Kyle Ludowitz visits the Mapuche communities of Neuquén, northern Patagonia, to see how lives have been disrupted and land polluted as a result of the region’s oil and fracking boom.
Albino Campo straddles a two-toned metal pump in the backyard of his home in the indigenous Mapuche community of Campo Maripe near Neuquén. A swift wind whips up clouds of dust across the desert valley of dried shrubs and carmine coloured canyons. Turning several levers on the mechanism with the help of his pre-teen daughter, Albino pulls up a thick, vivid yellow tube that dives deep into the earth. Hand-over-hand he hauls the flexible plastic piping from the water well, as the bright yellow colour turns murky. Wiping down the yellow tube, his hand is covered in the inky, black sludge of crude oil that seeps into his community’s water supply from the YPF fracking facility overlooking his house.
“You feel as if a part of your body is being broken,” says Albino washing the oil from his hands. “We used to live freely before, without looking at any of these things, there was no pollution,” he continued. “Nowadays, you can’t even walk around without passing trucks.”
This is oil country, and it’s not only the community of Campo Maripe that is suffering from the contamination. Some 120km away Faustino Molina, age 93, sits near the doorway of his home drinking Matte with his wife Adelaida in the Mapuche community of Newen Kura. Looking out across his land along the Colorado River, which separates the province of Neuquén and Mendoza, a sting of six oilrigs drill away day and night into the mountainside.
Faustino has lived here his entire life and remembers when his childhood home was converted into an extensive coal strip-mine and when the first oilrig began drilling in 1976.
“It was another way of living, a calmer living,” he reflects. “Now it’s much harder. This year I have four horses that have died because of the water,” he continues. “In all the years that YPF has been here they haven’t given me anything, not even a piece of bread.”
In the valley town of Rincon de los Sauce, a heavy haze of pollution hangs above with the unmistakable smell of gasoline and sulphuric acid filling the air. The entire water supply here has been contaminated with oil and chemicals forcing the population to use expensive purified water for all aspects of life. Years of exposure to contaminated elements is driving a sharp rise in cancer and physical defects like underweight births, eyesight loss, oily skin abscesses, and the death of livestock from pollution.
“We didn’t bring YPF to come pollute our river,” says José Millahual, the Lonko (community leader) for Newen Kura but lives in Rincon de los Sauce. “We used to drink water from the river back in the 90s, but we can’t anymore. There’s not a duck, not a fish in the river anymore.”
Yet, throughout all these hardships, the local Mapuche communities remain steadfast in their resistance against the oil companies. Many of the communities have joined the large Mapuche Confederation of Neuquén, which helps provide resources, publicity, representation, and a broad network of other communities to organise with.
“I was born and raised here, and I still live here,” says Eduardo Molina, one of Faustino’s sons. “It’s hard to explain what I feel because one feels sadness, anguish, pain, helplessness, because the land has changed almost 100% and we are being left with practically no space. What we’re going through is really sad, and it’s sad that the government is playing deaf ears to our demands,” he continues. “It’s a fight we’re living through day to day. If this doesn’t stop and keeps on going, sooner or later we’re going to have to rise as indigenous peoples to stop the repression.”