Bolivia Amazon oil drilling plan opposed by tribes

LA PAZ (Reuters) - Opposition to Amazon oil drilling from indigenous tribes is complicating efforts by Bolivian President Evo Morales to rejuvenate state-run energy company YPFB three years after he nationalized it.

Morales, the first Indian president of natural gas-rich Bolivia, has championed the rights of the poor, indigenous majority since he took office in 2006 and they have generally supported his drive to increase state control over resources.

But Morales has criticized indigenous leaders from a remote Amazon region who oppose a joint oil exploration plan by YPFB and Venezuela’s PDVSA on environmental grounds.

“Unfortunately some of my brothers, our brothers, are using whatever pretext they can to cause damage,” he said on Monday, urging them not to block drilling work in a northern part of the La Paz province.

Oil exploration and production in the forest have long sparked protests by indigenous communities in Ecuador. In neighboring Peru, at least 34 people were killed in June during demonstrations against energy projects in the Amazon.

Morales, an Aymara Indian, is keen to drill for oil in the north of Bolivia, to counteract the political and economic power of the eastern and southern lowlands, an opposition stronghold and home to the country’s vast natural gas fields.


His government has clashed more in recent weeks with a local environmental group called the Bolivian Environmental Forum or Fobomade, accusing the organization of fomenting the indigenous resistance.

Fobomade says the government had sought to split a community of Moseten Indians by only negotiating exploration permits with some of them.

“Let’s prevent another Bagua in Bolivia,” the group said in a statement posted on its website on Monday, referring to the Peruvian jungle region where June’s bloodshed took place.

Tribes opposed to drilling have prevented workers from moving equipment, according to the environmental group, and aYPFB source who asked not to be named said the protest could force the company to change its plans.

YPFB, which had almost no role in energy production before Morales’ nationalization, has faced numerous delays in its drive to take control of the key natural gas export industry, which supplies Brazil and Argentina.

The government has already acknowledged delays in investment plans announced by foreign companies that operate in the country such as Brazil’s Petrobras and France’s Total.

Government officials said production would rise 15 percent this year, but so far only one minor project with output of 1.4 million cubic meters per day has come on line. Bolivia currently produces about 40 million cubic meters per day.

Opposition leaders added to YPFB’s woes on Tuesday by calling a 48-hour general strike in southeastern Chaco province in protest at a $500 million exploration plan between YPFB and Spanish oil major Repsol YPF.

Writing by Helen Popper; Editing by David Gregorio