Extractive Industries

Argentinians protest against Chinese oil exploration

Field lies within a legally-protected national park

A campaign to stop a Chinese company from extracting oil from a national park in northeast Argentina has engaged environmental activists, indigenous people, local politicians and forest rangers. “They are violating at least three national laws, as well as risking the contamination of a forest, which is home to species threatened with extinction and half of the country’s birds,” said Hernan Giardini, coordinator of the Greenpeace campaign against JHP International Petroleum Engineering’s plans to drill in the area. The oil is being extracted in the middle of the Calilegua National Park, created in 1979 in the state of Jujuy. The park covers 76,000 hectares of tropical mountain forest, which is of the utmost environmental importance, according to a 2011 assessment made by the state government. The 5,700 hectares of the Caimancito oil field lie within this protected area, as does the oil production infrastructure: 24 kilometres of oil pipelines and eight kilometres of gas pipelines. Of the 34 wells that have produced oil in the past, 10 remain active. “Everyone was sure that the few active wells would be closed, but now the idea is to reactivate the field and expand it,” explained Franco Aguilar, attorney of the National Aborigine Pastoral Team (ENDEPA), a Catholic organisation that defends the rights of indigenous communities. In 2012, the Jujuy government authorised Chinese company JHP to develop the field until 2037. A letter of intent was signed the following year. “What is alarming is that the Chinese are not only going to reactivate the closed fields, but also open three new ones in the first six years,” said Giardini. According to a survey conducted by Greenpeace, within the area to be explored there are 113 million cubic metres (m3) of oil reserves and 34 billion m3 of gas reserves. “By our calculations, 90% of the field is yet to be developed and the Chinese, as well as having state-of-the-art technology, are also investing in other areas of Argentina,” said Giardini. The Caimancito’s oil and gas field represents less than half a percent of the total Argentine reserves. And this is another argument used in the Greenpeace campaign: for such a small amount they are risking the contamination of one of the country’s great natural treasures. The park hosts 123 tree species, 120 mammal, 24 amphibian and 270 bird species. In addition to disclosing a document alerting of the damage that the oil industry might inflict on the forest, the water and the local indigenous communities, Greenpeace also launched a nationwide campaign on the streets and social networks. Activists dressed up as rare birds and jaguars organised a protest on the doorstep of the Jujuy province representative, in Buenos Aires. They then built a replica oil drilling rig in the middle of Florida, a busy commercial street in downtown Buenos Aires popular among tourists. The idea was to show that drilling a well in the heart of the Argentine capital is just as absurd as opening another in a national park. More than 70 social, environmental and indigenous organisations, as well as politicians and unions, signed a petition asking the state government to revoke the concession granted to the Chinese government. As well as engaging public opinion, some of the park employees took the matter to court, such as park ranger Guillermo Nicolossi. According to him, extracting oil from the field violates the National Parks Act, which “prohibits any economic activity, apart from tourism,” and the Hydrocarbons Act “which determines the annulment of concessions or licenses for oil extraction in environmentally-protected areas.” As Calilegua was included as a priority conservation area in 2011, oil exploration within the national park also violates the Woodlands Law. The legislation establishes that the forest cannot suffer any transformation process. In 2014 JHP presented an environmental impact assessment, as per required by Argentine law, but, according to Nicolossi, it was incomplete. “The study foresees impact within a three-year period, when the exploration will go on for 24 years,” he said. Greenpeace also believes that the affected area could be greater than that identified in the study. “In the study the company itself acknowledges that there will be a direct environmental impact on 500 hectares of land, related to all the work to open the paths and wells,” said Giardini. “And it also recognises the possibility of oil spills that could affect 21,000 hectares, an area equivalent to one third of the entire park and the size of Buenos Aires.” The National Parks authorities (responsible for the parks throughout Argentina) have already expressed their concern with the damage caused by the oil industry installations, which were in a state of abandonment. Inactive wells that had not been duly sealed and broken pipes have been polluting the soil for years. One well alone, which is outside the park, spills 200,000 litres of contaminated water into a stream that crosses Calilegua. The park’s location also worries environmentalists: it lies within a mountainous and seismic zone, subject to landslides; and three such incidents have already been reported.  ENDEPA, which has joined forces with Greenpeace to defend the preservation fo Calilegua, has also come out in defence of the local indigenous communities. According to the attorney Franco Aguilar, who has also taken legal action, the Chinese company is violating international treaties, as well as national legislation. Under Argentine law, the development of economic activities that can harm the environment can only be authorised following approval of an environmental impact assessment and a public hearing. “But, in this case, there are also indigenous communities who might be affected and they must be consulted, which is something that has not happened, despite being established in the United Nations Declaration about the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” said Aguilar. The lands that belong to the park today have been inhabited by natives of the Inca and Koya tribes. In Cali there is also a Guarani trail. The General Assembly of the Guarani Nation has sent letters to the governor of Jujuy, Eduardo Fellner, demanding he organise a consultation process with the indigenous groups – alleging that oil extraction in Calilegua can only be done with their “prior” consent. “The state government has ignored all the letters, petitions and lawsuits and the oil exploration in the park, despite violating national and international law, goes on,” said Aguilar. According to Giardini, their hope lies in increasing public pressure through the campaign and peaceful protests throughout the country. Calls from Diálogo Chino to the Jujuy government went unanswered.