Bolivia: Morales Caught Between Gas Revenues and Indigenous Demands

(IPS) – The Bolivian government negotiated with native groups to head off major marches and roadblocks aimed at demanding protection of indigenous land rights and conservation of the environment in their territories.

Thanks to a last-minute agreement with the Evo Morales administration, a 1,000-km march from the city of Riberalta in the extreme north to La Paz in the western highlands by indigenous groups from the Amazon jungle region was called off.

And negotiations with government officials put an end to a four-day roadblock by Guaraní Indians on a key highway that connects Bolivia with Argentina to the south.

On Sunday, an agreement was signed after two days of talks between representatives of the Guaraní community and the ministers of hydrocarbons, autonomy and rural development and land.

Native groups who live in areas rich in timber, water, minerals and oil are demanding government protection of their ancestral lands, in line with the defence of Pachamama or Mother Earth voiced by Morales at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change held a month ago in the central city of Cochabamba.

Morales, the first-ever indigenous president in this country where native people comprise a majority of the population, is caught between demands for the conservation of forests, water sources, and traditional lands, and the government’s heavy dependency on natural gas, its main source of revenue, which brought in 1.46 billion dollars in 2008.

Bolivia has South America’s second largest natural gas reserves, after Venezuela’, with an estimated volume of 49 trillion cubic feet.

“It is hard to exploit natural resources without hurting the environment,” Armengol Caballero, the head of the Centre for Research and Advancement of Small Farmers (CIPCA), told IPS. “The exploitation of oil and gas implies deforestation as roads and pipelines are put in to bring out the fuel.”

Caballero accuses Morales of a “double discourse”.

But he also argued the need to exploit the country’s natural resources, in order to generate revenues for the benefit of indigenous peoples themselves, instead of leaving the oil, gas and minerals underground.

“The government is promoting economic policies based on extractive industries with high costs to the environment and to its own image, which is based on promises of change,” Edwin Alvarado, national communications secretary of the Environmental Defence League (LIDEMA), Bolivia’s leading environmental coalition, commented to IPS.

A ministerial commission and leaders of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Eastern Bolivia (CIDOB), which represents one million members, held talks last week, in which the government promised to speed up the process of demarcating the lands of native communities in the Amazon jungle region and granting them collective land titles.

In response, CIDOB called off its plans for a 1,000-km march to La Paz.

The government also announced that it will push for a new forestry law, and that the concessions of mining and lumber companies that do not respect Bolivia’s regulations and standards will be cancelled.

The Morales administration’s commitment includes the drafting of specific regulations for carrying out prior consultations among indigenous communities before authorising the construction of roads, hydroelectric dams, and the exploration and production of minerals, oil and natural gas.

The government also reiterated that it would fully comply with International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

But the government’s commitment to “free, prior and informed consent” from native communities, as established by Convention 169, would seem to run counter to its authorisation of projects like a stretch of the Trans-Oceanic Highway — an infrastructure megaproject jointly undertaken by Bolivia, Brazil and Peru — between the towns of Villa Tunari in the central province of Cochabamba and San Ignacio de Moxos in the northern province of Beni, Alvarado said.

More than 60 native communities in the Isiboro Sécure National Park will be affected by the project, because they depend on sustainable hunting, food gathering, and the use of natural sources of water, he said.

The LIDEMA spokesman said the park was one of the few areas in the Andean foothills of South America where the local indigenous inhabitants live according to their traditional way of life in an area that they consider sacred.

“The environmental policies of the current government are supposedly based on respect for Mother Earth,” the head of the environmental group Kandire, Daniela Leytón, told IPS.

“However, there is a counter-discourse in favour of the accelerated incursion of megaprojects in the name of development that undermine indigenous rights, under policies that are unethical in terms of the application of consultation methods and justifications,” she maintained.

Leytón noted that Bolivia is a country with a low industrial capacity and high dependence on natural resources, “which fuels major extractive industry activity and exports concentrated in natural gas and minerals.”

The activist said that while GDP has increased 20 percent thanks to a rise in natural gas revenues since Morales first took office in 2006, the poverty rate has not dropped below 60 percent.

She also pointed to the government’s difficulties in meeting the payments to pregnant and nursing mothers, which forced it to obtain a 20 million dollar 40-year loan from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).