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BLACK WATER
The Mapuche Indigenous Community vs. RPF/Repsol
by Eugenia Zicavo
(original article appeared in Hecho en Buenos Aires, April 2002).
 
The territory occupied by the indigenous Mapuche communities Paynemil and Kaxipayin, located 90 kilometers from the capital of Neuquen, is situated on a petroleum deposit of thirty six thousand hectares, the largest petroleum deposit not only in Argentina but in Latin America. This land is currently in the hands of the private energy company Repsol/YPF. YPF has been in Loma de la Lata, in the Paynemil community since the 1960's, and currently owns 45 drilling wells, says Mapuche leader Jorge Nancuchea. Ever since the land was taken by the private company, the Mapuche community's own sovereignty and resources have been violated, the very life of the people is in danger, and the ecological devastation is irreversible.
Though the Mapuches lived for years with respect for the biodiversity of the region, in only twenty years the area has been totally destroyed, and the water sources contaminated, according to Dr. Falashi, professor and researcher from the University of Comahue and member of the community team of Mapuche leaders of 1989-1991.
The Mapuches, even though they live on the edge of a river, need to resort to buckets of mineral water, which provide only enough for cooking and minimal personal hygiene. Blood analysis of members of the community has shown high levels of neurotoxins, metals and chemicals which have dangerous effects on learning and behavior.
The first region of contaminated water, in the Paynemil community ,was discovered in 1995. IN 1999, the community filed a formal accusation of contamination to six national and regional organizations. That same year, the regional government asked the UN program for Development (PNUD) for an environmental evaluation of the damage done to the region. The results of the study indicated that 925 million dollars worth of damage had been caused. The scandal resulted in an investigation of toxic damage by the Regional Secretary of Health, an investigation which has yet to produce any results, according to Dr. Falaschi.
The Mapuche communities of Paynemil and Kaxipayin which are situated in outlying areas of the Neuquen river, are living an intricate and tragic paradox: they find themselves on the edges of a river, with underground water sources and springs that they have used for over a century, and now they have no access to drinking water. Despite living on the largest petroleum reserve in the country, right next to a huge thermoelectric generator, many families have no gas or electricity.
The region, referred to as a "zone of development" is everything but that for its population, who don't enjoy any of the benefits of the exploitation of their land.
In the oil fields of Loma de la Lata, the national company YPF was the principal operator until it was privatized in 1991 by the government of ex-president Carlos Menem and sold to the Spanish company Repsol. There was no doubt about the interest generated in investors: the oilfield could generate profits of $35 million a month, and between three and four million a month in "bonuses" to the province, according to research done in 1996. Thus the total profits of Repsol in 2000 reached $2,292 million, 65% of which came from YPF, according to Dr. Falaschi.
Despite these earnings, and despite the soil erosion and contamination it caused, in 1993 the company awarded the generous sum of $700-900 a month to the Paynemil community, and not one cent to the Kaxipayin community. And while the Mapuches didn't benefit from Repsol's exploitation, the regional government treasury did, receiving 12% of each extracted barrel or cubic meter.
According to Dr. Falaschi, the provincial government officials acted as "associates" of the company in return for fees that were never used for development but to cover their own "expenses", thus aligning themselves with private investors and not with the indigenous communities. Nontheless, other oil companies associated with Repsol have paid higher fees to other countries, as was the case with Pluspetrol who committed to a payment to Peru that was the equivalent of 35% of what they will receive for the oil reserve Camisea.
"We are tired of being poisoned, of being stepped on and discriminated against by the company and by the government," said Gabriel Herqui of the Kaxipayin community during a Mapuche blockade of an oil deposit in October 2001. At that time, the Mapuche community accused the company of not following environmental controls and undertaking drilling projects without the permission and participation of the Mapuche community.
In October of 2001, the government of ex-president Fernando de La Rua gave Repsol-YPF an extension of their right to exploit Loma de la Lata until the year 2027, once their current contract expired in 2017. To renegotiate the contract for a 16 year extension violates the law of hydrocarbons, which in article 35 states that in order to qualify for an extension, the company "had to have performed all of its obligations. " For this "favor", the Spanish company paid the national government 300 million dollars. Its profits for the first trimester of 2000 were 1,100 million dollars, according to the October 27, 2000 edition of the Buenos Aires newspaper, Clarin.
In Loma de la Lata the logic of private enterprise and of official decisions--for whom the earth is another form of currency--confronts another logic, one that defends the environment, biodiversity and the earth as a way of life. Mapuche means "people of the earth", and as the Mapuches say, "The earth doesn't belong to us, we belong to the earth."
(translation: Lisa Garrigues)

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