Six Indigenous Women at the Heart of Fracking Resistance in Argentina

Photo by Kvrvf Nawel

Photo by Kvrvf Nawel

Intercontinental Cry
March 29, 2016
by Nancy Piñeiro Moreno, TeleSUR

Early one morning in March 2015, the lamgen Chela ('sister' in Mapuche language) says goodbye, gives me some jars of jam for my mother, and a message as I leave: “I know I don't know her, but say hello to your mom for me okay.” A few minutes earlier I had told her that the jam she was preparing is good for alleviating rheumatism, from which my mother suffers. Chela was preparing this homemade jam very early while we were waiting for the logko Albino (Mapuche authority) to pick me up for a visit to Campo Maripe, in the Argentine province of Neuquen. The community is located on top of the largest unconventional hydrocarbon 'play' outside North America, known as Vaca Muerta (Dead Cow). This area is the most affected by fracking, and is surrounded by other Mapuche communities that have been suffering from the pollution of the conventional oil industry for decades.

A few months after my visit, on July 28th, I would come across in social media the image of Chela chained to a rig. The first thing that comes to mind when I see her face in the picture is her nice gesture that morning, the gift and words for another woman she doesn't even know: “I know I don't know her, but say hello to your mom for me okay.”

Chela is chained to a fracking rig with two other women from the community. Three Mapuche women chained to a U.S.-owned machine on Indigenous territory seized by the Argentine state in an alliance enabled by capitalism, advancing with a renewed strength, and validated at all government levels, over the corpse of dead treaties: The first of them, International Labor Organization Convention 169, ratified by Argentina in 2000; second, a national law for the survey of Indigenous lands which governments past and present insist on ignoring the results of, as they prove the ancestral presence of the community on this land; finally, a significant achievement in 2014⎯the government of the province, after more than a decade without granting any legal statuses, legally recognizes Campo Maripe as a Mapuche community. Nonetheless, as mentioned above, it refuses to validate the land survey. The members of this community have never been consulted on what happens on their land. The extraction activity is illegal, but perfectly possible.

Chela is one of the six sisters in Campo Maripe, together with Josefa, Susana, Martha, Celmira, and Mabel. The only man in the family, Albino, is the lonko of the community, the origin of which is these seven siblings, and is made up of about 35 families. The Mapuche people are one of the almost 40 Indigenous Peoples that inhabit the Argentine territory; they are primarily located in the region of Patagonia, specifically in the provinces of Neuquén, Chubut, and Río Negro, but also in La Pampa, Mendoza, and Buenos Aires. As a nation whose existence pre-dates the establishment of the state, there are different Mapuche groups on both sides of the Andes mountain range. Also on both sides, they have been victims of a genocide, by the nascent Argentine state, starting in 1878 (a massacre known as the “Conquest of the Desert”), and by the Chilean state (where the process is known by the euphemism the “Pacification of Araucania”.) It is therefore crucial to consider the recent history of resistance of this people. Memories that come to life on a daily basis well into the 21st century due to the "readjustments of neoliberalism,” (Mantovani, 2015) which make both conservative and progressive governments look similar in certain aspects. These "readjustments" bring the accumulation by dispossession method⎯with a renewed violence⎯to territories into which it could not penetrate before. As pointed out by Argentine journalist Darío Aranda, those territories are in many cases indigenous lands.

Since the announcement of the U.S. Energy Information Administration in 2011⎯according to which the Vaca Muerta formation is the most important unconventional hydrocarbon reservoir in Latin America⎯and up to the installation of the first fracking rigs in Campo Maripe in 2013, everything was streamlined to allow dispossession and attract foreign capital. A series of laws and decrees handed over the territory in a way that easily put a lie to the previous government's discourse around “energy sovereignty.”

Open Roads

Two years before my visit, the picture was the same. In July 2013, the media that covered what happened in the south of Argentina showed these lamgen in the same situation, chained to a rig, protesting against the agreement that the provincial government and the national oil company, YPF, had signed with Chevron that very same day. The news raced around the country, mostly in a positive tone, praising the discovery of new resources which would bring progress and self-sufficiency to the country. Some of us saw something different⎯abuse on one side, struggle on the other. Together with a majority of women, from this and other Mapuche communities, on the frontlines of the resistance along with the logko and allied organizations such as the Multisectorial contra la Hidrofractura (Coalition Against Hydrofracking). How was it possible to sign an agreement with a multinational company with such a bad record in our continent? Well, open roads.

But how did these women end up putting their bodies on the line, chained to rigs and barricades, protecting their land? Should it be a novelty for us? María Piciñam, werken (spokeswoman) of Lof Newen Mapu and Coordinator of the Centro de Educación Mapuce Norgvbamtuleayiñ (Mapuche Education Center), explains:

“When we were a free people, the Mapuche woman had a leading role as the bearers of Mapuche knowledge; particularly, the role of teaching was handled by women. Today the role of women is becoming visible again after the invasion and imposition of another culture, of another education. And after the brutal subjugation of the machismo we have suffered as a society in general, which has also affected us as a Mapuche people. The educator role is being recovered; we are coming to understand that we are not just mothers, but the first and last transmitters of knowledge.” And she adds: “We women have always been engaged in Mapuche politics, in times of freedom, in times of repression, and today; the only thing that changes is context. Today you can see more Mapuche women who are spokespeople, and there are a lot of women who are chiefs of their communities.”

Women, Nature, and Extractivism

For the Mapuche people, as for other Indigenous Peoples, men and women are with nature⎯we are just another biodiversity force, neither superior nor inferior. Therefore, in their worldview, and in clear opposition to the logic of capitalism, there is no division between nature and society. In the mapuzugun language (literally, “tongue of the Earth”,) there is no concept equivalent to that of resources.

“'Resource' does not exist in our language because, first, when we were free and lived with and on nature, our lifestyle was a rational one where nobody had to accumulate food, nobody had to harvest or take more than they needed,” says María. Being expelled from fertile lands throughout decades of dispossession, the communities cannot carry out their life as usual; they cannot exist if they are not on their territory, and if they don't have the autonomy needed to exercise their rights. In this regard, respect for the rights of Indigenous women is not possible either if their collective rights as a community are not respected.

As much as there is no superiority of society (men and women) over nature, there is no hierarchy between men and women either: "We cannot talk about the autonomy of women without the autonomy of men. We defend a complementary right. The gender and generation duality within our philosophy as a people is what makes us real people, but above all, real subjects of law," says María.

“We do assert very proudly that the woman has a specific role, because each of us wishes to be a kvme che, an upright person, throughout our lives.”

This does not mean that there were no male oppressive practices against women within the Mapuche people, but their philosophy contained the necessary rules for the community itself to regain the broken balance caused by that individual by means of different penalties. Rules that are being recovered in the present.

We could say that the Indigenous woman is a triple victim⎯being a woman, a worker, and indigenous⎯of pollution and the lifestyle enforced by the extractive projects on their land. It is necessary to verify in the territories the suffering they talk about. Regarding Campo Maripe, María says:

"We women are nowadays more vulnerable to pollution-related diseases —at Lof Maripe, for example, 90 percent of women are sick. Most of them have cancer. There are bone problems, different problems, and the ones that are sickest are women.”

Polluted water and air, stress from constant conflict, exhaustion caused by direct actions responding to the attacks of both state authorities and corporations, the inability to fully carry out their Mapuche life plan, this is a devastating combination.

One of the lamgen, Celmira, died a few months ago. Breast cancer struck her down. What kind of quality of life is possible when one coexists with both pollution and the constant threat of new abuses? However, in their complementary role to that of men, it is the women who we see chained to rigs in different protest actions; we see the women alongside Albino at the negotiation tables; chained to barricades, blocking roads at the ruka (house) used as a permanent guard post to control the entry of company cars (because a businessman of the area temporarily prevented them from entering their own land.) We can see them in every protest, with so many other Indigenous and non-Indigenous women; also trying to talk with the different parties involved in the conflict, including the workers of a private security company, who prevent them from freely moving on their land, ensuring that freedom is yet another asset owned by the company.

Read more at the Intercontinental Cry.