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BOLIVIA: Guarani, Tapiete Peoples Fight Gas Exploration

Franz Chávez

LA PAZ, Jun 1 2010 (IPS) - The explosive charges utilised in fossil fuel exploration in Bolivia’s Chaco region divert underground water flows, scare off wildlife and harm the environment, charge the leaders of local indigenous Guaraní communities, which have been blocking access routes to keep oil company employees from entering the area.

The notion that the government, led by President Evo Morales (who is of indigenous Aymara descent), is protecting the indigenous peoples of south- eastern Bolivia “is just words, the same as the discourse about defending Mother Earth,” Jorge Mendoza, head of natural resources for the Guaraní- Tapieté Council of Captains, told IPS.

The Council brings together the leaders, or captains, of the Guaraní and Tapieté communities, which in Yacuiba alone, 1,315 kilometres southeast of La Paz, number around 3,000 members.

On May 20 the leaders declared a pause in the blockade of the international highway that connects the city of Yacuiba to Argentina, and agreed to a dialogue with the Energy Ministry, but they have yet to reach an agreement.

The sporadic blockades and clashes with the police began May 14, involving some 200 people from 47 communities.

With the failure of previous negotiations, the leaders of the native groups who live in areas rich in petroleum and natural gas in the Gran Chaco province, in the department of Tarija, resolved to seek direct dialogue with President Morales.

Tarija has reserves of 41.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 80 percent of the country’s total. Most of this fuel is exported to Brazil and Argentina.

The Guaraní-Tapieté Council of Captains questions the government’s approach in granting environmental permits for seismic exploration in their territories.

According to Mendoza, the government officials go directly to the communities and avoid speaking with the Council, which ends up dividing the indigenous organisation.

On Mar. 3-4, officials from the energy and environment ministries visited the community of Tucainti and tried to convince its 166 residents to give permission to the Brazilian oil company Petrobras to enter the San Antonio exploration block.

A call from a resident alerted the Council of Captains, who prevented the authorisation and demanded that the officials follow the law on hydrocarbons, which recognises the Council as the representative of the Guaraní-Tapieté peoples in processing environmental permits.

The Morales administration has declared finding new natural gas fields a national priority. But the effort has run up against communities concerned about the dynamite explosions set up 15 metres underground, because the blasts shift the courses of underground water in an area where daily temperatures are above 30 degrees Celsius and other water sources are scarce.

This seismic exploration also frightens off the Chaco condor, wild pigs, jaguars and other wildcats, as well as species that are sources of food for the indigenous peoples.

Mendoza noted that in 1926 the state-run oil company YPFB began drilling in the area, and when it ended operations in 1987, it left behind destroyed forests and oil wells that leak toxic liquids, which continue to affect the local flora and fauna.

Of some 730,000 hectares that the government assigned to the oil companies, 317,218 are located in territories of Yaku-igua, Itika Guasu and Tentayapi Guaraní groups. Some 80,000 native peoples inhabit the region.

The oil companies operating in the area are: BG Bolivia Corporation (with British capital), the government’s Chaco SA, Petrobras, Argentina’s Pluspetrol, Repsol E&P Bolivia (an affiliate of Spain’s Repsol), and Total E&P Bolivie, of France’s Total Corporation.

The oil industry is Bolivia’s principal source of tax revenues, and in 2008 oil profits generated 1.46 billion dollars. But, according to Mendoza, the government should turn its attention to other activities, such as tourism and attracting resources for preserving Bolivia’s forests.

“The environment, the forests and indigenous territories must be respected,” Eustaquio Sullca, land secretary of the Bolivian rural workers union, CSUTCB, told IPS.

Sullca attributed the failed negotiations to the government’s lack of information about the environment problems and concerns of the indigenous peoples.

He said he was confident the dialogue between citizen organisations and environmental officials would lead to an agreement.

But Mendoza is much less optimistic, insisting that the indigenous communities would remain alert. He did not rule out the possibility of fresh protests until they receive an adequate response from President Morales.

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