Global Policy Forum

A Treasure of the Andes, Ancient Demons Included


By Juan Forero

New York Times
July 18, 2004

The discovery of natural gas, loads of it, in this isolated, landlocked country was greeted in the late 1990's as a blessing. But it has come with a curse: The divisions it opened could serve as a cautionary tale about what unfolds when great treasures are discovered in a society plagued by deep poverty, rising nationalism and a marked polarization between the powerful and the powerless. Bolivia's masses of poor indigenous people, afraid they will be left out of the bonanza when the gas is exported to the United States and Brazil, have approached a state of rebellion in the countryside. One government has been forced from office and its successor is trying to calm the mistrust with a referendum today on how to sell the gas abroad.

This is not the first time that fabulous riches have been found here for export. Gold and silver, tin and zinc - all drew dreamers hoping to strike it rich, from Spanish conquistadores to foreign mining outfits.

But those earlier riches were plundered by a few who became fabulously rich, leaving the mass of people with little to show in return. And the poor have not forgotten. So the idea of developing gas fields for foreign interests has prompted furious, wide-scale protests and uncertainty that have all but paralyzed the industry, which was opened to foreign investment in the 1990's and is now dominated by such giants as BP, Petrobras and Repsol-YPF of Spain.

The turmoil culminated last October when indigenous groups rose up, enraged that the government planned to export gas to the United States through Chile, a historic enemy that snatched Bolivia's coastline in an 1879 war. In this highland area, 13,000 feet above sea level, battles between indigenous protesters and soldiers left 59 people dead. President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada soon resigned. Across Latin America, from Mexico to Venezuela to Peru, the discovery of fabulous wealth - whether tin or oil or gold - has unfolded in much the same way. Divisions and rivalries deepen; those scrambling to get rich clash with those left behind. Latent nationalism surfaces, sometimes with a fury. In the end, the discoveries, or the development of cash crops like sugar, usually do little to make inequitable societies more fair.

Venezuela is a case in point. Its vast oil wealth led some economists to hope in the 1970's that it would soon join the world's developed nations. Instead, successive governments allowed corruption and nepotism to dictate how the profits were distributed, and the society's divisions grew. The resentments were a major factor in the election in 1998 of the leftist populist Hugo Chávez, whose rhetoric and policies have only polarized the society more.

Moreover, commodities like metals, oil and gas are prone to a boom-bust cycle. When prices rise, the rich get richer. When they fall, the poor suffer first. Demagogues thrive and hatreds rise, leading to everything from land disputes to massacres.

Here, the natural gas has awakened a fierce mistrust, expressing itself as indigenous nationalism, that has led organizations of the poor to fight the wealthier, European-descended elite over who will control the profits. It is not uncommon for indigenous groups to take over mines in Bolivia, demanding that private companies pull out, and such tactics can succeed. Four years ago, when poor people in Cochabamba, Bolivia's third-largest city, rose in protest against an American company that had planned to privatize the city water supply, the company simply withdrew.

The poor here - mostly Aymara and Quechua Indians descended from the Inca and other civilizations - have told each other for generations how their ancestors died in the Spanish mines, while leaving their masters wealthy beyond words. The legend of the so-called Cerro Rico, or Rich Mountain, of Potosi is that it yielded enough silver to have built a bridge from Bolivia to Madrid.

"Who made the money, the Spanish, that is what helped make them a power," said Pedro Condori Chipana, 60, as he and other villagers in Corpaputo prepared for a meeting on the gas issue. "That is something we never forget. We have it taped right here," he said, pressing a finger to his forehead.

Such ancient anger was a major reason that Mr. Sánchez de Lozada's successor, President Carlos Mesa, convened today's referendum to give Bolivians a voice in the government's plans for the gas industry.

Whatever the results, they are unlikely to placate some of Bolivia's more radical leaders, like Felipe Quispe, a former guerrilla who wants to form an Indian state where foreign industries are expropriated. Many Bolivians in the highlands here say they simply want to use the gas themselves, to heat their homes and boil their water. But the radicals see another opportunity - to use the issue to organize their constituents, even as it divides the country. "This has given us force," said Eugenio Rojas, an Aymara leader. "We can say, 'There is a resource. Let's fight for it.' It unites us."

Such talk prompts Carlos Alberto López to shake his head. Mr. López, who was vice minister for energy when the fields were discovered, now lobbies for the foreign oil and gas companies in Bolivia. He said he understands the frustrations of people who saw their resources exploited while their lives failed to improve. But he blamed corrupt governments. "They try to paint what happened with tin as if it were caused by the transnationals, that it was a sacking of Bolivia," Mr. López said. "The problem was not the exportation. It was what Bolivia did with the money it made." Now, he said, Bolivia has the right fiscal controls to ensure that the money will not be misspent or stolen.

But to several radical indigenous groups, nothing Mr. Mesa can say or do is acceptable. "We are going to go and block roads and stop people from voting," Alejo Velí­z, a leader in Cochabamba told reporters last week. "We don't have fear in our hearts."




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