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In Bolivian Amazon, oil blocks encroach deep into protected areas

  • Investigative journalism alliance ManchadosXelPetróleo has found that oil blocks auctioned off by the Bolivian government overlap with protected areas in the country’s Amazonian region, in some cases up to 100%.
  • Oil exploration blocks currently overlap with 21 of the 53 national and subnational protected areas located in the Bolivian Amazon.
  • While there haven’t been any oil spills, exploration activities have nevertheless caused environmental damage in the region.
  • The Tacana Indigenous peoples in Madidi National Park are among those affected by these activities, and warn of even greater damage to come.

For years, the Tacana Indigenous people in the Bolivian Amazon have warned of dire environment impacts from oil exploration activities in their forests, located in Madidi National Park and Manuripi Nature Reserve. These activities are grounded in two executive orders, known as supreme decrees, issued in 2015 and 2022, which environmental activists and scientists say pose a direct blow to Bolivia’s protected areas by opening up parks for oil exploitation.

In May 2015, then-president Evo Morales issued Supreme Decree 2366, authorizing oil activity on 24 million hectares (59 million acres) of land, or around 22% of Bolivia’s territory — including national parks. Prior to this, the country had never allowed companies to explore and exploit within these key ecosystems.

Landscape in Madidi National Park. Image by Radamir Sevillanos.

The journalism alliance ManchadosXelPetróleo has now found that oil exploration blocks currently overlap with 21 of the 53 national and subnational protected areas located in Bolivia’s Amazonian region, some of them entirely.

New territory for oil companies

When Supreme Decree 2366 was promulgated, negotiations began immediately with transnational companies to parcel out the blocks in the new oil frontier.

According to the Friends of Nature Foundation (FAN), a Bolivian organization that works on natural heritage conservation, the total area of oil blocks in the country’s Amazonian region has more than doubled since then. A geospatial analysis that it carried out with the Amazon Network of Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information (RAISG) showed the area allocated for oil blocks in the rainforest between 2012 and 2020 went from 7.3 million hectares to 15.7 million hectares (18 million acres to 38.7 million acres), accounting for a total of 76 blocks.

That’s more than half of the total area of oil blocks nationwide, which cover 28.3 million hectares (70 million acres). According to FAN, 27% of Bolivia’s protected areas are now at risk due to oil activity.

“All the new regulations open the door to territories where hydrocarbon activities have not usually been carried out, such as protected areas, whether national or subnational,” Marlene Quintanilla, director of research and knowledge sciences at FAN, told Mongabay Latam.

Jorge Campanini, a researcher at the Bolivian Documentation and Information Center (CEDIB), said nearly 17% of the land administered under SERNAP, the National Protected Areas Service, “is now an area of extractivism or where oil activities are carried out.”

According to a CEDIB investigation, 75% of Bolivia’s natural parks and integrated management areas overlap with oil concessions held by Spanish company Repsol, Brazilian state-owned company Petrobras, and the Bolivian-Venezuelan joint venture PetroAndina. The most affected protected areas in the Amazon region are Amboró and Madidi national parks, Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), and Pilón Lajas Biosphere Reserve.

Cloud forests in Amboró National Park. Image by Alfredo Romero.

The pressure on the Amazon region increased in February this year, when another executive order, Supreme Decree 4667, which issued, identifying new areas, mostly in the Amazon, for oil and gas exploration.

Indigenous opposition to oil extraction

Hermán Bascopé, vice president of the Tacana II Indigenous Communities of Río Madre de Dios, said the Bolivian government has carried out a “half-hearted consultation” to enter areas near the Beni and Nueva Esperanza rivers, both tributaries of the Madre de Dios, to carry out seismic surveys. He said the activity has polluted the rivers and destroyed the forests.

“The government entered our territory with false promises, saying it was going to implement the Mi Agua [My Water] program, Bascopé said, referring to a government project to provide access to drinking water. “Yet to this day we have no water.

“They cut Brazil nut trees even though they shouldn’t have done it,” he told Mongabay Latam and Bolivian newspaper El Deber. “Now, the consequences are evident. The rivers are polluted and the forest has been impacted.”

The Lliquimuni well was completed by PetroAndina, a joint venture of state-owned oil companies YPFB of Bolivia and PDVSA of Venezuela. Image courtesy of Agencia Boliviana de Información (ABI).

Bascopé said the oil companies have caused damage in the northern part of the department of La Paz and in the Pando region, on the border with Brazil. He added the rivers in the Madre Dios Basin contain traces of contaminants from the oil exploration activities, and that Brazil nut trees, the community’s main source of livelihood, are being felled to make way for the extraction of the “black gold” from the ground.

According to the analysis by ManchadosXelPetróleo, based on information from RAISG, the 21 protected areas in the Amazon where oil blocks overlap include those that have been completely subsumed by the blocks. Espejillos Natural Monument, for instance, now falls entirely within the boundaries of the Amboró-Espejos Norte oil block, while the Eva Eva–Mosetenes hydrographic basin protection zone and the Maniqui River headwaters municipal protected area, both lie almost fully (98%) inside the Sécure 19S oil block.

Espejillos Natural Monument. Image courtesy of El Deber.

The Bolivian state-owned oil company, YPFG, operates in all 21 of these protected areas; in eight of them, it’s a joint operator with a private company.

Bascopé says he continues to denounce the environmental impact taking place within Madidi and Manuripi parks, which are also subject to a high degree of overlap with oil blocks. He also continues to demand that Bolivian authorities carry out studies into levels of contamination in the Madre de Dios Basin. “We can see that there is an impact as a result of the oil issue and the irrational exploitation of gold,” he says.

In 2015, Bolivia’s YPFB signed $100 million in contracts with Chinese state-affiliated operators Sinopec International Petroleum Service Ecuador S.A. (Bolivia branch) and BGP for oil exploration in the Amazon.

They carried out the first of a series of seismic studies in Madre de Dios province, in the department of Pando, followed by the second in Abel Iturralde province, La Paz department. The third project was launched in Vaca Díez province, Beni department, and in Madre de Dios province.

“This project traces back to 2013, when the whole process began for what has been the largest seismic study in the country in the Madre de Dios Basin,” says Franklin Molina, the minister of hydrocarbons and energy. “This study was also entrusted to YPFB as part of the exploration plan and strategic mission of advancing north.”

But the oil exploration is a source of concern for the Tacana Indigenous people. According to Bascopé, veins of oil crisscross the forests; he says he can’t foresee what will happen once exploitation gets underway. “What will happen? We don’t know. The water is already affected, the fish are contaminated, our trees will be affected. Will we be able to harvest normally?” he asks.

The Tacana people have developed a microzoning approach that allows them to decide where to carry out an activity, project or undertaking. Image courtesy of WCS Bolivia.

No sanctions, only compensation

In 2019, the government of Evo Morales acknowledged the environmental impact of oil exploration on the Tacana Indigenous territory. It provided economic compensation to those affected, but never sanctioned the oil companies.

It awarded the Tacana II community 3 million bolivianos (about $435,000), based on a regulation that stipulates 1% of the total cost of a project must be paid when there are exploration plans.

Under the current president, Luis Arce, who previously served as Morales’s minister of economy, the government has also compensated the Tacana people in Pando, providing them with processing facilities for açaí, the Amazonian “super fruit” that’s popular in the U.S. and Europe.

“To say that we are satisfied, well, we aren’t that satisfied, but it’s something,” Bascopé says. “It wasn’t the compensation, but at least we have a sustainable project.”

Açaí fruits. Image courtesy of FAN.

Marco Octavio Rivera, an oil industry researcher who worked for more than 10 years for the League of Environmental Defense (LIDEMA), says Bolivia has to date avoided the kind of oil spills that characterize the industry in other countries. But he adds that exploration activities have affected various areas since the 1970s.

In Espejillos, for instance, next to Amboró National Park, exploratory drilling has resulted in a build-up of contaminated water, which should ideally be recovered, Rivera says. But this isn’t happening in Bolivia, he added.

Juan Carlos Catari, former president of the Santa Cruz School of Biologists, also calls the exploratory and seismic activities an environmental threat. Seismic surveys, in particular, are needed to pinpoint the location of oil deposits deep underground.

The oil companies do this, Catari says, by clearing strips of land 2 meters wide by 20 kilometers long (6 feet by 12 miles), then plant explosives 10 m (33 ft) deep along these paths. They then detonate the explosives, and the reflected waves paint a picture of the oil deposits beneath. “To do this, it is not only necessary to deforest roads, but also to build mobile camps, heliports and unloading areas,” Catari says.

He adds that seismic surveys also have another significant negative impact on Amazonian areas, by creating new access routes for land grabbing, hunting and illegal logging of hardwoods.

But this has not stopped the government’s plans. In May 2019, Bolivia’s YPFB signed an agreement with Argentina’s YPF to continue exploring for oil and gas in the Madre de Dios Basin. The work hasn’t started yet, but is expected to begin imminently. Indigenous people say they feel cornered, that the consultation process was based on lies, therefore enabling the “contamination to continue and be worse when the works are carried out,” Bascopé says.

Stressed ecosystems

Bolivia has 22 national protected areas that cover nearly 17% of the country’s territory . These are areas that are rich in biodiversity and home to Indigenous communities who have always sustained a healthy relationship with the forest and its resources.

But now, concessions have been granted to oil companies to carry out exploration, prospecting and seismic surveys in 11 of these protected areas.

Campanini, the CEDIB researchers, warns in particular of the impacts to Madidi National Park and TIPNIS, two of the largest protected areas in Bolivia. Up to 70% of these areas’ fauna and flora could be affected by oil activity.

“In the case of TIPNIS, in addition to road projects, the territory has been affected by the exploration of oil resources,” Campanini says. Within the park, 428,000 hectares (1.06 million acres), or nearly a third of its total area, is overlapped by the Sécure and Río Hondo oil blocks.

Emilio Nosa, a TIPNIS Indigenous leader, says that oil exploration, along with deforestation and coca cultivation, are “killing” the park’s forests. “The decrees that expand the oil frontier are damaging our habitat. Now the government has opened the door to TIPNIS so that it can exploit oil,” he says.

It’s a similar situation in Madidi National Park. Oil exploration here dates back to the 1980s and the arrival of Texaco. Back then, the U.S. oil giant had an agreement with the area’s Indigenous communities, but the contract was later broken.

Aerial view of the rivers of Madidi National Park. Image by Ivan Paredes.

Activists have long questioned the oil concession in Madidi National Park. The area is home to 5,000 known plant species and 1,370 animal species, as well as an important watershed spanning ravines, forests and plains.

One such activist is Mirna Fernández, coordinator of the Save Madidi Campaign. According to Fernández, “up to 60% of the park’s biodiversity may be affected by mega projects.” She adds there are seismic surveys currently being carried out in various parts of the national park.

Teresa Flores, vice president of the Nature Defense Association (PRODENA), recalls something former president Morales said when he was still in power: “I went to Madidi and saw that the oil was flowing.” It was this sighting of oil seeping up through the ground that inspired him to tap the Amazon for this resource.

But according to Flores, “the fact that there are oil blooms does not mean that there is a quantity that justifies its exploitation.” She cites past exploration activity by France’s Total and Brazil’s Petrobras, which carried out seismic explorations and then withdrew “because there was not enough oil to justify the investments.”

Mongabay Latam sent requests for information on the situation in protected areas to three Bolivian institutions responsible for regulating oil activity in the country. Neither the Vice Ministry of Environment, Biodiversity, Climate Change and Forest Management and Development, nor the National Hydrocarbons Agency, nor the Plurinational Authority of Mother Earth responded.

The requests for information were delivered on Feb. 7 at their respective offices in the capital, La Paz. Freedom of information regulations require a response within 15 days, but there has yet to be any response from the institutions.

Banner image of Madidi National Park in Bolivia, courtesy of Omar Torrico/WCS Bolivia.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on April 19, 2022.

Editor’s note: This translation originally referred to Brazil nut trees as ‘chestnut trees,’ that has been corrected in the text and we regret the error.

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