Oil town is Argentina's war-supply depot

This southern city - the staging point for Argentina's invasion of the Falkland Islands and now the main supply depot for the islands - owes its existence to oil and South African Boers.

''Here, everyone works in oil,'' exaggerates oilman Juan Lopez as he points to the huge facilities of Argentina's state oil enterprise on the edge of town.

Of course, not all 100,000 Comodorenses, as local residents are called, work in the nearby oil fields or in the refineries, plants, and offices of Argentine and foreign oil firms. But many do, and oil clearly dominates life here.

Yet oil shares the local spotlight with sheep-grazing. And that is where the Boers come in.

The Boers (descendants of the Dutch settlers in South Africa) arrived at the turn of the century, fleeing their homeland following defeat at the hands of Britain in the Boer War. They brought sheep-grazing to the rolling coastal sand dunes of Patagonia, as southern Argentina is known.

The countryside hasn't exactly bloomed under their touch or that of later settlers. But it has supported a thriving sheep industry for most of this century.

And it is thanks to the Boers that the city of Comodoro Rivadavia was established here in 1901. More than 500 Afrikaans-speaking colonists came across the South Atlantic from South Africa in those early years, bringing their language and customs, their Dutch Reformed Church, and their agricultural skills.

By 1907, when oil was discovered here on land being grazed by the Boers' merino sheep, Comodoro Rivadavia had become the major town in southern Argentina. It had 1,000 inhabitants.

Oil made it a camp town. It drew hardy pioneers from all over the globe. In addition to Spanish and Afrikaner, there were English, French, and German migrants and a dozen other nationalities as well.

These migrants mingled freely, creating what the rector of the new regional university here terms ''one of the biggest melting pots you have ever seen.''

Two years ago the Rev. Norberto Sorrentino, a Dominican, was named by Argentina's military government to head the new Universidad Nacional de la Patagonia, a school designed to help tame the frontier and camp-town aspects of Comodoro Rivadavia and southern Patagonia. That is no small challenge in this harsh country. The landscape is inhospitable, and life is hard.

The Boers had no illusions when they came. They knew they would face hardships. Yet they came because this new land offered freedom from their problems in Africa.

Descendants of the Boer settlers tell of the struggles they and their parents faced. Sheep-farmer Conrad Visser, who graduated from Ohio State University in 1932 and came home to run the family spread, is typical:

''This is a wild, harsh land. There is nothing here except what you do with the land itself. It was, and still is, a hard life.''

Then he muses: ''Yet worthwhile.''

Mr. Visser is one of more than 1,000 descendants of the original Boer colonizers. There are even a few, perhaps 10 or so, of the original hardy Boers still around. Names like Bauman, Behr, and Bruyn, reflecting the South African heritage, abound.

Mr. Visser's father, incidentally, was one of the two organizers of the sea trek from South Africa to this windswept land. ''I am glad he made the move,'' Mr. Visser adds.

The Boer descendants here still retain much of their identity - speaking Afrikaans and practicing the Dutch Reformed religion. But church services generally are held in Spanish now, and Mr. Visser expects that ''South African Dutch is going to die away in 10 or 12 years.''

Yet the heritage remains. And the links with South Africa continue. Gerardo Myburg, a local attorney and Spanish-speaking descendant of the original Boers, was recently named honorary South African consul. He makes it a point to keep the local Boer community in touch with its ancestral home.

Quite a few of the Boers work in oil. One of Mr. Visser's sons-in-law is an executive of Amoco, a subsidiary of the US-based American Oil Company, which produces 40 percent of the petroleum pumped in the area.

Oil has gushed from wells here for more than 70 years, ''and it is still coming,'' says another oilman, Jose Luis Perez, the local head of Amoco.

Although offshore oil wells still look promising, most test wells have been dry - and production here remains largely on the land.

Comodoro Rivadavia's oil production continues to increase, but its share of Argentina's national total has dropped. In 1950, fields here produced 75 percent of the nation's oil; the figure is down to 40 percent today, due largely to discoveries elsewhere in the country.

Yet Comodora Rivadavia's field, the so-called Cuenca del Golfo de San Jorge, is one of the largest in the world and will last a long time. And as production from the field pumps up more and more oil, this one-time frontier city of hardy Boer pioneers continues to change and become more of ''a normal city,'' as another oil man puts it, ''with the advantage and disadvantage that it is isolated still from the rest of Argentina.''

The use of Comodoro Rivadavia as the staging area for the Falklands invasion, and its current use as the supply depot for Argentina's South Atlantic adventure - which has brought Argentina to the point of war with Britain - may have ended the city's isolation.

Time will tell. Meanwhile, oil continues to be pumped. Merino sheep continue to graze. And the Boers continue to speak Afrikaans.

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