(above) Guaraní protesters in August flee police, who pursued them to the village of Yatirenda, and then proceeded to smash car windows, kick down doors and drag people from their homes. Photograph: courtesy of CODAPMA


Guaraní people turn to the law to fight latest battle with Bolivian authorities

In a bid to protect their land, the indigenous people are challenging the Morales government over decrees opening up protected areas for oil and gas exploration

The history of Bolivia's Guaraní, an indigenous people living in the country's southern lowlands, is one of struggle in defence of their territory. In 1892, an uprising against local landowners ended with the massacre of more than 2,000 Guaraní. A century later, Guaraní activists confronted oil companies seeking to exploit the riches buried under their homeland of the Bolivian Chaco.

Now they are preparing to fight on a new front. On 24 September, three Guaraní leaders travelled from the dry heat of lowland Chaco to the chill mountain air of La Paz to deliver a legal petition to the country's constitutional court, challenging a series of energy decrees passed by the government of President Evo Morales.

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"We're going to fight any work they try to carry out on our territory under these new rules," says Ronald Gómez, president of the Council of Guaraní Leaders in Santa Cruz, as he negotiates La Paz's steep, breath-stealing streets
The decrees, issued gradually through the first half of 2015, opened national parks and other protected areas to oil and gas exploration. They also weakened the ability of indigenous groups to bargain, tilting power towards the state to determine the framework, timescale and outcome of any negotiations.

"They're essentially part of a packet of legislation to make extractive projects easier and more viable, especially for foreign companies," explains Jorge Campanini, from Bolivia's documentation and information centre (Cedib), which has conducted research into the legal changes.

Bolivia's human rights ombudsman publicly condemned the decrees, saying they "disavow more than 50 years of indigenous struggle to be recognised as the owners of their territory and as active subjects of the state".

Morales' Movement Towards Socialism has governed Bolivia since 2006, and has used strong rhetoric about decolonisation and indigenous rights. It argues that the decrees are necessary to accelerate consultations on extractive projects, and has promised that communities will be compensated and fragile eco-systems taken into account.

"Societies like ours, with high levels of social debt, need as a matter of urgency a set of material and financial resources in order to construct schools and hospitals, improve salaries, and so on. For this you have to transform nature and promote extractive mechanisms," said vice-president Álvaro García Linera in July.

The government's social security and infrastructure programmes have been credited with successfully tackling poverty and social exclusion. But there are clear incompatibilities between funding these projects with income derived from the country's gas reserves, and the demands of indigenous people for territory and autonomy.

The new decrees have put these clashing priorities on a collision course.

On 18 August, a group of demonstrators blocked the main road connecting Santa Cruz, Bolivia's biggest city, with the Argentinian border. They were protesting at the lack of consultation on oil-well drilling work at a site named El Dorado, which they say lies within Guaraní territory.

About 300 police officers broke the blockade using batons and tear gas. They then pursued protestors to the nearest village, Yatirenda, where they smashed car windows, kicked down doors and dragged people from their homes. Twenty-seven people were arrested and dozens injured.

"Everyone was terrified," says Wilma Arrendonda, the territory's Capitana or Guaraní leader. "We've never seen anything like this before, police violently invading our communities."

Tensions escalated a few days later, when the Guaraní's main representative organisation, the Assembly of the Guaraní People (APG), was excluded from a state-created fund financing projects in indigenous communities. The APG's president, Domingo Julián, calls the exclusion "an obvious act of political persecution".

Bolivia opens up national parks to oil and gas firms

"Things have actually gone in reverse since 2006," Julián says, in his office in the dusty town of Camiri. On the wall behind him hangs a portrait of Apiaguaiqui Tumpa, the Guaraní warrior who led the ill-fated rebellion of 1892.

"When we were fighting the neoliberal state, there was usually a way to resolve the conflict. But now we're just told that we are in opposition to the process of change, to the development of the country, and dismissed."

The Guaraní's territory, he says, is already feeling the effects of global warming. The seasonal rhythms of the Chaco, a sun-scorched expanse of thorn forest and scrubland that extends south from Camiri into Paraguay and Argentina, have been transformed by the changing climate.

"Years before, it began to rain in October, and we'd start to seed in November. By February, we'd have maize to make chicha for our carnival. But now, it starts to rain at the end of December. We begin to seed at the end of February, and we have our maize in May or July."

Like his friend Ronald Gómez, Julián is determined to oppose any diminishment of Guaraní influence over extractive projects on their territory. "To abandon our resistance would be to abandon the dreams of our ancestors," he says.

The Guaraní are not alone in arousing the government's ire. In August, the vice-president threatened to expel four Bolivian NGOs for "meddling in political affairs". All four had been critical of what they termed the government's "extractivist policies".

In 2013, a Danish NGO, Ibis, was thrown out of Bolivia on a similar premise.

"That was intended to send a very clear message to NGOs here," says Susana Eróstegui, director of Unitas, an umbrella organisation representing 23 Bolivian NGOs. "Don't get involved in politics and definitely don't criticise the politics of the government."

Cedib was one of the four NGOs threatened with expulsion. "If anyone challenges or opposes, or even just criticises, this politics of extractivism, they're immediately attacked," says Campanini. "Many institutions and organisations aren't willing to say what they think. They feel threatened – you can definitely sense a fear out there."

The same week that Ronald Gómez delivered his legal petition to the constitutional court, protests erupted in Tarija, a city at the heart of Bolivia's gas boom. Anger was sparked by hydrocarbon exploration in the nearby Tarquía reserve, a protected area which was off-limits to gas companies until the decrees were passed.

A recent analysis by Cedib showed that extractive work is primed to begin in other sensitive areas. These include Isiboro national park, where violent clashes occurred between police and protesters in 2011, and the northern Amazon, near Madidi national park, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.

"The Guaraní know how things go with oil companies, so they've been the first to act," Campanini says. "But when other groups start to understand what's happening, they will too. Each place will be distinct and there will be conflicts of differing magnitudes, but this isn't going to relax. It's going to proceed with force."