By Ricardo Herrera Farell
It hasn’t been without its challenges, but for the past four years, indigenous Guarani have been monitoring the social and environmental effects of the hydrocarbon industry operating on their native lands in the Bolivian Chaco.
Members of the monitoring committees are appointed by indigenous leaders from the more than 300 rural Guarani communities in the region, which includes the Santa Cruz, Tarija and Chuquisaca departments.
The 55 socio-environmental monitors trained since 2007 are tasked by their communities with evaluating the state of the local flora, fauna, water resources, soil and air, near areas where oil and gas companies are operating.
For more than a decade, the Guarani People’s Assembly, or APG, had been debating how best to monitor seismic tests, construction of gas pipelines and other exploration and drilling activities in the hydrocarbon industry, the main source of revenue for this region. In 2004, the assembly created the Technical Social-Environmental Unit.
“Nevertheless, all the reports and complaints that we lodged with government agencies fell on deaf ears,” said Nelson Bartolo Camargo, head of the APG’s natural resources and environment arm.
It appeared that this would change in 2005 with the passage of the Hydrocarbons Law, which established the creation of two monitoring committees — one local and one national — with representation from government institutions and from the indigenous communities, who would be in charge of creating reports on the oil industry’s environmental impact.
Two years later, a presidential decree regulated the Social-Environmental Indigenous and Campesino Community Monitoring on the hydrocarbon industry.
“They formed the national committee, but it didn’t work in the end. No one followed the decree, but it helped us establish agreements between the APG and companies, said Bartolo, one of the members of the indigenous monitoring group, whose first assignment was to observe the construction of the gas pipeline between Rio Grande and Yacuiba.
The monitors receive a 20-day training session by the AGP’s Natural Resources and Environment Secretariat.
Each member of the monitoring team has a worksheet to inspect wastewater treatment facilities, recycling, oil and gas fields and plants as well as storing data about the surrounding communities’ social, economic and cultural state.
“Thanks to these monitors, we have been able to detect serious problems that many times were not noticed — or didn’t want to be noticed — by those running the projects,” said Bartolo, and he said sometimes the companies did not warm to the team.
Pedro Castillo, a Guarani from the Iupaguazú community who has monitored the state-owned Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos, or YPFB, oil field Aquio in Santa Cruz, said that “being a monitor has helped me understand environmental issues better. There are always problems with oil spills and other products in the watercourses, unnecessary felling of trees, and clearing of paths in places where it should not be done, because the companies try to minimize their costs at nature’s expense.”
In 2008, the Charagua Norte community in Santa Cruz created a network with 15 indigenous monitors who have been reporting on the potential environmental impacts of the ongoing seismic tests in YPFB’s Tacobo and Tajibo fields.
“Now we want for at least one of them to be trained as a technician at middle- and senior- level in socio-environmental monitoring”, says Ronald Gómez, a community leader.
Although training mid-level Guarani monitors has not been possible yet, an agreement has been reached between the APG and the Gabriel René Moreno University in Santa Cruz, the Ministry of Hydrocarbons and the Government of Canada for a six-month training to 26 monitors representatives from each of the Guarani communities who will graduate as experts in socio-environmental monitoring, consultation and social participation. The course began Sept. 4.
“This is the first step we want to take, but we won’t stop until there are better trained monitors from the Guarani community so they can continue fighting for our people,” said Bartolo.