Bolivia: protesters seize gas plant

Protesters demanding a share of taxes from Bolivian natural gas field remain in control of the key Yacuiba plant that pumps gas to Argentina. The protesters freed some 50 police officers held hostage for over 20 hours, but have not surrendered the pumping plant operated by Transredes, a Royal Dutch Shell subsidiary. A spokesperson for Transredes told Reuters that company officials had to “run for their lives” and that protesters looted the site, destroyed documents and set several vehicles on fire. The government has sent hundreds of troops to the scene. The government says the plant continues to function despite the protest and that exports to Argentina have not been interrupted. The government, which moved to nationalize Bolivia’s energy sector last year, appealed for calm and invited protesters to a meeting in the La Paz.

Protesters threw rocks and burning tires at riot police protecting the plant to break through and seize the facility April 18, and police retaliated with tear-gas. 10,000 people swarmed the installation, set fire to two vehicles of the state-owned oil company Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales de Bolivia (YPFB), smashed computers and seized 2,000 liquefied gas cylinders.

A police chief and 46 officers were disarmed and held in Yacuiba municipal offices the night of April 18 after a protester was killed by army troops. The Permanent Assembly for Human Rights of Bolivia (APDHB) was called in to mediate the dispute. APDGB’s Víctor Farfán told IPS: “The gas field in dispute belongs to Bolivia.and should not trigger clashes between brothers and sisters.”

Meanwhile, some 30 miles from Yacuiba, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the San Alberto natural gas field, run by Brazil’s Petrobras, and threatened to storm the site if President Evo Morales does not travel to Tarija to negotiate with them.

Tarija, on the border with Argentina, is home to 85% of the country’s natural gas reserves, and energy majors including Petrobras, Spain’s Repsol-YPF, and France’s Total have operations there. They have operate in partnership with YPFB but have not been fully taken over, despite Morales’ moves to nationalize the industry.

The protests stem from a dispute between the neighboring provinces of Gran Chaco and O’Connor (both in Tarija department) over which has rights to potential taxes from the Margarita field, which holds some 10.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Both claim the vast field, discovered in 2003 along their poorly defined boundary, and demand a share of the taxes the Bolivian state will receive once the field is producing. Repsol-YPF is the operator of the field and owns a 37.5% stake in the project, while British Gas Plc. holds another 37.55. Argentina’s Pan American Energy holds the remaining 255. (Reuters, IPS, April 19; Bloomberg, April 18)

See our last post on Bolivia.