ANELO, Argentina (AFP) — Pumpjack oil wells peck like giant birds at the ground, plumes of yellow flames flare from gas pipelines, lakes accumulate contaminated waste — Patagonia and its indigenous people are paying a heavy price for Argentina's economic progress.
Vaca Muerta, a huge sweep of western Patagonian wilderness, sits on the world's second largest reserve of shale gas and its fourth largest oil reserves.
A push to develop extraction amid Argentina's crippling economic crisis has made the area a magnet for international oil companies.
Crucially, Vaca Muerta is also home to indigenous Mapuche communities who say their rights are being denied.
"They came in as a state enterprise and just blew up the land. Without measuring the consequences or seeing that there were people living here -- a Mapuche community living on the land," says Lorena Bravo, spokeswoman for the Mapuche community in Campo Maripe.
"And from then on they denied our existence."
The Mapuche claim that the burgeoning oil and shale gas industry, in particular the controversial fracking technique used to extract it, has irreversibly damaged their ancestral homelands, and with it their traditional way of life.
"One day all this activity will cease, because the oil is going to run out, the gas is going to run out. We are going to be left only with polluted land," says Bravo.
The Vaca Muerta deposit extends over 11,580 square miles in Patagonia, between the provinces of Neuquen, Rio Negro, la Pampa and Mendoza.
It represents 43% of the country's total oil production — 505,000 barrels per day in July — and 60% of its gas production.
In the past few years, the town of Anelo has sprouted up from a Patagonian desert village where goats grazed to become a thriving oil hub of 8,000 people, with hotels and shops for workers, and a huge casino.
The Mapuche indigenous communities nearby claim an ancestral right to the land and say they have to daily cope with the pollution caused by fracking.
"Fracking is an illegal activity in Mapuche territory. It doesn't comply with our rights to be consulted," said Jorge Nahuel, a leader of Neuquen's Mapuche Confederation.
"Our territories are located over a lake of fuel. The result is pollution and death," said Nahuel, adding that farm animals were being "born with malformations."
'Fertile land, scorched earth'
Other nearby communities like Allen and Fernandez Oro have seen their fruit crops diminish in the face of the oil companies' relentless advance across the land as exploration concessions increase.