Bolivia hosts 'Gas OPEC' summit —amid dissension

The four-day summit of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) opened Nov. 21 in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra—central hub of the country's hydrocarbon-rich eastern lowlands. President Evo Morales took the opportunity to boast of his "nationalization" of Bolivia's hydrocarbon resources. But the summit comes as member nations are bitterly divided by diplomatic tensions. Established in Iran in 2001, the GECF consists of 12 members: Algeria, Bolivia, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Iran, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Russia, Trinidad & Tobago, and the United Arab Emirates. An additional seven observer nations are Azerbaijan, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Netherlands, Norway, Oman and Peru. The UAE and other Gulf States are currently at odds with Qatar, with diplomatic relations suspended since June.

Despite pressure from his own base for a more complete nationalization, Morales has been aggressively seeking Russian investment for Bolivia's hydrocarbon sector. Russia's Gazprom, which produces 11% of the world's gas supplies, has signed several cooperation agreements with parastatal Bolivian Fiscal Petroleum Resources (YPFB) to develop gas-fields. According to the US Energy Information Administration, in 2015 the world's five largest gas producers were the US, Russia, Iran, Qatar and Canada.

In a play to ethnic nationalism, Morales said at the summit that that when he became president in 2006, "the Bolivian economy was carved up like indigenous leader Tupac Katari. The state had no control and [there was] an ongoing looting of our natural resources. As the democratically elected president, I obeyed the clamorous call which was to nationalize, recover...this natural resource so important for Bolivia." He said that now Bolivia has "its own model" for administering its natural gas, adding that his policies allowed the "country's economic situation to be improved," with achievements such as reducing poverty and expanding the internal market. (Sputnik, LAHT, Nov. 21)

But in addition to pressure from his populist base for greater state control over the hydrocarbons, Morales also faces ecologist and indigenist dissidents who reject continued reliance on an extractivist model altogether. Such voices came together in June in the city of Cochabamba, for an activist summit dubbed the Encounter in Times of Fragmentation. Under the slogan "making the future possible again," participants from Bolivia and throughout Latin America called for a new model based on deepening indigenous autonomy and local self-sufficiency. (openDemocracy, Nov. 16)