Interviews in the Bolivian Chaco: Indigenous peoples and natural resources

Map of the Chaco region in south east Bolivia

Map of the Chaco region in south east Bolivia

22 April 2012

Dario Kenner, Camiri

Updates on Bolivia:


Here are some interviews I did when I was visiting the Chaco region in south eastern Bolivia. The interviews are only with a few people so they do not cover every perspective to be found in the Chaco but the views below do give an insight into some of the major issues facing the region. The Bolivian Chaco covers the regions (departmentos) of Santa Cruz, Tarija and Chuquisaca.

Interview: Cesar Aguilar, President: Council of Guaraní Captianes – Department of Tarija

I was born in an Yucal where there are conflicts over oil wells. I have never really studied. I only went to school for three years. All my experience comes from participating in local assemblies and meetings. Every two years there are elections between the four local Guaraní assemblies in the Tarija department to decide who is President of the Council of Guaraní Captianes. I represent 83 communities. We are part of the national structure of the Guaraní Peoples Assembly (APG).

Oil and gas extraction in indigenous territories

The government wants to approve a new Hydrocarbons Law that does not include consultation (the right of indigenous peoples to prior consultation). The indigenous territory (TCO) needs to be respected. It is our Casa Grande because we live, work and die there. In our territories we harvest fruit from the forest, we have honey, we hunt and have meat for a week. This means we do not buy these products because we don´t have the money but also because we have them there. We do not sell timber, we look after the forest. They have always said we (indigenous communities) are lazy but there are many examples of successful livestock rearing projects that show this is not true.

In the Aguaragüe which is an indigenous territory and a national park we are struggling against the oil companies. Since many years ago over 36 oil wells have been abandoned that contaminate the water, soil and air. They still leak oil. Our Guaraní brothers are watering their crops with this water and sometimes their crops die. This is why we want action. The government signs many agreements but nothing ever happens. They say we are against the process in the country but this is not true.

First we want them to clear up the harm they have done to the Aguaragüe and to see if they can change the way of exploring which is with dynamite every 100 metres because this causes many problems. In some communities they have to dig wells elsewhere because there is no water. We are not against oil wells and the progress of this country but there should be territory management plans and they should look at other ways of doing exploration.

Cesar Aguilar, President of Council of Guaraní Captianes, Department of Tarija (credit: Dario Kenner)

Cesar Aguilar, President of Council of Guaraní Captianes, Department of Tarija (credit: Dario Kenner)

What has happened with the agrarian reform in recent years?

The government says that the indigenous peoples in the lowlands have 86 hectares per person but it is not like this. In Tarija we do not have enough land to live on. People have lots of 15-20 metres squared but that is to just to live, where will our children live? Now we end up renting what is our land. We call on the government to finalise the process of land titling of indigenous territories (TCOs).

What happens is that people from outside know the system and know when to occupy a piece of land that has been identified as not being used. They are campesinos, colonizadores, people from outside (terceros). Our ancestors were born and died there. How can we live well (Vivir Bien) when some have land and others do not? Our problem is not with the landowners who do cattle ranching, it is with these people who arrive and occupy land (terceros).

Relations with the Evo Morales government

We are quite worried by the current government discourse. Almost all the Bolivian people supported this government for change. What kind of change did we want? We thought there would be a different way of doing things. We did not want to have bosses anymore. We wanted more government attention for indigenous peoples, and support for land and housing but this has not happened. We have signed many agreements such as in 2010 over the Aguaragüe national park but they are never implemented. Almost all the hydrocarbons are in indigenous territories. The right to consultation must be complied with so indigenous peoples can decide yes or no to these projects.


Interview: Erick Arauz, Advisor to indigenous members of Tarija Departmental Assembly

Erick Arauz, Advisor to indigenous members of Tarija Departmental Assembly (credit: Dario Kenner)

Erick Arauz, Advisor to indigenous members of Tarija Departmental Assembly (credit: Dario Kenner)

Can you tell me about the participation of indigenous peoples in the Tarija Departmental Assembly?

There are thirty members of the Departmental Assembly in total with 6 indigenous members: 3 assembly members and 3 suplentes (deputy members who vote when the assembly member is absent) who represent the Guaraní, Wenayek and Tapiete peoples. The current President of the Departemental Assembly is Justino Sambra,  a member of the Guaraní peoples. They do not represent the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism party led by President Evo Morales). They were elected based on their norms and procedures (usos y custumbres) in line with the new Bolivian Constititution (approved in 2009) which means they did not participate in an election like in representative democracy, they were elected directly by their communities. (Background information on April 2010 regional elections)

What would you say are the main issues facing the Chaco?

The hydrocarbons industry. I don´t know if we would say for good or for bad but the main reserves of oil and gas are found in the Chaco. These departments (regions) such as Tarija and Chuquisaca receive direct compensation via a tax because the extraction happens there. In the case of Tarija it receives 11% , around 3 billion Bolivianos (around US$437 million). The issue is that the oil wells and industry are in indigenous territories. They do not receive any money at all for this. The others think they own the resources and territory. They discriminate and marginalise indigenous peoples.

Did indigenous communal territories (TCOs) exist before the oil companies arrived?

The hydrocarbons are inside TCOs. The process began at the same time. Since the approval of the INRA law in 1996 (National Institute for Agrarian Reform) the Guarani people presented their demand for their territory. The oil and gas activity started in the mid-1990s. At that time there were no laws even though International Labour Organisation Convention 169 was ratified by Bolivia. It was never complied with. These companies along with the local authorities and elites abused the rights of indigenous peoples.

Have things changed under the government of President Evo Morales?

Since the government won the 2005 election we thought we would be able to resolve ancestral problems such as land, territory and the oil companies. In its first years the government had an aggresive policy towards the oil companies. But now during its second term (2009 – present) the government have favoured the oil companies even more than before and left behind the discourse on rights of indigenous peoples. In fact now they even say the indigenous peoples blackmail, oppose and delay development. They use the same discourse of previous governments that we always questioned because it represented the interests of the elites.

How has the relationship between the Guaraní Peoples Assembly (APG)  and the current government changed over time?

The APG has its own dynamics in the different regions it operates in: Santa Cruz, Chuquisaca and Tarija. The APG has had a relationship with the government based on putting forward proposals. Sometimes it has managed to influence the content of some laws. As the APG leaders say it is between government and government (Guaraní indigenous communities and structures).

Before the TIPNIS march (against the road project) the relations were tense because the government had not fulfilled previous promises from an agreement signed in 2009 on the issue of hydrocarbons, autonomy and territory. The government was only partially dealing with these problems and so this is partly why the APG joined the march and put the issue of the Aguaragüe national park on the agenda (list of demands of the anti-road march). The TIPNIS march was not just about TIPNIS, it was for the defence of indigenous territories.

There are social movements allied to the MAS who want to destroy all the progress made on the rights of indigenous peoples, in particular on the land ownership. The vision of the APG is to put forward proposals, if the government fulfils them that is fine, but if not then there are problems. The APG has also been critical of the government. Two years ago Celso Padilla (President of the APG) told Evo that first he needed to be decolonised. The demands of the Guaraní people, for example on land, are not being met. But the APG will always be open to dialogue and working together.

During the (anti-road) march the APG returned to the Chaco region. The media distorted what happened to say the APG left the march. But this is not true, the APG returned to the Chaco but supported the march from there.

In your opinion what is Vivir Bien?

For me it is living in harmony with Mother Earth and the beings around you. From the indigenous perspective rivers, hills and stones have life and we need to know how to live in harmony with them. But this does not mean we say no to “development”. The question is about what kind of development model we want? As a country are we going to continue living from hydrocarbons or do we want to change the paradigm? How can the wealth we have be distributed equally and not just in a the hands of a few? For example Tarija department receives around 3 billion Bolivianos but there is still poverty. There is investment in infrastructure, roads, bridges and cement. Why? Because when those administering the funds do the contracts they also benefit from them.


Interview: Aniceto Ayala Lopez, Secretary of Climate Change and Environment, CIDOB (lowland indigenous movement CIDOB that represents 34 indigenous nations mainly in the Amazon and the Chaco)

Oil well in the Chaco, south east Bolivia

Oil well in the Chaco, south east Bolivia

I am from the Wenayek peoples in the South of Bolivia, the Tarija region part of the Bolivian Chaco. We have various experiences of consultation. We are around 6,000 people. This means we usually know what is happening in our territories. Our territories are not titled but they are recognised by decrees.

Can you tell me about the experiences with oil companies in your territories?

It was around ten years ago. Even though we didn´t know what the laws were in Bolivia but we made them respect us and our territory.  To begin with we didn´t know how to read in Spanish. TransSierra (company website) entered our land and had their camp and machines ready. We went with our leaders to see what was happening and they showed us all the documents including an environmental license from the Bolivian government and an Environmental Impact Study. We told them this was private property and they needed permission to be there. We said if they wanted to enter our territories then they needed to speak with us and that we would return the next day.

They turned up with the regional and municipal authorities,  the police and the army. They pressured and practically threatened us. We said to them “with all due respect to you police or army colonel we do not have a problem with you, if we do we will go to your offices or you will come to our homes. So we do not understand why we need to talk to you”. We told them that if they did not respond to us we said we would come back with more of us. We gave them 48 hours to take all their machinery and leave, and if they didn´t leave there would  be problems. If the police intervened it would mean there would be deaths and it would be the responsibility of the company. This is what is lacking in the TIPNIS. They need to take a firm decision. After this they said they wanted to dialogue. They told us that they had funds for compensation over 20 years and could build schools, hospitals etc.

What did you think when they offered you this compensation?

The positive thing was that we made them respect us, we did not cry or complain. We were not scared to make them respect us.  Anyone who enters our territory needs to speak to us. We received significant amounts of money, this was a lot of money for us, we had never ever seen this amount of money. Our indigenous social movement receives around US$80,000 – US$100,000 each year from the company TransSierra.

The negative aspect was the effect on our natural resources, we didn´t notice these impacts straight away. The most immediate impact was social. It does not matter if it is US$10 million or whatever. Indigenous leaders do not earn anything and then suddenly they have nice cars and have many things. So where did they get this from? This leads to mistrust and weakens the social movement. My regional social movement [the CIDOB is made up of around twelve regional movements that together represent 34 indigenous nations] is weaker than other regional movements precisely because of this. There start to be conflict between community leaders, communities, families and brothers. We need to find a way to stop this or slow it down. They corrupt us. How can we change this?

There are schools but there is no money to pay for teachers. There is the infrastructure but it does not work. There are no medicines or doctors. My people have had a very negative experience.

When I see the communities inside the TIPNIS I kind of already know what is going to happen. The government is giving out mobile phones, TV antennas, clothes etc. This does not improve the quality of life. It has not improved our quality of life.

What has been your experience of consultation?

In our experiences of consultation there are no set steps to take. Consultation means they need to explain what the impacts of the project will be and how they will recuperate the environment when they leave. But this does not happen after one meeting, it is process of various stages over a period of time. It means that people know when the machines arrive why they are there.

If they are going to enter our territories we do not want to end up with nothing. There is a beautiful discourse about self-determination but we also need to benefit, it has to be both. There is a tax on the profits of oil companies but this money never comes back to our communities.

We thought that with an indigenous government, a brother government things would improve. But we are worse off now. Because Evo he thinks he is an indigenous brother he can do whatever he wants, but it is not like that.

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