Bolivia opens up national parks to oil and gas firms

Source: The Guardian Unlimited

New law permitting hydrocarbons operations in “protected areas” sparks major concerns for people and the environment

The Madidi National Park in north-west Bolivia is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. One particularly astonishing fact: the park hosts 11% of the world’s bird species, according to Bolivia’s park service, SERNAP, and the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society.

Bolivia’s government calls Madidi a “protected area”, but really it’s no such thing. 75% of its 1.8 million hectares – which includes both the park itself and a “Natural Area of Integrated Management” (NAIM) – are overlapped by oil and gas concessions held by Spain’s Repsol, Brazil’s state oil and gas company Petrobras, and PetroAndina, a joint venture between the Bolivian and Venezuelan state companies, YPFB and PDVSA. In addition, there are coca farmers and gold-miners, and the threat of a long, long-mooted plan to build an enormous hydroelectric dam, El Bala, which president Evo Morales has been talking up, and which is slowly moving forward and would flood a huge swathe of the park.

Madidi is just one of 22 “protected areas” in Bolivia – all of which are now more threatened than ever by government policy opening up huge new areas to oil and gas. Over 20 million hectares across the country have been identified, contracts signed, and on 20 May a new law was declared specifically permitting “the development of hydrocarbon exploration activities in the different zones and categories within protected areas”, and stipulating what companies should do if they make “commercially-viable discoveries” and want to exploit them.

True, the new law states that oil and gas operations in “protected areas” will reduce poverty and contribute to Bolivia’s development, and requires “fragile ecosystems” to be taken into account and the use of the most up-to-date technology, among other things. But what will, or could, be the social and environmental impacts? What do Bolivians working on social and environmental issues think?


Carmen Capriles, from grassroots organisation Reaccion Climatica, told the Guardian that Bolivia’s “protected areas” were established to protect wildlife and rivers, and that the new law is “really worrying” and the potential impacts “devastating.”

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