Bolivian president opens up protected natural areas for oil and gas drilling

Forest region of Bolivia's Chapare region, near the entrance of a protected environmental area. (Photo credit: Aldo Orellana)

During the time that President Evo Morales has been at the helm of Bolivia’s government, the country has gone from being the poorest in South America to having one of the region’s fastest growing economies. Much of this growth stems from extensive oil and gas reserves, which Morales nationalized early in his first term. Recent discoveries just tripled the size of Bolivia’s estimated oil reserves. But the drop in oil and gas prices on global markets put Bolivia’s recent economic growth on a path of uncertainty. To make up for lost revenue, President Morales issued presidential decrees, opening protected environmental areas to exploration. Environmental and indigenous groups oppose the move. Aldo Orellana López reports.

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Bolivia is home to a wealth of biological diversity and natural resources. The country’s economy – and its national budget – rely heavily on tax revenue from the mining and gas sectors. In 2014 alone, oil and gas sales brought $6 billion dollars into government coffers.

In recent years, Bolivia has had one of the highest rates of economic growth in South America. But that economic stability is vulnerable to prices set in international markets.

“The government relies on hydrocarbons revenue to fund its programs and the need to count on those resources is causing the government to push forward with opening up protected areas in order to meet its obligations, especially when it comes to exports,” says George Campanini, a researcher with Bolivia’s Center for Information and Documentation. He adds the slump in global oil and gas prices has the government looking to increase production, which pits financial stability for the government against the environmental concerns and territorial control of indigenous communities in resource-rich areas.

In recent months, the government has issued decrees authorizing oil and gas-related activities in seven of Bolivia’s 22 protected ecological zones. To facilitate the process, the government also amended the legal process that requires informed consent from indigenous communities that may be affected by the development projects.

“The package of decrees bypasses the nation’s constitution,” notes Celso Padilla, an indigenous Guaraní leader and member of the Assembly of Guaraní People in Bolivia, an organization which represents 50,000 people in approximately 250 communities. “For example, it restricts the rights to prior consultation and participation. This is why we’re on the brink of an emergency.”

The decrees reduce the consultation process to no more than 45 days and force communities in affected areas to come to an agreement with energy companies about investment priorities. Padilla says this undercuts their negotiating position when it comes to fair compensation.

“This has us very upset and worried because it will only increase damages like pollution and negatively impact us on all levels; the social, environmental, political, economic, cultural and spiritual,” Padilla told FSRN. “This is why we’re calling for a serious debate with the government.”

Bolivia’s state-run oil and gas company, YPFB has responded to criticism by insisting it will use advanced technology and non-invasive methods. The company adds it will operate in less than one percent of the territorial total of the seven protected areas that the government wants to explore.

President Evo Morales argues the ability to decide how to use the resources within the national territory is a matter of sovereignty.

Sarela Paz, an expert on indigenous governance systems and protected ecological zones, argues that reforming laws by presidential decree to facilitate oil and gas operations is the opposite of sovereignty.

“We can’t separate what the government is doing from a context in which energy companies are able to make demands of nation-states,” says Paz. “In many cases, countries deeply rely on these initiatives for revenue, so it’s a relationship of dependence, not of sovereignty.”

With the recent discovery of an estimated 28 million barrels of oil, Bolivia has tripled its projected hydrocarbons reserves. President Morales plans to continue developing those reserves during his term in office and has threatened to expel foreign NGOs that oppose those plans.

Meanwhile, Celso Padilla of the Assembly of Guaraní People says the government is attempting to divide Bolivia’s Guaraní community with the aim of weakening the opposition to new oil and gas projects. But opposition to drilling in protected areas has also galvanized Guaranís in other South American countries like Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.

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