidential decree on investment promotion offered benefits to companies that invested more than a billion dollars in shale deposits. Soon after, the government — via YPF — signed an agreement with the U.S.-based corporation Chevron, with an initial investment of $1.24 billion, to develop shale oil and gas in the Vaca Muerta formation.
Finally, in 2014, the government approved a new hydrocarbon law. Focused on shale exploitation, it allowed companies to maintain concessions for up to 45 years, with the possibility of further renewal.
Argentina’s new policy framework increased the presence of foreign fuel companies like Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Wintershall in the country. And it set the country on its way to producing enough fuel to close the shortage gap and start exporting. In the course of just a few years, it’s converted Argentina into a potential energy giant.
While it’s not the only area of the country facing fracking and similar destructive techniques, Neuquén’s long history of extractivism and the speedier advance of fracking there make it a test case for what could happen to other areas of the country.
In Neuquén, oil and mineral exploitation takes place mainly in Mapuche territory. And it’s carried out almost entirely without the free, prior, and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned, in direct violation of international as well as national laws and agreements.
The direct impacts of extractivism for the Mapuche people include the appropriation of their grazing lands, the eviction of their communities, and the drying-up and contamination of their water sources. Heavy machinery produces constant nuisances in the form of noise and dust, while toxic chemicals in the air and water have led to health problems for people as well as livestock. And like all fossil fuel development, it contributes to climate change.
Since the mid-1990s, the Mapuche have denounced and resisted this corporate invasion and its resulting impacts. Yet with the discovery of shale deposits in 2011, tensions have increased dramatically.
That year, local residents formed the Neuquén Platform Against Hydraulic Fracturing, a coalition of diverse social organizations that includes the Mapuche Confederation of Neuquén. In August 2013, they organized a demonstration of over 5,000 people against the agreement between YPF and Chevron. Police brutally repressed the gathering, arresting demonstrators and causing many injuries with rubber bullets and tear gas.
The next day, 10,000 people took to the streets to protest the police repression. Yet the demands of the march were not heeded, and the government’s plans with Chevron continued.
Indigenous Rights Violated
For Relmu Ñamku, the government’s attitude was nothing new. “The state doesn’t enter into dialogue with vulnerable sectors of the population — such as indigenous peoples, landworkers, shanty dwellers, women, and everyone excluded from the system,” she said.
Hernan Scandizzo of the Observatorio Petrolero Sur elaborates: “Here there was no consultation. There was no previous, free, and informed consent as required by the Convention 169 of the ILO and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” He also points out that the Argentinean government violated its own constitutional obligation to respect the “right of indigenous peoples to manage their own resources and territories.”
Then came the very thing that people most feared. After concluding a pilot project that saw 161 wells drilled across an area of 20 square kilometers, in 2014 YPF announced that the project with Chevron in Vaca Muerta would extend to cover an exploitation area of 395 square kilometers, with more than 1,500 drilling wells.
Along with its disregard for indigenous protests, this announcement completely ignored the warnings against fracking given by social organizations. That led Relmu to determine that “the only route left open to us to make them hear our problems and our alarming situation is direct action.”
The Winkul Newen territory in which Relmu lives is the site of the Portezuelo Norte deposit, containing various conventional oil and gas wells. According to Relmu, in 2012 residents had to resist more than ten attempts at eviction. In one instance, women sprayed their bodies with gasoline to avoid being forcefully evicted.
Then, on December 28, 2012, a justice official named Verónica Pelayes came to the area accompanied by police and members of the U.S.-based Apache corporation, along with a bulldozer. They presented the community with an order to stop obstructing the advance of the corporation’s machinery. The community defended itself against the order and the police with whatever it could. Amid the resistance, Pelayes suffered injuries after being hit in the face with a stone.
The person accused of throwing the stone was Relmu Ñamku. At first, she was charged with causing serious bodily harm, but the prosecution eventually escalated the charge to attempted murder. That charge could result in 15 years of imprisonment. In Relmu’s words, “this case was initiated on the grounds of injury, and without any new evidence on record it was reconfigured as a maximum charge — as attempted murder.”
Relmu’s case is being processed under Argentina’s anti-terrorism law. Originally approved in 2007 to prevent the financing of international terrorism, the law was modified in 2011, when the Argentinean legislature incorporated into the penal code two new articles. They increased the penalties for all crimes committed “with the aim of terrorizing the population” or which “oblige the public authorities to perform, or abstain from performing, an act.”
The legislation unleashed criticism in Argentina from social organizations, including a widely attended march in the center of Buenos Aires in which activists read a pronouncement that explained that the changes to the law allow harsh penalties to be applied to individuals or organizations that question or oppose state policies.
Relmu’s case highlights how the judicial system is used in favor of powerful interests and against the poorest and most marginalized communities.
For Relmu all of this is self-evident: “The interests of the multinationals and the state in petrol exploitation come before the complaints of a community member,” she explained. “Maybe if we were sons and daughters of rich people it would be different. But we’re poor, we’re indigenous, and I’m a woman, and so the full force of the law comes down upon us.”
In Relmu’s case, the judicial system is seeking maximum penalties. In contrast, when the community files formal complaints against the petroleum company for aggression towards community members by the company’s contracted security, the prosecutors simply don’t investigate, and eventually the cases lapse.
The criminalization of protest is part of a strategy designed to create a paralyzing effect on those opting for direct action, a tactic used as a last recourse to defend their rights. Relmu emphasizes that the threat goes beyond the legal case against her. Changing the criminal charges from one day to the next, and accusing her of attempted murder with a possible 15-year prison sentence, is a move calculated to dissuade resistance at all levels.
Relmu’s case could well establish a precedent. “At the back of this case lies the aim of bringing a trial that will be utilized as an example to prevent other social struggles,” she says — “not only by indigenous peoples, but also other citizens and groups who don’t feel represented by this state, which guarantees political and economic power to multinationals.”
A Chilling Effect
Just as fossil fuel companies are going to more ecological extremes in search of gas and oil, political systems, including supposedly progressive ones, are going to even deeper extremes to repress communities who voice objection.
Usually, when the state and corporations act against the interests of local populations seeking to protect their water, environment, and health, communities attempt to use dialogue and legal processes to defend themselves. But when authorities continually ignore repeated demands and messages from these communities, a moment arrives when the only recourse left open to them is direct action.
In this moment, the state uses direct repression against the population, and criminalizes social protest as a strategy to defeat community resistance and dissuade further protest.
This is a phenomenon taking place right now in Argentina, but it isn’t exclusive to Argentina. In Chile the Mapuche people are also being repressed under anti-terrorism laws, even more violently. In Peru the law not only exempts state functionaries from responsibility if they kill activists, but also allows companies to contract with state law enforcement to protect corporate property and repress demonstrations. Colombia also has laws that facilitate the displacement of communities and other rights violations in extractive zones.
The move toward public policies that benefit fossil fuel corporations, combined with the use of penal laws to squash social protest against the actions of those corporations, is not only a violation of the rights of those affected. It’s a crime against the planet: If social protest can’t stop resource extraction and the climate change it causes, how can we expect the economic model that profits from it to do so on its own?