Vaca Muerta takes spotlight in Paris

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Buenos Aires Herald, Paris

PARIS — While countries seek a new climate change agreement at a United Nations summit, fracking in Argentina was in the spotlight yesterday at the so-called International Rights of Nature Tribunal, a citizen-created initiative that calls for public testimony regarding the Earth’s destruction.

Gathered in a jury, internationally renowned lawyers and social and environmental leaders discussed and heard in a summit in downtown Paris cases about fracking, mining, deforestation and genetically modified organisms (GMO) — all issues that are present throughout Latin America — and then made recommendations about how the Earth could be protected.

“Argentina started working on unconventional resources in a blind and chaotic way. Media outlets see it as the country’s salvation without taking in account the rights of the Earth and local communities,” Enrique Viale, the head of Argentina’s Environmental Lawyers Association, said.

Many fingers at the tribunal were pointed toward Argentina’s massive shale formation Vaca Muerta, where state-controlled oil company YPF has partnered with US energy giant Chevron to exploit those resources. The deal was made possible after the Supreme Court lifted an embargo on the company’s funds in Argentina, following a complaint filed by Ecuadorians due to environmental damage — a decision the tribunal harshly criticized.

“It’s a dramatic case, it shows the lack of solidarity between both governments. We expected Argentina to back Ecuador after more than 20 years of complaints against Chevron but the country instead rushed the Supreme Court to issue a ruling. It was a stab in the back against Ecuador that opened the doors for the company,” Alberto Acosta, Ecuador’s former president of the Constitutional Assembly, told the Herald.

Similar concerns regarding fracking were shared by environmental of the United States and Europe, who described it as one of the largest threats to nature due to the long list of chemicals used to extract the unconventional oil and gas resources and the suspicions that the activity is tied to earthquakes.

“It has become more visible on the world stage as it has been exported to many countries such as Argentina. It’s one of the most dangerous and vile activities that has ever been invented,” Shannon Biggs, head of the Community Rights programme at Global Exchange, a US human rights NGO, said. “Many of the chemicals used in fracking are carcinogenic and companies don’t make them public.”

Oil companies have long denied fracking is harmful to the environment.

This was the third time the tribunal meets after its creation in 2014 as part of an effort to promote awareness and highlight the need to expand the international legal framework and national laws to ensure the safety of the planet. It acknowledges ecosystems have the right to exist and be maintained, with legal standing in a court of law.

Its president is Cormac Cullinan, an environmental lawyer based in South Africa who helped to draft the new “rights of nature” provisions in the constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia, inspiring similar protection-of-nature ordinances by several US municipalities such as Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

“We needed a body that makes decisions based on the universal declaration of mother earth and the laws of nature, we created it with that objective. It seeks to demonstrate that all nature has the right to exist,” Cullinan told the Herald. “It’s not an abstract idea, it has practical applications. It’s about enabling the earth to heal again.”

Latin American agenda

The two-day meeting of the tribunal focused on environmental conflicts shared by many Latin American countries and two of the most discussed were the Yasuni ITT initiative in Ecuador and the dams projects Belo Monte and Tapajos in Brazil.

Launched by Ecuador’s president in 2007, the Yasuni ITT initiative sought to prevent the drilling of oil within the Yasuni National Park, recognized as one of the most biodiverse regions in the world and home of several indigenous tribes. Ecuador proposed not to extract the oil in exchange for 50 percent of the value of the reserves, US$3.6 billion over 13 years.

The funds never materialized and the oil is now being extracted.

Dam projects in Brazil were also under scrutiny. The Belo Monte dam is a project under construction on the Xingu River, which is set to become the second-largest hydroelectric dam complex in the country. The project was questioned by environmental leaders, as well as the one that seeks to build a dam on the Tapajos River.

“They are the clearest examples of crimes against nature and humanity we can see today. It represents a model that if it’s followed could destroy the Amazon forest,” Christian Poirier, Brazil and Europe Director of Amazon Watch, said. “This can’t be considered clean energy. Dozens of more dams are projected by Brazil, which could instead be a leader on clean energy.”