Water activism


As well as great human suffering in Potosi, and Bolivia as a whole, the environment has paid a heavy price for centuries of mining. Potosi is now one of the most polluted places on earth! The water, the air, the landscape…things that we in the West take for granted as a fundamental human right…are toxic here.

The water is choked with lead, cadmium and arsenic that have leaked out of the mines. Running water is tinted grey. The pollutants have inevitably entered the watershed causing health problems for the wider community and the presence of heavy metals in crops downstream. This resulted in considerable damage to the region’s agriculture. This is because there is no effective mine-drainage treatment system and environmental-law enforcement has been cavalierly disregarded for decades. All eyes are on the profits.

Silica dust in the air causes blackened lungs and silicosis. Few miners live longer than 20 years after starting work in the mountain. Health care, just like environmental law, is nonexistent here.

The mountain looks devastated like its people. The surrounding landscape is still dominated by the imposing shape of Cerro Rico as well as a strange yellow and orange tint. That is the colour of toxicity. There are heaps of slag and shavings dumped all over the hillsides have created toxic mounds of contaminants hundreds of feet high. The holes of dozens of air shafts and the entrances to the mines pockmark the mountain face whilst the scars of deforestation and the resulting landslides are everywhere.

Money and economics are the only things that seem to matter here.

Until investment is put into the local community and the environment both will inevitably deteriorate further. The government has vowed to implement remedial action to combat these  problems. These are empty promises. Nations throughout Latin America have been left with ravaged landscapes, polluted crops and extensive health problems because of a long history of irresponsible mining practices.

This brings me back to our basic rights as human beings. Surely clean water and clean air for these impoverished miners is the least we can do? Basic rights not commodities!

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Since Cochabamba’s water war, the issue of water and access to it has gained attention on the international stage. Bolivia forced water privatisation as well as water scarcity onto the international agenda. Fortune magazine declared that water is the oil of the 21st century whilst Barnett (2001) anaylses the implications of these environmental securty threats. For many authors water scarcity is the proverbial spark that starts the metaphorical Middle East bonfire. In a region which is extremely arid, with existing ideological, religious and geographical disputes, combined with water scarcity, the result is one of the most volatile situations in the world. This begs the question – Is water a basic human right to be provided by governments through the public sector or is it a commodity to be sold by big business?

Whatever your view it is clear that water is set to be a major source of conflict across the globe. The environmental literature is replete with dire predictions of water wars. The water wars thesis is simple; water is distributed unevenly and, as population grows and the climate changes, it is increasingly in demand and will cause violent conflict. The potential for violence is extremely high as like most things, whoever control water wields the power. Bolivia has faced a series of crises over water and it is somewhat depressing to acknowledge that in the aftermath of the 2000 Cochabamba water wars, thousands still do not have access to clean water. The debate rages on…is water a commodity or basic human right? I think morally we all know the answer to that one.

So is conflict inevitable and perhaps exacerbated by the effects of climate change?

Barnett (2001) argues that the environment-conflict thesis is a product of the Northern security agenda premised upon geo-political issues. It is often only concerned with resources of economic value rather than the reality of environmental degradation and the welfare of those in the developing world. In other words the north constructs an eco-centric outlook of two worlds to suit its own agenda. The south plays the psrt of the primeval Other who needs the north to maintain order. Bascially the West just simply aren’t interested in the plight of Bolivia because it has no resources that they need.

However there is no escaping from the fact that in many area resource wars are a reality whether their seriousness is exaggerated by the West or not. Homer-Dixon (1991) contends that the geopolitics of environmental problems, their transboundary nature and the geographical misfit between resources and national boundaries,  means that sometime soon the North need to sit up and take notice. Many countries throughout Latin America are teetering on the edge of environmental conflict.

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.