Undertones: Indigenous Bolivian youth question media narratives on fossil fuel extraction

This story is part of Undertones, Global Voices’ Civic Media Observatory‘s newsletter. Subscribe to Undertones.

Welcome back to Undertones, your source for analyzing media narratives from around the world. I'm Melissa Vida, your newsletter editor, and in this edition, we will explore the perspectives of Indigenous communities on climate narratives.

This analysis stems from our parallel project “Ropeia Taperai” (“Opening Paths”), in collaboration with the Latin American non-profit Avina Foundation in the project Voices for Just Climate Action. In 2022, young aspiring Indigenous journalists from Bolivia’s Gran Chaco region have gathered to hone their media literacy skills through a hands-on version of the Civic Media Observatory’s methodology alongside Rising Voices, Global Voices’ digital inclusion wing.

Most of them attend the Indigenous School of Journalism in the municipality of Charagua, a town in southern Bolivia of mainly Guaraní speakers. Together, they analyzed how the local press speaks of climate change and the environment and suggested what narratives they would like to see featured instead.

The Gran Chaco is the second-largest forest in the Americas after the Amazon. It stretches across eastern Bolivia as well as parts of Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil, and is home to many Indigenous communities, such as the Guaranís and Chiquitanos, who practice subsistence farming as a way of life.

In recent years, the region has been hard hit by extreme drought, forest fires, and water pollution. Food staples such as corn are becoming difficult to grow because of the lack of rain. Yet, when locals check the media, they see narratives that feel alien to them.

“The media talks a lot about Indigenous people, but they do not show what really happens in our communities, homes, and regions,” María Jesús Velasco, one of the participants of the youth workshops, said.

Illustration by Marcelo Lazarte showcasing the word analysis activity.

The struggle for water in climate change

The young journalists sampled local media and picked out the words most frequently used. Some of the recurring words when reporting on the Gran Chaco were “progress,” “roads,” and “oil company.”

For them, fossil fuel projects directly exacerbate the effects of climate change by amplifying the challenges associated with accessing potable water.

Bolivia’s Gran Chaco region contains South America’s largest gas reserves after Venezuela. Foreign and national companies have extracted fossil fuels for nearly a century. In the last few years, companies have been allowed to venture deeper into protected areas to find more gas.

Jorge Campanini, a researcher at the Bolivian nonprofit CEDIB (Bolivian Center for Documentation and Information), told me that “there is a lot of tension and concern in the Chaco region due to the high level of socio-environmental conflict with foreign and Bolivian companies.” And, despite the revenues the fossil fuel industry has provided to the state, many communities in the Chaco still do not have access to public services like water, energy, and healthcare, he said.

Photo of Elías Cerezo during the workshop

“The media always shows this term [oil company] as if it’s something good because it gives a lot of jobs and economic benefits,” Elías Cerezo, one of the participants in the workshop, said. “What the media does not talk about in this case is all the impact that [oil activity] leaves behind after job creation.” Cerezo asserted that these companies are not complying with environmental licenses nor mitigating their ecological impact. “And as for water, once they started building the tunnel, we saw that the water level for human consumption decreased,” he said.

Campinini said that “water is scarce. The effects of climate change are ever more difficult and noticeable, and evidently, each year will become more critical. There will be less water, and the little water available is disputed between companies and communities, or it is contaminated.”

Yet, when local communities speak out against these developments, they feel discriminated against. Another workshop participant, Francés Perez said that the media tags them with a longstanding prejudice against native people: “lazy.”

“The media say that we are very lazy because we are not developing the land that we have. But that’s not true. We are more conservationists; we protect nature and have a connection with her because she gives us what we produce.”

The youth agreed that they would like to see more well-rounded coverage about infrastructure developments in the region as well as about droughts and fires. They would like more media to focus on eco-tourism initiatives in order to bring other economic resources to the region. In general, they are also advocating for more coverage of their cultures, languages, political independence, and world visions.

Photo of Daniel Arias during the workshop, holding up his wordcloud.

“I want to tell the whole world, and especially our country, that they should not see the Chaco and our Indigenous territories as a coffee cup belonging to the national, regional and municipal authorities, which they can exploit and take resources from,” Daniel Arias, one of the participants and Indigenous authority, said.

“Yes, we can mitigate climate change by listening to the Indigenous people in Bolivia.”


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