Fifteen Years of Community Controlled Water in Bolivia

Marina Sitrin interviews Marcela Olivera, an activist in Bolivia’s water wars of 2000 and their ongoing legacy. 

This year marks fifteen years of the victory of the communities of Bolivia over private water corporations. Not only did popular power reverse the plan to privatize the water, but the many hundreds of communities surrounding Cochabamba managed to keep their water as a common good, controlled and managed by the community directly and democratically. 

The past few decades have witnessed a massive increase in attempts to commodify natural resources. Most all such attempts have been met with powerful community mobilizations and resistance. There have had many victories, but also losses. 

Successes have taken place, for example, in Argentina with the defeat of Monsanto, three consecutive mining companies in La Rioja and a paper mill on the border with Uruguay. Other places around the world have also been successful in at least holding back privatizations and mining, such as in Thessaloniki with the struggle to keep water public and in the Halkidiki region of Greece. In these examples, as so many others, the struggles are grounded in a particular form of popular power. As with the experience in Cochabamba, it was regular people and communities organized in the streets (not parties, unions or other sectors) using direct action and directly democratic assemblies to make decisions. 

Important lessons can and should be learned in our struggles to defend the land and commons from what took place and continues to take place in Bolivia. While the Bolivian struggle is referred to as the Water Wars, this does not reflect all of what took place – it was not only a war over the privatization of resources, but, as will be explained below, it was and is a struggle to maintain autonomy and self organization, experiences that in some places go back hundreds of years. Cochabanbinos have not only kicked out private water companies but have been successful in maintaining their ways of organizing and being – their bienes comunes. 

I spoke with Marcela Olivera in May 2015 about these past fifteen years of continuous struggle for autonomy and self organization of the commons – water. Marcela has been organizing on water issues, not coincidently, for fifteen years. We began the conversation revisiting the first days of the Water Wars in Cochabamba in April 2000. 

Can you explain a little bit of how you got involved in the issue of defending water and resources? 

I first got involved in this issue, like thousands and thousands of Cochabambinos 15 years ago to defend our water. There was already organizing happening that I was not really involved in. My first memory of this issue was seeing on television was how campesinos, women and kids were being beaten by police on the street and feeling so much rage – so together with my sister we went into the streets – I think this was similar for many thousand of other people – why they first went into the streets. We did not at first completely identify with the issue, I personally was living with my parents and not paying the bills, but like me many people saw the injustice of this issue and went into the streets. It was something that I had never seen before in my life and don’t think I will see again in my lifetime. 

You spoke about democracy, and what you are calling real democracy. Can you explain what that looked like in practice? 

When we talk about democracy and all these words, sometimes we don’t really see what they truly mean. But I think I witnessed that, what democracy really is and how it should work, and how we don’t have that type of democracy in our daily life. They make us think that electing someone is democracy, but it is not. What I saw during the Water Wars was real democracy, direct democracy. Where people come together and make decisions. It was like my voice mattered. I was not a leader of a union and I did not belong to an organized sector, but my voice mattered. I felt like people were listening to me and I was listing to other people, and then together we would make decisions. Sometimes we did not agree with some things and there were people with different opinions about strategies, but what really mattered was how we made decisions and decided together. We found ways of doing it together. That is what real democracy is. The people in the street were people just like me – not a part of organizations, the labor movement had pretty much disappeared after the neoliberal model was imposed, so the traditional working class had disappeared, but then we were the working class, people like me – without a sector, mainly working on our own, without a tradition of organizing ... but we could meet and find one another and see the other side of people, and then meet with those who were organized like the cocaleros, campesinos and factory workers that were there. Among us there were no differences, there was no hierarchy due to differences based on if you were from a sector or not. We had a common goal and that is what mattered. 

I remember you and others telling the story of La Coordinadora por la Defensa del Agua y la Vida back in 2006. Can you tell it again? I am especially curious since what you are describing is a horizontal and participatory movement, yet people still insisted in seeing the movement as one with a leader? 

[Laughs] You mean how people thought the Coordinadora was a woman, right. 

During this period many reforms were implemented and the government named many people in their specific roles, such as the Defensora del Pueblo, so people, the coalition took a name based on that. So they decided on the Coordinadora por la Defensa del Agua y la Vida. To make it short people referred to La Coordinadora, it is feminine in Spanish, and so people would speak of it as if it were a woman. Many people who were not deeply involved thought it was a person like the Defensora del Pueblo – also in the media and political cartoons it was shown as a woman. It was always portrayed as a traditional indigenous woman. People would ask who is this brave woman confronting the police and the government. I remember after the struggle how there was an old guy who would come looking for the Coordinadora, and we tried to explain to him that we are all the Coordinadora it is not a person but all of us, and then finally they sent a woman to talk to him and one time he came and asked for the Señora Coordinadora del Agua and we all laughed and he got embarrassed and said oh, sorry, is it a Señorita? It was always thought of as a woman fighting for the people. It is funny because all the spokespeople were men, so it was a sort of contradictory thing, but we have always thought and seen that the struggles are mostly carried out and led by women, if you look at the images etc you will see that it was the women who were on the front lines. Yet men do a lot of the talking ... I guess they like to talk and we like to do. 

You have spoken in the past a lot about the idea of commons good and how you learned it from the movements. Can you explain how the water supply and distribution is organized? If you could also go into the differences between commons, public and private control. 

What was going on was on two levels, first they wanted to take concessions from the water system in Cochabamba and there was also national legislation that would make water a commodity – so the privatization of the water and water systems. The people of Bolivia have traditionally managed the water based on the usos y costubres, so the uses is the use of the water and how it is used and the customs is the tradition of the use of the water, so who has been using it, what the agreements are between the communities for how it is used etc. With the Water War both things were stopped, so the privatization was revered and the legislation regarding water was changed based on the demands of the people. 

Fifteen years later I do not think the situation has changed too much – we still have to struggle. Right after the Water War when we recovered the water system we had this questioning and thinking together among ourselves, and we asked what do we want, do we want the water to be controlled in the public hands, meaning in the hands of the state or do we want something different. Many times we think only in those terms if it is public or private and we do not think of a third way. After the Water War it became visible that the other way to manage the water is by the community, that is the third way that we realized already existed and is possible. And that is what has been happening over the years and we have been trying to visibalize, how communities are managing their own water, and not waiting for the state to manage it but the people themselves are doing it, managing their own water systems. All this democracy we saw in the streets is replicated daily by these water systems. They organize in assemblies and decide together what they are going to do with the water and how. 

This is a reality that we did not know existed, but learned later. Just in the area around Cochabamba there are about 600 or 700 water systems managed by the communities. That means that 50 percent of the population is getting their water this way. It is exactly these water systems that were fighting, they were fighting to keep managing their water systems. Sometimes they are 500 families and sometimes 50 with different sizes and different internal forms of democracy. Some do everything in common, some not, each decides the best way to govern themselves. Since there are so many of these communities and they are so diverse many people did not know about them. 

I have also learned over these past fifteen years working in this that this sort of thing is taking place all over the world. People are managing their own water and resources and not waiting for the state. This same reality exists in Colombia for example, as well as Peru and Ecuador, so this is not just a reality of Cochabamaba, but many places in the world. So what we are and have been trying to do is visibalize this that is already taking place. No one is looking at how water can be managed, people keep looking to either the public or private sphere. 

It is really something to see this – how people have been managing their water and doing so in ways that go beyond what is private, beyond what is public and beyond the state. 

What do you think about the recent Municipalization of water? Is it similar to the idea of commons? 

Something we have been seeing lately is the celebration of the re-municipalization of the water sources. I have seen this in the water movement in general. For example in Paris, Buenos Aires and other parts of the world where municipalities have taken over the water source from private sources. In our case it is the opposite, we see this as a sort of privatization of the water source, when the state is trying to intervened and management of something that we have done for so many years, hundreds of years in some cases. While this is something that might be celebrated in the north it has a different meaning here. It might not mean the moving of the resources to the private sector but that it takes the decision making out of our hands, which then brings us to believe that this is not just about water. It is about something else. It is a place where we can convene many other aspects of our lives. The water commissions in Cochabamba for example talk about many more things related to the community as a whole, how people are doing, does someone need support or help, if someone has died in the community how to help the family. They organize soccer championship – it is a place where people organize many aspects of their social lives – it is something else.

Republished from TeleSUR

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