Bolivia: "It's our right to conduct exploration in protected areas, and we're going to do it aggressively”
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Bolivia: "It's our right to conduct exploration in protected areas, and we're going to do it aggressively”

For many who care about Bolivia’s natural world, recent years have been a period of profound disillusionment. Optimism has been replaced by concern at glaring contradictions in the government’s environmental policy-making, contradictions which threaten to tear up some of Bolivia’s most fragile and bio diverse ecosystems.

These contradictions were exemplified in a series of three decrees passed by the Bolivian parliament in the past six months. Each decree stripped back a layer of the protections safeguarding Bolivia’s national parks, opening them up to oil and gas exploration.

Two of these: Decrees 2298 and Decree 2915, weakened the capacity for indigenous groups to oppose or influence oil and gas projects on their territory.

The third, Decree 2366, transformed the rules protecting Bolivia’s national parks. It forces SERNAP, the country’s National Park Authority, to adapt their programs of protection to meet with any agreements made between the government and extraction companies.

In effect, following the discovery of gas reserves within a protected area, a company can demand that the authority reconfigure the park in line with their criteria rather than that of conservation.

Drilling for oil?

“I felt very frustrated, and very impotent,” says César Pérez, regional director of an environmental NGO in Santa Cruz, of his reaction to the new laws. “I think it’s a deception after what we promised around themes of sustainability.”

In this instance, Bolivia’s government has been quick to follow up its written word with practical action. In June, the Vice-Minister for the Environment announced hydrocarbon exploration in eight of Bolivia’s 22 national parks.

“We’ve made a decision. It’s our right to conduct exploration in protected areas, and we’re going to do it aggressively,” President Evo Morales announced to the 5th International Oil and Gas Congress on July 21.

In light of legislation such as the Law of Mother Earth, such language seems incredible. How could Morales and his party, MAS, have reversed their position so dramatically?

But while these recent changes are profound, they do not represent as radical a break with the past as it at first appears. Fossil fuels such as oil and gas, as well as minerals from the country’s mines, have been an intrinsic part of the political vision followed by MAS from the start.

To understand this, we have to go back to 2003, and the beginning of the MAS administration’s rise to power.

A dramatic victory

The party’s dramatic election victory in 2006 followed three years of persistent social conflict. Two Presidents had been forced out by mass unrest over the use of Bolivia’s natural gas reserves. In 2003, 80 people were killed in protests against plans to pump gas to Chile, igniting smouldering nationalist anger over the loss of Bolivia’s coastline to its southern neighbor during the War of the Pacific.

One of Morales’ first actions on coming to power was to part-nationalize the gas fields. He then forced extraction companies to re-negotiate their contracts with the state, and raised corporate tax on oil and gas refineries from 18 percent to 82 percent. The increased revenue was invested in social projects such as in schools, health clinics, roads and redistribution programs.

The MAS approach reflects how natural resources, and especially gas, are understood by many in Bolivia. As the anthropologist Bret Gustafson has written, there are “very different meanings of things like “gas” and “oil” in the North (where it is easy to oppose SUVs, coal power, tar-sands pipelines, and big oil) and the South, or Bolivia at least, where words like “natural gas” are as likely to provoke progressive fervor for basic improvements in daily life as they are environmentalist disgust.”

This outlook demands not that fossil fuels are left in the ground, but the opposite: that they are extracted and used for the benefit of the Bolivian people.

Such utilization is placed in opposition to the exploitation of natural resources by colonial powers, powers that have grown fat ever since Francisco Pizarro’s Spanish Conquistadors began extorting gold from Emperor Atahualpa’s Inca Empire in 1532.

Today, the government employs a similar argument to justify expanding oil and gas exploration into Bolivia’s national parks.

This is the second article in a three-part series. Read the first instalment: 

Bolivia: Who wins in Evo Morales’ battle between environmentalism and extractivism?

See also:

Water shortage in Sucre highlights Bolivia’s ongoing crisis

In the end, Bolivia’s access to the sea may come from Uruguay