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Fruit trees and respect missing in Puerto Viejo

By Chris Hufstader
Martha Cuellar points out the area where she used to have 25 fruit trees. They were destroyed when PlusPetrol installed a pipeline in her yard. Photo: Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America

A woman in Bolivia is on the losing end of a deal with a gas pipeline company.

Martha Cuellar’s community leaders negotiated a bad deal few years ago when they accepted $3,000 for a 30-year agreement that allows an Argentinian company called PlusPetrol to run a natural gas pipeline through her village – and unbeknownst to her, right through her yard.

The 56-year-old farmer from Puerto Viejo got a nasty surprise when she came home one day in 2011 and found PlusPetrol digging up 25 of her orange, avocado, mango, and tangerine trees. She was not aware the pipeline would be going through her land, just a few meters from her home.

When Cuellar describes the scene that day, she waves her arms around indicating the area where she had all her fruit trees, now just barren, sun-baked earth. “I was really angry, I was crying. I asked them, ‘who gave you the authority to do this?’”

“I saw the fruit trees all cut down on the ground…and I saw my cow was injured in the pipeline hole…the engineer promised me compensation and help, but he never came back.”

“They even took away all the fruit trees they had cut down, all that wood,” she says.

On the front line

Puerto Viejo is on the front line in a struggle for basic rights being waged by the indigenous Guarani people. In 2003 they got a vast 70.45 thousand-hectare part of their ancestral territory called Charagua Norte designated as an “original community territory” (known as a TCO for its Spanish initials). This designation and other international standards give the Guarani people the right to control the natural resources there. The government says it owns the subsurface resources and can concede them to companies, but the Guarani people have to be consulted about any exploration or exploitation.

The leaders of the Guarani have been working for the last four years to organize a network of trained social and environmental monitors who can help communities like Puerto Viejo negotiate with PlusPetrol. Ariel Teran, who works at the Center for Legal Studies and Social Investigation (known as CEJIS--a long-time Oxfam partner that trained the monitors in Charagua Norte), says the negotiations between the Guarani people and PlusPetrol is an important test case for all 36 indigenous TCOs in Bolivia.

Teran says PlusPetrol is not willing to renegotiate the agreement it signed with the leaders of Puerto Viejo. So the Guarani monitors decided to study the negative effects of the pipeline construction, and then met with the company to deliver their findings.

“The company was concerned because they knew we were going to inform the Hydrocarbons Ministry,” Teran says. “We met with PlusPetrol and presented examples of damages, step by step. Three weeks later the company started to repair the damage.”

The current community leader (known as the “mburuvicha” in the Guarani language) in Puerto Viejo is Lucio Coca. He says company paid the community in bricks: Each family got about 1,000.

Martha Cuellar is using some of her bricks to border a garden. Others are in a beehive oven, in which she bakes bread. She says there are not enough to build a new house, which she could use: She and her family sleep in a wood-framed structure with mud and tarp walls.

Other communities in Charagua Norte have noted the situation in Puerto Viejo and are working closely with CEJIS and the indigenous leaders and monitors in the TCO who were trained with support from Oxfam. PlusPetrol intends to do extensive seismic testing in 2014, and community members are concerned about how explosive charges will affect their water supply.