Bolivia: Focus on CER-DET Centre for Regional Studies of Tarija
introducing ruben cuba, oil campaigner
The Centre for Regional Studies of Tarija (CER-DET) is one of the first environmental NGOs in Bolivia, and has been campaigning for the rights and development of indigenous peoples in the Tarija region of southern Bolivia since 1990. We form part of a network of local, regional and international organizations and in 2002 we became a member of Friends of the Earth International. There are currently 25 full time members working with CER-DET, and we are actively seeking more funds to increase our range of activities.
I have been working with CER-DET for ten years now. The Guaraní used to be one of the most forgotten indigenous groups here in Bolivia. When we started working with them, the Guaraní worked as unpaid labour on big haciendas. Together we started a legal process to regain their ancestral lands and free them from this kind of "modern slavery". Though the legal struggle is not over yet, many things have changed for the Guaraní. Perhaps the most important is the change in mentality and consciousness: people are stating to get a grip on their own lives and feel they have the right to participate in civil society, just like other Bolivians.
After they had regained their land, the Guaraní started to become economically independent through small-scale corn production for local markets.
Another example of the attitude change is the way Guaraní leaders have recently started negotiations with the oil companies that have entered their territories. These oil companies are not the first to try to exploit the natural resources on Guaraní territory. First came the wood companies, and then the construction companies, who wanted to establish themselves on the shore of the Pilcomayo river. In 1994, together with CER-DET,the Guaraní began opposing any "development" activity that did not respect natural resources and involve local people in the decision-making process.
The impact of oil exploration and exploitation activities in the area is huge. There are both environmental impacts (excessive cutting of trees for road construction, water pollution, burning gas and chemical waste) and social and cultural impacts (alcoholism, prostitution for oil company workers, destruction of families). Furthermore, the oil companies tend to monopolize what are supposed to be community services, for example health services. The oil company pays extra money to health posts and hospitals in order to safeguard healthcare for the oil workers. Hence health workers have less time and services to offer to local people.
Our idea is that local people should learn how to monitor the negative impact of oil activities in their territory and protect their natural resources. Environmental education and awareness is crucial. To this end, Acción Ecológica, an Ecuadorian NGO experienced in dealing with oil companies, will lead a workshop on the introduction of a communal environmental monitoring system in indigenous Guaraní communities. Guaraní leaders from Itika Guasu and Yacuiba will participate.
International networking is important: we know that we are not the only ones defining a strategy to cope with oil companies in the area. We learn a lot from other NGOs and are open to any type of discussion or exchange of information.
We are waging an important battle and will support the Guaraní people the best we can.
Two of our long-standing objectives have been to pursue land rights for the Guarani, Weenayek and Tapiete peoples, and to ensure that any exploitation of natural resources on their lands provides them with adequate benefits and safeguards.
I am currently involved with action for the Guaraní people of Itika Guasu, where an international oil company, Repsol-Maxus has, for been prospecting for gas for five years. Two years ago they discovered the biggest gas reserve in Bolivia. The Bolivian government is negotiating the sale of the gas to the United States. A large bridge is being built across the Pilcomayo river to provide transport infrastructure, and it is rumoured that 20 oil pits will soon be dug. Despite the fact that the Bolivian government recognized as recently as 1996 that Itika Guasu belongs to the Guaraní people, the oil company has, to date, not sought the involvement or cooperation of the local people. They did, however, offer a "development project" of bee-keeping as compensation.
The Guaraní leaders were initially eager for any type of project, since there is a lack of income in the region and people barely have enough to survive. The oil companies tried to take advantage of the general lack of knowledge about the negative impacts of oil activities. CER-DET has been working to educate local people and to train them to monitor environmental impacts and to spread their findings both locally and to the outside world. The result is that local Guaraní leaders refused the imposed bee-keeping project, arguing that it was not what local people wanted and that the project was not feasible since the necessary water reserves were being used by the oil company for construction works.
With our help, local leaders are drawing up an indigenous development plan and are actively negotiating for compensation from the oil companies for any damage in their territory -- rather than accepting money from the oil company for small-scale individual projects. Since the Guarani consider that they are unable to prevent some form of gas exploitation, they feel that the best approach is to take control of the form that the exploitation takes. They have, therefore, rejected the bee-keeping offer and have informed the oil company that future development on their land should only proceed in accordance with a plan that they support and which gives them adequate compensation and environmental protection. The work continues.