Bolivian president Evo Morales was inaugurated in 2006 as the first indigenous person to be sworn in as a president of a sovereign nation. Since then, he has shown extraordinary resolution in strengthening the legal and economic situation of indigenous people in Bolivia.
Giving constitutional protection to Mother Earth (Madre Tierra in Spanish or Pachamama in Quechua) has earned him accolades from environmentalists all over the globe. But the reality is far from it.
Bolivia has opened the country in general and indigenous and protected territories in particular to the onslaught of international oil and gas corporations. The president’s dream is to make Bolivia the energy hub of Southern America.
The easy targets for oil and gas are already running thin in Bolivia. Drilling has to go deeper and deeper. A much cheaper option is then to start drilling in the protected areas, where gas-bearing strata are believed to be much shallower.
The president's Supreme Decree No. 2366 from 2015 authorised oil and gas production from most protected areas and specifically exempted exploration wells from the usual Environmental Impact Assessment procedures.
All in all, now eleven of the nation's protected areas have been opened – rather arbitrarily - for oil and gas exploration, by the stroke of a pen.
The Bolivian people do not let this happen easily. The residents of the Tariquía National Reserve for Flora and Fauna in the southern Bolivian federal state of Tarija have had enough. For more than two months, they have now blocked the only access road to a new exploration frontier.
They have fought running battles with police trying to smash through the barricades. They are trying to protect one of the last remaining extensive stands of sub-Andean mountain forests.
The forest is an important headwater for major rivers in Bolivia and Argentina. Humidity rising from the forested mountain slopes drive the climate engine that is feeding rain to the lucrative agriculture in their state.
All this has brought local activists powerful friends and vicious enemies alike. Can they succeed?
On a remote bridge over the muddy waters of the small river Los Lapachos in Chiquiacá Norte, local farmer families gathered under a rugged blue tarpaulin donated by a friendly trucker. This make-shift resistance camp blocks the only access to the strategic part of the 260,000 hectares nature reserve.
Earlier in the year, the police broke through another blockade further down the road. In a show of force, they accompanied company officials from the Brazilian PETROBRAS to enter the reserve.
After a tense stand-off, the villagers signed a deal with the authorities: consultation first, exploration later. This principle is in fact enshrined in the Bolivian Constitution and spelled out in detail in the environmental laws of the country.
But contracts with the exploration company had already been signed even before the Environmental Impact Assessment study was drafted. Some selected local farmers were asked to sign papers for a donation of free stoves and gas bottles, only to find out later that they indeed had signed off their ancestral lands to gas exploration.
The Bolivian state under president Morales is automatically majority shareholder in each and every oil and gas venture in Bolivia. The national Department of Oil and Gas is effectively controlling and at the same time shareholder of the industry.
The minister in charge, Luis Albert Sánchez, is celebrating victory after victory, promising a new Abu Dhabi in the mountains.
But despite enthusiastic support from government, production rates are declining, as the existing fields in the east of the country are quickly running dry. Exploration has become excessively expensive.
The last exploration borehole Boyuy X-2 reached 7,963 m, the deepest borehole on the South American continent, before it had to be abandoned, dry and cold. This came as a shock after President Morales had publicly announced it would drill into “a sea of gas”.
After such spectacular failure, the industry is looking west, into the foothills of the Andean mountain range, where due to extensive folding, the gas-bearing strata are believed to be much closer to surface.
Twenty to thirty years ago these mountain ranges were mostly declared nature reserves, due to their eminent ecological importance.
Nature reserves like the Reserva Nacional de Flora y Fauna Tariquía, the Parque Nacional de la Serranía del Aguaragüe, the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory and several others further north are all in the potential extension zone of the industry.
Many of these parks therefore already had a resident agricultural population when they were proclaimed. There are serious human impacts with cattle ranching and slash-and-burn farming (“chaqueo”) the most damaging interventions, besides local and selective logging for local furniture making and building purposes.
Thus, these sensitive and essential areas were earmarked for ecological restoration and conservation.
The previous minister in the Presidency, Juan Ramón Quintana, called fracking an attack on the environment, but the Government has since U-turned in allowing fracking.
The industry itself is more careful. It has learnt its lesson and avoided the world fracking at all cost. These industries maintain that until now, hydraulic fracturing has not been employed, but many of the new exploration targets like the Los Monos Formation are in fact shale-dominated formations, whereas all earlier gas fields came from conventional sandstone deposits.
Only one Canadian company (Cancambria Energy Corp) has openly admitted to prepare for shale-gas targets.
Matters in Bolivia are generally complex. Local government authorities and some residents are furious that the income of oil and gas production is not evenly distributed between producing and non-producing areas.
The impact of this resource curse can be felt everywhere. Decades of hard lobbying by some industries and some states have left a legacy of uneven distribution of the spoil.
In particular, new production areas get the lion’s share of environmental impacts but less or no benefits at all from the income. Thus, the lobbying gets harder every time.
In spring 2019, the two gas producing provinces of O’Connor and Arce twice called for general strikes. All life came to a halt, government closed, business stayed closed, schools didn’t open, crippling its own economy.
The discussion has reached such fever pitch that some local residents of the Reserve of Tariquía offered to drop their resistance against gas exploration, if they only would get their fair share of the proceeds.
This has divided the resistance, and local government is trying to do its best to deepen the differences in the camp.
But Bolivians have lived through decades of political lobbying. Many ordinary peasants and their leaders have such sharp political acumen, a tradition of tolerant political debate and organizational discipline that can weather half-hearted attacks on their integrity.
Solidarity is not an empty phrase. For them, the struggle for the Reserve is also one for their dignity (they were never consulted), their survival (they have seen the impacts just next door) and unity (they refuse to let them be divided).
Local activists are supported by a growing network of environmentalists, churches, student organizations and climate activists under the slogan “Don’t touch Tariquía” (Tariquía No Se Toca!”).
Their dedicated, disciplined and creative resistance took both the industry and the Government by surprise.
In the long years of “Evo rule”, government has stifled civic activism to the minimum. Repression of critical NGOs is vicious.
This was once a new wave of brave environmentalism that ties in with the struggle for genuine indigenous empowerment and the climate change movement gaining momentum also in Bolivia, where the impact is already felt sharply.
During the last months, resisters and their supporters have scored important gains. The police and the corporate officials have withdrawn. The ruling party “Movement for Socialism” (MAS) is afraid of more public unrest ahead of the forthcoming elections in October 2019.
This time, the government's lead is marginal and has long left the comfort zone of earlier elections.
In the state of Tarija, opposition parties govern. They put every spanner they can find into the workings of central Government which then retaliates by withholding support or funding only white elephants.
But oil and gas exploration and environmental impact assessment licenses are a national task. Thus, the Morales Presidency has given the green light for gas exploration in the Reserve.
It took local lawmakers several months to finally even get a copy of the Environmental License, a public document under Bolivian law. What they found was a glossy and voluminous document of 1746 pages, describing the environmental impact on the drill site and the access road.
It only records a few water samples, presents nice, colorful maps and copy-and-paste data from other sites. Such a “study” does not do justice to the impact of invasive exploration and even less of gas production facilities of gas would the exploration be successful.
Dearth of data
The value of this ecologically important nature reserve has not been duly appreciated. There is a dearth of hard data on the ecosystem of the Reserve. Biodiversity profiles are outdated, forest resources are not mapped, land use patterns have not been studied, there is no climate research, no micro-seismic studies, nor is there a geological map of any detail available.
In the absence of all this, the state-run National Service for Protected Areas (Servicio Nacional de Áreas Protegidas, SERNAP) simply changed the Management Plan in 2014 to allow the gas exploration in areas that were suddenly of less importance to the conservation goals.
Since then, SERNAP has been effectively dismantled of its political clout to protect the areas under its auspices.
The new Management Plan has never been published, the Management Board has not convened, and key positions have remained vacant for years.
Today, this large area avails of less than 20 rangers, ill-equipped and poorly funded, to control an area larger than the island of Mauritius.
In this complex situation, the state Universidad Autonoma Jose Misael Saracho (UAJMS) in Tarija has offered to bring some sanity into the heated debate.
It started from the observation that the environmental impact studies presented by the exploration applicant are deficient and cannot be taken for granted, as hardly any base-line data exists to allow for a reliable modelling of the impacts on a largely unknown ecosystem.
Under such conditions it is not prudent to continue with invasive exploration activities, until their impacts can be effectively modelled and assessed.
The university has therefore requested the help of the German Senior Expert Service (SES) to draft an interdisciplinary and intercultural research proposal to fill some of the most glaring gaps: a study on water quality, on micro-climates, on forest resources and fauna biodiversity, in order to allow the approximate value of environmental services rendered by nature reserve to the local and regional economy.
This is an exceptional window of opportunity as the exploration activities are suspended due to the brave resistance of the local residents and the political maneuvers of the Bolivian Government.
The government has agreed to hold new community consultation, probably only in 2020. Such a real community dialogue must be based on facts and figures and their appropriate interpretation.
The local resistance of a few farmers and their families has so far withheld permanent damage from the Reserve.
Let us hope that they can maintain their militant stand even through the harsh Bolivian winter approaching and against all attempts to split the movement. They need international support.
The farmers also need practical and material support, which can be channeled through David Porcel at WhatsApp: +591 70226231, or through the farmer’s organization Subcentral campesino de Tariquia, c/o Yenny Mesa Valdez at WhatsApp: +591 72969755.
Dr Stefan Cramer is a retired environmental geologist, currently working with the voluntary German Senior Expert Service (SES) as a consultant to the University of Tarija.