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Mapuche confront U.S. oil and gas companies in Argentina

SAN FRANCISCO - Martin Velasquez Maliqueo breathed a sigh of relief June 19. He, and the four other Argentine Mapuche who stood trial with him, will not be going to prison.

But the leader of the Lonko Puran community in the Neuquen district of Argentina, who was charged with Fidel Pinto, Florentino Nahuel and Roberto Nancucheo, said the victory is only a small step in the struggle to reclaim Mapuche land from what they see as an illegal takeover by two American oil and gas companies: Pioneer Natural Resources and Apache Corporation.

The four were accused of organizing the takeover of 12 oil wells shortly after Pioneer moved onto their land in 2001, in which about 150 community members participated. On June 19, three judges declared them not guilty of all charges, which could have brought them nine months in prison. Pioneer was bought out by Apache in 2006.

The Mapuche say that Pioneer began drilling for oil, without letting them know or asking their permission, when the entire Lonko Purran community had left for the season to graze their animals in the hills. The verdict stated that the Mapuche who non-violently surrounded the oil wells had the right to demonstrate on their own territory, based on U.N. Indigenous Peoples Convention No. 169.

''The ones who should have been in the defendants' seat were the people from the oil companies and the state of Argentina, not us,'' said Velasquez Maliqueo.

''The verdict was a recognition of the force of the Mapuche people,'' he said, ''It was not just a triumph for the Mapuche but for an entire marginalized society here in Argentina.''

A small crowd of Mapuche and non-Mapuche arrived by foot, car and bus to show their support of the four men, including Nobel prize winner, Adolfo Esquival, and several representatives from human rights organizations.

Although the trial has ended, the conflict between the Mapuche and American oil companies in the region has not. Several Mapuche have surrounded a gas deposit in the region belonging to Apache, blocking gas from getting out to the local region, as well as to Chile, where it is exported.

''We will not move until Apache begins some steps to implement the remediation plan that Pioneer agreed upon before they left,'' said Maliqueo Velasquez.

The plan included clean-up of environmental damage and the use of sustainable and non-polluting technology, as well as assistance in providing education for Mapuche children. The Mapuche also want immediate restitution of lands they say were appropriated by the oil companies and the ability to administer their own territory and natural resources.

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Mapuche community members have been complaining about leaky oil pipelines and oil stored in open pits since Pioneer's arrival in 2001. The court decision said that Pioneer agreed to pay for the deaths of grazing animals that had fallen into the open pits.

''Nothing has changed with Apache,'' Maliqueo said.

''The environmental situation is the same in 2007 as it was in 2005; the same as it was in 2001.''

He said the current gas takeover has caused Apache to withdraw its operations from the disputed area. This could not be confirmed by Apache.

''In light of the pending litigation, we don't have any comment at this time,'' wrote Bill Mintz, director of Public and International Affairs for Apache Corporation, in an e-mail sent to Indian Country Today on the day the verdict was announced.

Rebecca Garcia of Pioneer Natural Resources also said their company had no comment on the court decision.

Velasquez Maliqeo said the Argentine constitution is contradictory in regards to indigenous people.

''One section says indigenous territory belongs to the state, another says it belongs to the indigenous people. When the oil companies come in to exploit the resources, they rely on the part of the constitution that says the land belongs to the state.''

Another problem, he said, is that the provincial government of Neuquen, which receives millions of dollars from the oil companies in ''regalia'' or ''gifts,'' doesn't recognize the rights of indigenous people to be consulted about resource development on their territory.

''I hope with this situation that the international community will pay more attention to us and to the reality of indigenous people in Argentina, where the government is denying us our rights,'' Velasquez Maliqeo said.

Other oil and gas companies in Argentina include Chevron, Halliburton and Petrobras.