Fifteen Years of Community-controlled Water in Bolivia
By Marina Sitrin / roarmag.org

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Marina Sitrin interviews Marcela Olivera, an activist in Bolivia’s Water Wars of 2000, about the victories of the movement and its ongoing legacy today. Photo: march in Cochabamba during the tenth anniversary of the water wars in 2010 (by Mona Caron).

This year marks the fifteenth anniversary 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 across Latin America. Almost all these attempts have been met with powerful community mobilizations and resistance. There have been 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 in 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 remains 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, while protecting their bienes comunes.

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

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

Marcela Olivera: I first got involved in this issue, like thousands and thousands of Cochabambinos, 15 years ago to defend our water. There was already some organizing happening that I was not really involved in. My first memory of this issue was seeing on television 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 thousands of other people and 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 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 what democracy really is and how it should work, and how we don’t have that type of democracy in our everyday lives. 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 cocaleroscampesinos 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 the coalition took a name based on that. They decided on the Coordinadora por la Defensa del Agua y la Vida. To shorten it people simply 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 as 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, that it is not a person but all of us, and then finally they sent a woman to talk to him. Then one time he came back 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 and so on, 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 act.

In the past, you have spoken a lot about the idea of common goods and how you learned about them from the movements. Can you explain how the water supply and distribution is organized? Could you also go a little bit into the differences between commons, public goods and private control?

What was going on was taking place 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 water and the water system. The people of Bolivia have traditionally managed the water based on the usos y costumbres, where the uses refers to the use of the water and how it is used, and the custumbres refers to the tradition of the use of the water; who has been using it, what the agreements are between the communities for how it is used, and so on. With the Water War, both developments were halted, so the privatization was reversed 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 public hands, meaning in the hands of the state, or do we want something different?’ Many times we think only in those terms, whether something is public or private, and we do not think of a third way.

But after the Water War it became visible that the alternative would be let the water be managed by the community itself — that is the third way that we realized already existed and that is possible. And that is what has been happening over the years as we have been trying to make visible how communities are managing their own water supply, not waiting for the state to manage it on their behalf, but the people doing it themselves, managing their own water systems.

All this democracy we saw in the streets is now replicated on a day-to-day basis by these water management systems. Communities organize in assemblies and decide together what they are going to do with the water and how. This is a reality we did not know existed [in 2000], but learned later. Just in the area around Cochabamba there are about 600 or 700 water systems that are self-managed by the communities. That means that 50 percent of the population gets their water this way. Sometimes it’s 500 families and sometimes 50 with different sizes and different internal forms of democracy. Some do everything in common, some do not — each decides on the best way to govern themselves.

I have also learned over these past fifteen years 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 to do it for them. This same reality exists in Colombia, for example, as well as in Peru and Ecuador. So what we are trying to do is to make visible what is already taking place. No one is looking at how water can be managed; people keep looking to either the public or the private sphere. It is really quite something to see this, how people have been managing their own water and doing so in ways that go beyond what is private, beyond what is public, beyond the market and 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 supply from private sources. In our case it is the opposite: we see this as a sort of privatization of the water source, where the state is trying to intervene in the management of something that we have managed ourselves for so many years — hundreds of years in some cases.

So while the municipalization of water is something that might be celebrated in the North, it has a different meaning here. It might not mean the moving of resources to the private sector but it still takes the decision-making out of our hands, which then leads us to believe that this is no longer just about water — it is about something else.

Water is an issue around which we can convene many other aspects of our lives. The water commissions in Cochabamba, for example, talk about many other things related to the community as a whole: how people are doing, whether someone needs support or help, how we can help a family if someone in the community has died, and so on. This is a place where people organize many aspects of their social lives — it is something else.

Marina Sitrin is a writer, lawyer, teacher, organizer, militant and dreamer. She is co-author, together with Dario Azzellini, of They Can’t Represent Us! Reinventing Democracy From Greece to Occupy (2014, Verso Books).

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Fifteen Years of Community-controlled Water in Bolivia