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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 July 2007, 07:30 GMT 08:30 UK
Oil plan casts shadow on Bolivia park
By Lola Almudevar
Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Sergio Apenas
Sergio Apenas feels responsible for protecting Madidi
Sergio Apenas is used to being woken up by his neighbours. Before sunrise, the stillness is broken by screeching, chirping and barking. It is a lively, rustling song that tells a story of daily life in the jungle.

These are the sounds of red howler monkeys, toucans, tropical frogs and a glut of insects. They are as familiar to Sergio as the hum of traffic is to city dwellers.

Sergio works in ecotourism in Bolivia's most biologically diverse national park, Madidi.

This is his home, and where he and four of his 11 siblings use their knowledge to make a living, showing visitors the jungle's many treasures.

But it seems they may soon have to share these treasures with the rest of Bolivia.

Armed seizure

Sergio comes from the indigenous Quechua-Tacana village of San Jose de Uchipiamonas, Madidi's biggest village.

But overall, the park is sparsely populated.

It encompasses the snow-capped Andean peaks and the tropical basins of the Amazon, and is rich in natural resources, including oil.

Map of Bolivia

Despite being a symbol of biodiversity in Bolivia, some feel that protected areas like Madidi could deliver more for the country's poor.

In May, 80 farmers armed themselves and seized a part of the national park near Apolo. They wanted land to cultivate crops, a road to run through Madidi and the immediate exploitation of its oil.

But Sergio and the other villagers in Madidi say the land is not suitable for agriculture and that extracting oil could cause lasting damage.

"We've lived here, in the tropical forest, for more than 300 years," says Sergio.

"What we exploit in five years will never return, not for hundreds or even thousands of years."

Presidential visit

The farmers of Apolo have now drawn back and the government is promising a military post to defend Madidi and its resources.

But Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, recently visited Madidi to highlight the existence of natural resources in traditionally less productive regions.

Evo Morales in Madidi
President Evo Morales is interested in Madidi's oil resources

"It is impressive how our own mother Earth has natural resources," he said as he watched oil being extracted from a well in the small village of Maravillas.

"This is the first visit we've organised together with the hydrocarbons ministry, but without a doubt, from here on we will send technical teams to visit the area," he promised.

It was Mr Morales's promise to re-nationalise Bolivia's natural resources and deliver prosperity to the country's indigenous majority that brought him to power.

But in Sergio's village, locals fear the president does not understand life in the jungle and will not defend their interests.

"We've come a long way in learning what responsible tourism can achieve in improving people's lives. So for us, it's not just about exploiting natural resources," says Sergio.

'Benefits for society'

The government agrees that ecotourism has potential; but it does not see it as a panacea and says people like Sergio need to be more realistic about what is best for Bolivia.

The government is also concerned that what happens in Madidi will have a domino effect on other national parks and protected areas.

Madidi National Park
Activists want sustainable development in the constitution

"The protected areas belong to the people. There is no logic in having protected areas that marginalise the population," says Juan Pablo Ramos Morales, the vice-minister who has been leading discussions on Madidi.

"The protected areas should provide opportunities for local communities. Conservation makes no sense if it does not generate benefits for society as a whole.

"We need more analysis. It may be that some areas allow for this kind of hydrocarbons activity and others do not."

Future responsibility

Others are also waiting for answers from the government.

Social and environmental groups want to see a commitment to biodiversity and conservation in Bolivia's new constitution, due to be ratified in the coming months.

"We want to incorporate issues relating to sustainability and the sustainable management of our natural resources in the constitution," says Jenny Gruenenberger Perez, from the League for the Defence of the Environment.

Young girls in Madidi National Park
Locals fear their interests will be sidelined

"Biodiversity is Bolivia's biggest competitive strength. We need to... define its sustainable development."

Floating three hours downstream to meet a new group of tourists, Sergio Apenas could not be further from political discussions relating to the constitution or natural resources.

But these discussions and decisions will have a direct impact on his life.

"I know that one day, I will have a family, and generations will come after me. As a guide, it's up to me to take care of the environment and the resources.

"That's why now feels like a critical moment; there are so many potential threats that could destroy my natural habitat."

Ecotourism on the rise in Bolivia
02 Sep 05 |  Americas
Country profile: Bolivia
12 May 07 |  Country profiles

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