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Santiago, Chile — Bolivia's new government has ordered Petrobras to halt oil and gas exploration in a national reserve amid strong opposition from local people to the oil company's activities in the area.

"I want to tell you that the first action that we have taken is to halt activities in the area of the reserve ... until we find a way to avoid the reserve being impacted by exploration and production," oil minister Victor Hugo Zamora said late Monday during a press conference in La Paz.

State oil company YPFB formed two joint ventures with the Brazilian energy company in 2017 to explore and develop the Astilleros and San Telmo Norte blocks, both in the Tariquia national reserve, on Bolivia's southern border with Argentina.

At the time, then-President Evo Morales said the two blocks were estimated to contain almost 2.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and could produce around 9 million cubic feet a day of gas from 2021.

Petrobras was expected to invest $676 million in the two projects, of which it owns 60% and acts as operator. YPFB owns 40%.

Bolivia is facing a severe decline in gas exports over the coming years as reserves are depleted, threatening a key source of government revenue.

In 2015, Morales, who resigned earlier this month amid accusations of electoral fraud, passed legislation to open the country's national reserves to oil and gas exploration.

Local communities, however, opposed the opening of the 247,000-hectare (610,350-acre) reserve to drilling. Earlier this year they blockaded roads to prevent Petrobras employees from accessing the San Telmo Norte block and eventually forced the company to withdraw from the area.

Protests resumed in the buildup to last month's disputed elections.

The minister said he would meet November 29 with oil industry representatives, including Petrobras, to discuss the future of exploration in the area.

"This is something we have promised to the people of Tarija, in principle, to ensure that Tariquia is not touched... but it is not easy because there are contracts in the way and companies already working there," the minister said.

-- Tom Azzopardi, newsdesk@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Bill Montgomery, newsdesk@spglobal.com