In March 2018, using nothing more than a Facebook page and a rudimentary website, a 33-year-old Argentine-American biologist named Esteban Servat launched a protest that has mobilized tens of thousands of people in Argentina. Servat published a secret Argentine government study of the environmental effects of fracking in the mountainous region of Mendoza, a report that had been provided to him by a whistleblower inside the government of President Mauricio Macri. The study revealed that the Macri administration knew about the contamination of aquifers due to fracking operations, but lied to the public about the scope of the risk.
This was particularly offensive to the citizens of Mendoza, Argentina’s wine country, a region that has made malbec nearly as famous as merlot among red wine grapes. The contamination, Servat told me, presents a “very serious threat” to the hundreds of thousands of Argentinians who rely on that water for drinking, livestock production, and agriculture, including malbec grapes. The results of the study, which found high levels of hydrocarbon leakage into water tables following initial fracking pilot tests, were kept hidden as the decision was made to proceed with the drilling.
Mendoza sits on the world’s second-largest tight shale reservoir, the roughly 12,000-square-mile oil-and-gas play known as the Vaca Muerta. The Macri administration—backed by an army of international investors including BP, Shell, Chevron and ExxonMobil—had been drilling since 2013 in neighboring Neuquén Province, in the northern reaches of Patagonia, where indigenous tribes mounted a grassroots resistance the government first ignored and then suppressed. A 2017 report presented to the United Nations noted that the oil and gas industry in Vaca Muerta “has proceeded on the basis of repeated violations of the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of indigenous peoples”—a right Argentina committed to upholding in 2000. These violations, the report went on, had led to conflict with the indigenous Mapuche community of Neuquén. In 2018, Macri hoped to expand operations into Mendoza to fully exploit the Vaca Muerta.
This would be an environmental catastrophe for Argentina’s rural provinces, and bad news for all of us. The Vaca Muerta, like Alberta’s tar sands play, is a carbon bomb for the planet, with the potential to release as much as 50 billion tons of CO2—almost one and a half times the total annual carbon releases of all the world’s nations.
After Servat’s publication of the secret study, protests erupted across Mendoza. Tens of thousands of people, furious that their government had lied to them, mustered in the streets of the province’s major cities—including almost one-third of the capital city of General Alvear, 10,000 people out of 30,000 inhabitants. Some built roadblocks. Police responded as they had in Neuquén Province with violence, gassing and beating the protesters.
By June 2018, seven draft laws had been introduced in the Argentine congress to ban fracking in Mendoza (although as of this writing none have passed). The group Servat created—called EcoLeaks—now has the largest environmental Facebook following in Argentina, with almost 43,000 members. More than 80,000 signatures were collected and submitted to the legislature in support of the draft bills to ban fracking.
The threat from the group was perceived as so great that the mayor of General Alvear filed criminal charges against Servat, and the governor of the province launched a judicial investigation against him and two others associated with EcoLeaks. Government officials said they were hunting the whistleblower who worked with Servat, promising severe punishment. Servat has no intention of backing down.
Until April 2018 I’d never heard of Esteban Servat. He wrote me to say he’d read an article of mine in the Daily Beast that proposed the creation of an environmentalist WikiLeaks, and he wanted me to know that he had actually gone and done it.
“I was inspired by your call to action,” wrote Servat. “With a small group of other scientists and environmentalists, I created EcoLeaks.” Its purpose, he said, was to make available to the public suppressed or censored materials involving environmental damage and crimes around the world. First up: that Mendoza study.
Servat, it turns out, worked for close to a decade at Silicon Valley biotech companies developing vaccine and diagnostic reagents in immunology labs. His employers espoused noble goals about ameliorating human health, but Servat concluded that “the sole goal was to maximize profits.” Silicon Valley, he told me, was “plagued with humanoids and technocrats devoid of any sense of social responsibility, community, and in many cases culture and any real thought.”
He tried to interest his bosses at MedImmune, in Mountain View, California, where he was employed for five years, to develop vaccines to treat preventable diseases afflicting rural South America—widespread Chagas disease was among his chief concerns—only to be told there was no money to be made in helping poor people in the developing world.
Disgusted, Servat quit in 2013 and returned to Argentina, buying a small farm in rural Mendoza to create an agricultural commune. Volunteers joined from across the world—from South America, Africa, Europe, Australia, the United States and Canada, among other places—to grow vegetables, plant trees, dig irrigation canals, and build earthship houses of recycled materials. Servat also started a biotech firm, with funding from the Argentine government, to develop the vaccines that the blinkered technocrats in Silicon Valley wouldn’t.
“It was a serendipitous moment when I came across your article,” Servat told me. “Because I read it at the same time I first found out about the report revealing the contamination of our aquifers. I put together the two and realized EcoLeaks should become a reality, even with no resources. And it ended up sparking Argentina’s largest environmental resistance movement against fracking.”
My own interest in EcoLeaks is that of a journalist who wants to facilitate whistleblowers and troublemakers, primarily in the United States. I’ve reported for more than a decade on the environmental destruction of the public lands of the American West. It’s been ugly to watch and dispiriting to write about. Most of our federal agencies simply cater to corporate interests.
How these agencies got co-opted is not a mystery. There’s even a term for it: “regulatory capture.” This occurs when government agencies that are supposed to be acting in the public interest end up the captives of the private industries they are tasked with regulating. I can tell you with certainty that the Forest Service at the Department of Agriculture, for example, is a captive of timber companies, that the Bureau of Land Management at the Department of the Interior is a captive of livestock and energy interests.
At the same time, it’s not as if there aren’t capable and dedicated scientists working at these agencies. They’re stifled. Under the Trump administration, with its naked devotion to extractive industry, these civil servants have nowhere to go with their grievances except to scream into their pillows or aim for early retirement. If they complain to their supervisors about abuses of power and violations of environmental law, they are demoted, fired or otherwise punished.
What they need, I figured, is a way to share primary source documents with the public as Servat’s whistleblower did—the WikiLeaks model. But the scope of WikiLeaks is so broad, and the plundering of our planet so urgent an issue, that a specific entity for leaks focused on the environment ought to be created. For those beleaguered souls inside the Trump administration, having a secure website where they can dump internal data that shows the extent of the corruption would certainly restore transparency. And it might, in an ideal world, ignite citizen fury—as happened in Mendoza.
At it stands now, barring further funding, EcoLeaks is only a website. You can visit it here and read the latest news from Mendoza. Servat invited me to join the group as an adviser, and of course I took him up on it. He needs to build the platform using the secure-portal programming by which WikiLeaks functions.
What Servat has already accomplished is exactly the disruption of the status quo that leaked enviro-related documents should bring about. He could use some help.