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Concerns for water in Bolivia

By Chris Hufstader
Eduardo Chumira, 50, says PlusPetrol detonated explosives for a seismic test along a path 50 meters from his home in the village of Ivitiporo, in Charagua Norte. Photo: Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America

Diligent review of plans for gas exploration help ethnic Guarani people defend their rights.

Taputa is a small village on the main road through a region called Charagua Norte in southern Bolivia’s Chaco region. It’s a dry place, and on a blistering hot day in early December farmers like Julian Ayreyu, 46, await the spring rains so they can plant maize and beans.

Water is a constant worry. The Guarani indigenous people rely on springs for water in the dry season. “Some of the springs are drying up,” Ayreyu says.

Water was on Ayreyu’s mind when he attended meetings with other leaders of the Guarani People’s Assembly that represents Charagua Norte, and the Argentinian oil company PlusPetrol in 2012. PlusPetrol had acquired a concession from the Bolivian government to explore for natural gas in Charagua Norte, and they were notifying the Guarani leaders of their intention to do seismic tests, which involve detonating explosives buried three meters underground in a grid pattern across the countryside.

Of immediate concern to farmers in Taputa was what would happen to a nearby river on which they rely for water. But Ayreyu also learned that one seismic line went right through the school yard at the primary school in Taputa. “We asked the company to move the seismic line 20 kilometers,” Ayreyo explained in the yard outside his home. He says the company refused to deviate that far from its plans. “They moved it 400 meters around the school, and then back to the original line – right through the rest of the town.” After the seismic test, Ayreyu says the stream near his home has altered course. “It used to come through this area here,” he says, motioning towards his house. “Now it goes over there and just disappears.”

Filling the governance gap

Despite the fact that the Guarani people got a communal land title to their 70,000-hectare territory, the government maintains mineral rights, which it can grant to companies like PlusPetrol. The Guarani people in Charagua Norte have a right to be consulted about the company’s activities, but unfortunately the government is not monitoring the agreements between the company and individual communities. As a result, community members are struggling to get all the information they need to negotiate on an equal basis with a powerful company.

Ariel Teran, who works for Oxfam’s partner in Bolivia called CEJIS, has been involved in training local monitors who help leaders like Ayreyu to negotiate changes in the seismic lines and other matters. “The community filed their agreements with the company at the Ministry of Hydrocarbons in La Paz,” Teran says, standing outside the school. “They showed the documents to the company staff, to make sure they moved the seismic line around the school.”

These types of local monitoring measures are essential in Bolivia. “The government is not checking the agreements,” Teran says. “There’s an empty space between the company and the government, and the monitors are trying to fill that empty space.”

CEJIS is advocating for stronger laws that will require the government and the various oil, gas, and mining companies to get the permission of local communities before they can exploit natural resources – especially in indigenous territories like Charagua Norte. Meanwhile, the leaders of the Guarani people are pushing the government and companies to give them full information about the environmental impact of any gas exploration or pipeline construction – and enough time to consider the implications. “We have a rule,” says Faustino Benites, a monitor trained by CEJIS. “When the oil company requests anything, we need three months to hold meetings and consider their requests.” This deliberate approach to working with PlusPetrol has helped the Guarani people detect mistakes in project proposals – or uncover unacceptable details like conducting seismic tests at a primary school.

Ronald Andres, 28, is a teacher at the school in Taputa. “The gas is under ground here, we live in rich lands,” he says, standing just down the road from the school. “But communities are very poor, and the government seems to forget about us.”

“There are 30 communities here, we are always together. For any decision, we are always consulting.”