Water activists in Cochabamba 2000 - photo courtesy of http://www.xs4all.nl/~arenaria/water/Cochabamba%20pictures.html

Water activists in Cochabamba 2000 - photo courtesy of http://www.xs4all.nl/~arenaria/water/Cochabamba%20pictures.html

Resource wars and environmental conflict continue to ravage Latin America and Bolivia in particular. New social movements have emerged in Bolivia over access to basic elements of survival like water, gas, land and coca.  (See Olivera 2006) There have been numerous classes between corporate enterprises and indigenous communities for decades over resources. Benjamin Dangl (2007) in “The Price of Fire” examines Bolivia’s long on-going struggle against neo-liberal policies in more great detail.

The most famous ‘resource war’ is perhaps the Cochambamba Water Wars in 2000. This brought international attention to the country from anti-globalisation groups. The people of Cochabamba rose up when the multinational water company Betchel bought their communal and public water systems and hiked up prices far above peoples’ means. These increases forced some of the poorest families in South America to literally choose between food or water.

 Activists lead what was supposed to be a peaceful protest to remind the government that the people were still watching. The consequence was that Cochabamba turned into a war zone for two days as the government deployed the armed to silence it’s critics.  Images from illustrate the sheer power of the people. After a bloody stand off Betchel was eventually forced out, repealed the privatization contract and water was taken back under public control. See here for an interesting blog on the uprising.
It is an example of the failure of the nationalisation of a basic resource at its worst. The defeat of the America corporate giant is widely celebrated as the first victory against globalization in Latin America.
These water wars, like the Zapatista uprising, are a powerful example of a wave of grassroots mobilisation which sprung from the regions move towards democratisation in the 1980s and 1990s. See Murphyand Rodriguez 2006 for more background. Other social movements and groups against water privatisation emerged in the wake of the water war as new media spread the images and words of hope across the globe. A contract with the French company Vivendi was termininated in Argentina because the businesses performance wasn’t up to scratch. In Ecuador CONAIE set up its own water reform proposal focusing on community ownership. It’s an example of what’s possible through popular protest and media coverage. These kind of indigenous struggles are rarely covered by English based media. The water wars were perhaps an exception as they were pitted against an American construction giant. This water war inspired activists globally to resist corporate exploitation.
The privatization of water is a trend and a concern all over the world. Why was Cochabamba different? Why did Cochabambinos resist? Why did they win? The answer is simple. This wasn’t just a revolt against water it was a rising up against decades of dictatorship and corruption. The water wars were a clear rejection of neo-liberal economic policies and showed that the western market model did not belong in Bolivia.  People knew that if they lost control of their water they lost control of their lives. And they used the internet to get their message out to the world.
The official outlet from Bolivia to the world was reporting from the Associated Press (AP). Stories were written from La Paz and regurgitated the government line. The only international reporting directly from the scene was from Jim Shultz, executive director of The Democracy Center who calls Cochabamba home. He sent out 2,000 daily emails to press outlets and activist organizations recounting the revolt as he witnessed it with his own eyes. News spread rapidly across the globe and activists across the globe rallied in support. Activists as far a field of New Zealand took part in anti-Bechtel and anti-Banzer signs.
These under-represented and marginalised communities used new social and cultural spaces, opened up by globalisation, to get their issues heard. The democratic flow of information has been revolutionalised by new technologies likes the internet. (See Baraldi 2006) The water revolt drew broad international media attention as images from the uprising were beamed into screens and television sets across the planet. It went from being a local struggle to an international symbol of hope because of one man’s emails.
It’s eight years since the Bolivian water wars. Now water justice activists contend that poverty and political powerlessness are the main barriers blocking the access of the poor to water services. These problems are likely to persist whether the water company is publicly or privately owned. See here for an for an analysis on the lasting impact of the water wars.

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