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Back | Programme Area: Identities, Conflict and Cohesion (2000 - 2009)

Natural Gas, Indigenous Mobilization and the Bolivian State

This study examines the relationship between natural gas extraction, state restructuring and political mobilization among indigenous peoples in Bolivia. Natural gas has emerged both as Bolivia’s major source of export revenue and as a source of political tensions involving regional governments, the central state, transnational hydrocarbons firms and indigenous peoples. During the 1990s, the Bolivian government, under President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, passed a series of neoliberal measures designed to attract international investment to gas and oil development, and facilitate hydrocarbons exports. Opposition to the government’s plan to export liquefied natural gas to the United States erupted into violent protest in October 2003, forcing Sánchez de Lozada out of office. Continued protests brought down the subsequent government and led eventually to the election in December 2005 of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous campesino president. Protests over the management and distribution of benefits derived from natural gas extraction contributed directly to Morales’ election, and the associated ascendancy of indigenous and campesino social movements as political actors within the state, in contrast to their previous oppositional position external to the state apparatus. In Bolivia, the interests of dominant indigenous groups have become “mainstreamed” in political discourse. But Bolivia’s indigenous population is large and diverse, and divisions remain between the numerous and politically influential Quechua and Aymara peoples of the country’s Andean west, and the numerous, smaller indigenous groups of the eastern lowlands.

As a case study, the paper focuses on the impacts of natural gas operations of the Spanish firm Repsol YPF on the Guaraní community of Cumandaroti, located on the Itika Guasu Tierra Comunitaria de Orígen (TCO/communal lands), in the southern department of Tarija. The Guaraní are Bolivia’s third largest indigenous group, and the largest group in the eastern lowlands. In spite of their relatively strong political organization and close contacts with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), other indigenous organizations and social movements, the Guaraní have borne the brunt of much of the oil and natural gas development in Bolivia. This is exemplified by the case of the Guaraní who live on the massive Margarita gas field in the eastern Tarija department. Residents of Guaraní community of Cumandaroti, located on the Itika Guasu TCO, are affected by fumes, noise and water pollution emanating from gas extraction activities, and their crops and livestock have also been harmed. In spite of international financial institution (IFI) policies that require oil and gas firms to consult with affected indigenous peoples (in accordance with International Labour Organization Convention No. 169 and Bolivian law 1257), Repsol YPF and its subcontractors did not adequately consult with Guaraní community members regarding plans to extract natural gas from their lands. Moreover, it is shown that neither the IFIs nor the Bolivian state exercised adequate oversight authority. This situation has led to several protests by Guaraní residents of the Itika Guasu TCO and the Guaraní Peoples’ Assembly (APG), who have demanded that Repsol YPF pay restitution.

Bolivia is, in many ways, a unique case. As a majority indigenous country with a long history of indigenous political mobilization, strong social movements and weak government, its experiences are not easily transferred to other countries. If Bolivia holds lessons for indigenous movements elsewhere, it is more in the way indigeneity has been reconceptualized in the country than as an example to follow. The strength of Evo Morales’ Movement to Socialism (MAS) party lies not in its “authentically” indigenous character, but rather in the very plurality of the way it represents and reworks what it means to be indigenous in Bolivia. Indigeneity, in this sense, serves to articulate ethnicity and class, rural and urban. This recognition points to the multiple ways of being indigenous. The Bolivian case demonstrates the possibility of forming transcendent, coalitional politics that cut across historical regional, ethnic and class-based divides. Such coalitions have played a crucial role in the ability of Bolivian social movements to limit the power of transnational firms to capture profits from gas exploitation, and may provide a powerful model for indigenous peoples elsewhere.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Jul 2008
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8194
    From: UNRISD