Argentina: Mapuche occupy oil wells to protest Chevron

Indigenous Mapuche occupied four oil wells in the Vaca Muerta region in the southwestern Argentine province of Neuquén on July 16 to protest a $1 billion agreement between the state-controlled Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales (YPF) oil company and the California-based Chevron Corporation to drill for oil in the area's shale deposits. (In an earlier item we wrote erroneously that the drilling was for natural gas.) The Mapuche say that the drilling, which uses the controversial method known as hydrofracking, will damage the local environment, and that the agreement was made without the required prior consultation with the indigenous communities. The protesters were also expressing solidarity with indigenous Ecuadorians who won a $19 billion judgment in 2011 against Chevron for environmental damage. The company refuses to pay.

The occupations, timed to coincide with the July 16 signing of an additional agreement between YPF and Chevron, drew support from environmentalists and rights activists throughout Argentina. Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, the winner of the 1980 Nobel peace prize and a founder of the Peace and Justice Service (SERPAJ), noted that he had supported the government's re-nationalization of YPF in the spring of 2012 "to recover our energy sovereignty…. But through this accord with Chevron, we Argentines are handing our resources over to the US and converting YPF into a highly polluting company." Mapuche spokespeople said the occupations were peaceful, and a video by Radio Puelmapu showing the occupation of one well appeared to confirm this. According to Lefxaru Nawel, a member of the Neuquén Mapuche Confederation, the workers at the site understood the situation and left without creating any problems.

The protesters lifted the occupations on July 17 after YPF directors agreed to meet with them the next day to analyze complaints about environmental damage. A Mapuche spokesperson, Gabriel Cherqui, told Radio Continental that the protesters made their decision "because there was a change of position" by management: "At first they said we didn't exist, that we were a lie, that we were committing a crime." YPF has claimed that the wells aren't on Mapuche territory. (Mapu Express, July 16, July 18Adital, Brazil, July 17; AP, July 17, via New Zealand Herald; INFOnews, Buenos Aires, July 17)

In related news, US District Judge Lewis Kaplan ruled in New York on June 25 that Chevron could proceed with subpoenas for email account information from Microsoft Corp. on some 30 people or organizations in some way involved in the Ecuadorian indigenous people's case against Chevron. The oil company has filed a racketeering suit against US attorney Steven Donziger, who represents a group of Ecuadorian plaintiffs in the case. Judge Kaplan ruled that the parties challenging the subpoena hadn't demonstrated that they were citizens entitled to First Amendment rights that could protect them from the subpoena; the US Supreme Court ruled in 1904 that the First Amendment doesn't shield "excludable aliens."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a San Francisco-based nonprofit, charges that the decision upholding the subpoenas gives Chevron access to "more than 100 email accounts, including environmental activists, journalists, and attorneys" and will have a "chilling effect" on people opposing the company's activities. The suit against Donziger follows from a corporate defense strategy proposed in 2008 by crisis communications consultant Sam Singer, who said Chevron should go on the offensive, attacking Donziger, denouncing the Ecuadorian courts as corrupt and pointing out leftist positions taken by Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa. (Law 360, July 25; The Guardian, UK, July 15)

 From Weekly News Update on the Americas, July 21.