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In the Land of Gas, the Residents Have None

LA PAZ, Feb 12 2013 (IPS) - The 19,000 inhabitants of the municipality of Caraparí, the area supplying a third of Bolivia’s gas exports, do not have access to gas or petrol, six years after the nationalisation of the mega deposit and almost a quarter century after its discovery.

The paradox goes almost unnoticed because that area of the department of Tarija, in the middle of the Bolivian Chaco, is 1,205 kilometres south of La Paz — far from the economic centre where state coffers are constantly replenished by revenue from natural gas exports to Argentina and Brazil.

President Evo Morales, in his Jan. 22 report to the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, noted that income for the hydrocarbon sector grew from 673 million dollars to 4.2 billion dollars between 2005 and 2012. He considered this augmentation a result of the nationalisation of the sector in May 2006.

A general strike in the last week of January in Caraparí, the second section of the Gran Chaco province in the far south of the country, sounded a warning that prompted a government pledge to install a fuel-distribution point in the area before October.

The closest place to buy a container of liquefied gas, or stock up on petrol and diesel, is 50 kilometres away in the town of Yacuiba, bordering Argentina, Mayor Ermas Pérez told IPS.

Merchants charge up to 7.2 dollars per 10-kilogramme container of gas, well above the official price of 3.2 dollars, resulting in an outcry from residents including food farmers, small livestock farmers and traders.

“We depend on Yacuiba, and at night they don’t let us bring gasoline because of police (restrictions on) controlled substances,” said Pérez, who has been mayor of Caraparí since 2005.

“It was a movement for dignity in the land of gas where there is no gas,” journalist Elton Lenz, a popular leader who is familiar with the reality of the municipality’s 49 oil-rich communities, told IPS. He was quick to clarify that this was “not a political act”.

In 2008, Morales victoriously stated that Caraparí had increased its income from 134,417 dollars to 1.4 million dollars; but the mayor cannot legally use some of that income to install a service station.

Pérez declared that his town was the first in the country to implement a free school breakfast and lunch programme, and that it fully meets demands for health and education. But he also wishes to invest in irrigation programmes, mechanised crop farming and livestock farming, activities that do not fall within the purview of the municipality.

“They say we have the largest per capita income of Bolivia, but there is poverty here. Several communities have to cook with wood-burning stoves, because the state company YPFB (Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos) does not distribute liquefied gas,” complained Lenz.

Natural gas arrived at homes in the municipality’s town center in May 2012, but only one group of 160 families is benefiting from the supply. Meanwhile, the community’s reservoirs act as a huge source of energy for neighbouring countries: Bolivia exports about 30 million cubic metres of natural gas to Brazil and another seven million to Argentina.

There is a high prevalence of indigenous populations in Caraparí’s rural areas, especially Guarani, as well as in the surrounding Gran Chaco province. Since becoming a centre of energy activity in the country, the Tarija department has witnessed recurring conflicts between the original inhabitants and the YPFB.

Carlos Arze, energy analyst at the Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario (Center for the Study of Labour and Agrarian Development), described Caraparí’s fortunate geographical position atop the oil fields of San Alberto and Itaú, and parts of other deposits, like Margarita-Huacaya and Sabalo.

“We can conclude the province of Gran Chaco contributes about 33 percent of all natural gas produced annually in Bolivia,” he said.

In January, YPFB reported that in 2012 the country reached its highest historical natural gas production, with 51 million cubic metres per day. Oil production also rose to an average of 51,000 barrels per day and at the end of the year stood at 60,000 barrels daily.

The economist Julio Alvarado complained that nationalisation has not brought significant changes in Bolivia’s politics on hydrocarbons. “We continue to export and let others industrialise gas,” he told IPS.

“We are worse than before,” he said, recalling that only former President Hernán Siles Zuazo, in his last term from 1982 to 1985, built a pipeline to distribute hydrocarbons from their fields to the largest domestic markets, located in western Bolivia.

“The poverty of the people, in whose territory (lie) the natural resources that finance the national budget, are in contrast to the prosperity of transnational corporations and the huge amount of resources spent by national and local governments,” said Arze.

Alvarado agrees, saying that last year’s five percent growth in gross domestic product (GDP) goes to paying salaries, travel expenses and sending numerous delegations overseas, instead of giving priority to development and productive activities.

On energy, Arze finds a “contradiction” in government policies “because they continue to favour foreign companies, which rapidly sell the production to obtain big profits”, while the government finances its spending “without caring about the development of areas where these resources come from”.

“There are no social policies.  The public projects are only roads, works of cement, while the social aspect is neglected,” lamented Lenz.

The journalist says that in this region a quartre–litre of carbonated soft drinks costs 1.20 dollars and a bowl of soup sells for two dollars, while in La Paz these prices are less than half.

The government and YPFB have promised to build a service station capable of supplying petrol, diesel and liquefied gas with an investment of 500,000 dollars by October.

The people of Caraparí warn that, this time, they will make sure that promise is fulfilled.

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