Monday, December 8, 2014

Ecology, Extraction and Evictions in Argentine Patagonia

By: Rachel Sayers
Produced & Edited By: Andrew Davis

Patagonia National Park. Photo © Conservacion Patagonica
         On the southern tip of South America lies a land of rugged beauty. To the west, the jagged peaks of the Andes dominate the sky, broken only by the deep fjords running through their midst. To the east rests the world’s second largest icefield, running for nearly 8,000 miles before giving way to a land of wide open plains and coastal volcanoes. 
         Vast and untamed, the Patagonia region is one of the world’s last remaining frontiers. As with all frontier lands, its wild nature has attracted the usual variable of characters—the natives, the settlers, and the rich barons, all vying for lands they believe to be theirs. On the frontier, ownership is uncertain, boundaries remain in constant flux, and the people are at the mercy of those with the power to take what they wish.

Native People
     At the center of this struggle for land are the Mapuche, aboriginal people whose history in the region dates back as far as 500 B.C. Their struggle for land is waged against several facets, including foreign conservationists, mining companies, and gas conglomerates funded by the very government who swore to protect them.

Portrait of a Gaucho. Photo © Alex
Proimos, Creative Commons
         Three thousand meters below a Mapuche community in the Neuquén Basin lies one of the world’s biggest reserves of shale oil. It is only one of an estimated 21.9 trillion cubic meters of untapped gas thought to reside in Argentina’s Patagonia region—nearly 60 times that of conventional gas currently available in the country.
         According to the International Labor Convention 169, indigenous peoples must be consulted before the government can authorize any sort of extraction on their land. Unfortunately, according to Alejandro Parellada from the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, ambiguous laws and corruption in the judicial system have made land titles difficult to garner for indigenous tribes.
         “The lands we used yesterday to raise our animals or support our farms, have today been destroyed. Dozens of new tracks and paths are opened everyday, all kinds of machines circulate by the hundreds, wells drilled in record time have transformed our community landscape, spills and explosions have occurred over and over in the last few weeks, many of them concealed by YPF,” The Mapuche Confederation said in a statement.
         The lack of government regulation comes as little surprise when you consider that Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales (YPF), the largest oil and gas producer in Argentina, became renationalized in 2012.
         “There are many interests at play on the lands claimed by the country’s indigenous peoples,” Parellada said. “The significant implementation gap in legalizing indigenous land rights has been going on for 20 years and the path is a long and complicated one. We need the action of regional and international groups, people without vetted interests, to really make a difference.”

Capitalism Greed or Going Green?
         Greed, however, is not at the heart of all the wealthy barons interested in the Patagonia region. For Doug Tompkins, a U.S. billionaire famous for founding outdoor-clothier The North Face, conservation and a deep love for the natural wonders of Patagonia are the argumentations for his purchase of more than 2 million acres in the region.
         Tompkins founded the Conservation Land Trust in 1992 as a non-profit with a focus on protecting and restoring the wilderness lands in Argentina and Chile, expanding it to include two other NGOs in the following years. According to its mission statement, Tompkins believes in the philosophy known as deep ecology, whose main platform runs on the belief that human beings have no right to reduce this richness and diversity of nature except to satisfy vital needs.
Tompkins, and others like him, are currently buying up vast tracts of land in the          Patagonia region and transforming them into environmentally pristine land to be given back to the government as national parks. Thus far the billionaire has donated more than 880,000 acres back to the government, opening two national parks and expanding the boundaries of five others.
         Opponents of Tompkins state he is doing little except robbing the indigenous and local people of these natural wonders and stifling the development of natural resources in areas where people have depended on them, economically, for generations. Alison Kelman, who works for Tompkins Conservation, disagrees.
         “You come in and turn a culture and its current economy on its head, there’s bound to be initial opposition,” Kelman says. “It’s different, but [the locals] are beginning to fundamentally understand the purpose of a national park and the economic potential it has. It's slowly integrating itself into the surrounding towns and we’re receiving lots of support.”
         Kelman also stresses that Tompkins Conservation works diligently with the local landowners and indigenous people to be sure that they are willing to sell, even offering ‘land swaps’ to give them access to land elsewhere. For those who wish to stay, local classes and certification programs are given to find jobs within the park and to integrate ecotourism into their economy.
Patagonia National Park. Photo ©
Conservacion Patagonica

Legal Action

         Other foreign landowners have not been so accommodating. The Benneton Group, an Italian clothing manufacturer who currently owns more than 2.5 million acres in the region, is infamous for evicting entire communities of Mapuche people from their land.
         According to the Parellada, the problem once again lies in the state making indigenous people’s access to legal land ownership complicated and unnecessarily difficult.
Patagonia National Park. Photo ©
Conservacion Patagonica
         This may be starting to change. A court ruling in 2014 formally recognizing the Mapuche’s ownership of 1,300 acres of land that was formerly bought by the Benneton Group, a landmark victory against Argentina’s largest landowner. It is the latest in a string of rulings in favor of the Mapuche people.
         “Important progress is being made in the indigenous organizational process, with coordination between different local organizations, and they can put pressure on the provincial and national governments to meet their legitimate demands,” Parellada said.
         As more indigenous communities continue to fight for their constitutional right to land ownership, the landscape of the Patagonia frontier will continue to change.

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