“I Work There, I Know What They Do”: The Testimony Of An Indigenous Oil Worker In Patagonia

This is the first installment of a series exploring the promise and challenges of a just transition away from the extractive economy in the global South—from the perspective of those fighting for and most impacted by it—with an initial focus on Latin America. Read the original Spanish version here.

Ever since oil was discovered in the city of Comodoro Rivadavia in the early 20th century, Patagonia has been at the heart of Argentina’s fossil fuel industry. Yet much of the areas targeted for drilling fall within the ancestral homelands of Indigenous Mapuche communities. In recent decades, they have contended with state repression, severe violations of collective rights, and escalating environmental violence.

In 2010, the second largest deposit of shale gas on the planet was detected under the rock of northern Patagonia, in the province of Neuquén. The national government lauded the find as a revolutionary opportunity for sustainable growth, likening Argentina to “a new Saudi Arabia.” Enticed by tax breaks and subsidies, the world’s largest fossil fuel companies—from Chevron to Petrobras to Total—have since rushed to invest in the area.

But Indigenous movements have repeatedly mobilized to block and repeal the new projects in defense of their traditional territories.

José Manuel Rojas is a Mapuche oil worker from the Argentine province of Rio Negro who has worked all across the oil and gas fields of Patagonia over the last three decades. As a technician, he has been tasked with numerous projects for multinational and national companies. In this dual role as frontline activist and fossil fuel worker, José has experienced the colliding worlds of extraction and resistance firsthand.

Here is his story.

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“Human Error”

I’ve been an oil worker for 25 years. Working in the industry you get to see what really happens, but our hands are always tied.

When you are hired by an oil company, you usually sign a confidentiality agreement which gives away your right to speak out publically. You are also trained in environmental safety, which means that if any environmental damage takes place, you can be blamed for failing to uphold your responsibility to prevent pollution as a worker.

Whenever there’s a disaster, individual workers and “human error” always take the blame. But if your manager tells you to keep drilling despite a fault or a potential leak, what are you to do? And if you ever start questioning internally what happens at a site, you’re quickly moved somewhere else.

Pollution, Suffering, Neglect

What I’ve personally found most shocking about my work is the pollution we see. There are constant spills, constant failures to treat the wastewater that comes out of extraction processes.

Contaminated water is often just thrown out. That water then seeps into the earth, into the streams and aquifers that we depend on.

Because of that, the rates of disease we have here are awful. My brother, my father, and my sister all died of cancer. They weren’t sick before. We’ve ended up with a huge water problem.

Whenever there’s a spill, or a pipe leaks, everything is done to cover up the incident—not to address it. The attitude managers generally have is, “Quick, let’s clean it up before they come and break our balls.” Proper techniques to deal with wasted, poisoned earth are never used. Instead, the top layer of polluted soil is dug up and spread over local roads. But when it rains, the oil residue from that contaminated soil seeps back into water streams. Animals and people then drink from that water.

Other methods are totally inadequate. DSC00374On many sites, chicken feather blankets are laid around drills to catch and soak up oil residue. But these are thin, flimsy blankets.

Not only does the oil actually seep through the blankets and into the topsoil, but the blankets disintegrate and clouds of chicken feathers float across the landscape. Grazing animals eat these feathers and get sick.

At the end of the day, all fossil fuels pollute. That’s just the way it is.

Costs and Benefits

Extracting oil and gas in Patagonia, particularly when it comes to fracking, is expensive. You have to pay a lot of people, you have to bring in a lot of foreign expertise, and you have to drill at 3,500 meters—not at 600 meters like in America.

A few years ago, when they announced that huge new reserves were found here in Patagonia, everyone rushed into areas like Vaca Muerta [Neuquén province]. Companies hired thousands of people. But in order for any of their ventures to be viable, the price of oil has to be at around USD$80. Back then it made sense. Now, with the fall in prices, so many colleagues are being laid off. It’s a disaster.

Fortunately I’m still employed as an oil worker, which means that thank God, I can pay my bills. But the local farmers that surround the wells, they work from 8am to 6pm, from the first ray of light to the last, and they make 3,000 pesos ($212) a month. Just think of that. Families with three or four children, making that kind of money. I know a family of apple farmers that go to the same church as I do. They have 6 children, and make 6000 pesos ($424) between them. They can only afford one bicycle. When they come to church, they each take turns on the bicycle, returning to pick up the next family member, and so on.

That family gets 2 pesos (14¢) for each kilo of high-quality apples they can sell for export. The rest of their crop, destined for domestic consumption, is worth 60 centavos (4¢) a kilo. It’s madness. But economists and the media don’t care about apples at 2 pesos. They care about oil barrels at $30.

With such a sad agricultural reality, there’s nothing left in many of our communities but the oil and gas industry. You’re faced with little choice. Do you want to get into line at a distant public hospital at five in the morning for a doctor’s appointment in the afternoon? Or do you want to be able to afford something better? Do you want to be able to afford to buy bottled drinkable water, or be forced to drink polluted water from the tap?

“They Left Us Our Blood”

9655337343_d2589c91ab_kAs Indigenous oil workers, we’ve been able to make a living, to support our families. In this country though, if an “Indian” is successful, if an “Indian” has shoes, people start questioning it. It goes against the image of the barefoot, desperate, stupid Indian.

That’s the kind of image they have in their minds, and it’s the kind of paternalistic attitude they have towards Indigenous communities in this region when it comes to land and oil.

Cristina Kirchner [the former president of Argentina] came out and said: “We will give back lands to the Indigenous peoples.” But nothing’s happened. Instead, it’s the same old story. Just like with the Spanish [settlers], it’s, “Oh look, you’re Indigenous. Here, take this nice shiny mirror, have a look at yourself. Now we’ll take your land.” But our ancestors left us this land, they left us our blood. And you cannot pollute blood.

“Four Years of Theft”

Oil moves countries, and the great captains of oil move the world. Why don’t governments promote solar technologies, for example? It’s because the big oil companies would become bankrupt.

Politicians are unified here. They don’t see the reality. They don’t understand the consequences of this industry. Instead, they fly in on helicopters to drilling sites and are shown a circus. When politicians visit, the companies water the roads from the heliports to hide their terrible condition. Most of society doesn’t get it either.

But we, as people, have to question and ask ourselves: what gives us more prosperity?

In Argentina, we used to be one of the richest countries in the world, without oil. We had farming, vegetables, fishing, livestock breeding. But here in the South, oil arrived and displaced all that. Company men came from afar, and approached local people saying: “Listen, forget about the country, you can be rich.” And many were attracted by that promise.

But look at us now—we are no more developed and our land is rotten. So rather than being distracted by false promises, we have to ask seriously: what is there here? What can we do? Let’s think about the future. If we have better agriculture, food wouldn’t be so expensive. That also means thinking critically. Some forms of agriculture aren’t great. Soy, for example, depletes and doesn’t regenerate the land, so you need to plant food sources that replenish the soil.

There are lots of questions. But it’s about having and pursuing a vision of a country. I don’t want a country with five billionaires and five million people in misery. I want a country that gives people opportunities, that gives them what’s theirs.

That goes directly against a lot of interests though. Politicians think of tomorrow, they think in four-year time slots. They plan for four years of theft, after which they can buy 500 hectares of land in a part of Patagonia untouched by oil, where they can then retire.

But we need something far better than this.

Note: Names and place names have been changed in order to protect identities. This testimony was translated from the Spanish by Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik, an independent journalist, translator, and campaigner.

Photographs by Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik and Emiliano Ortiz. The banner image depicts a sign that reads “Let’s take care of the environment,” next to a fracking well.

José Manuel Rojas was born into a loving family of five. He is happily married with three daughters, and is soon to be a grandfather. / José Manuel Rojas nació en una familia amorosa de cinco hermanos. Felizmente casado y con tres hijas, está pronto a ser abuelo.