Bolivia’s Water Fight

Will violence in Bolivia deny water rights to its indigenous people?

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Tough talk at the top of the world

Shiny black hair tops Andrés Gonzales’s long, sturdy face. It catches the pale Sunday morning light as he stands to rebut an angry farmer in an asamblea of some eighty peasants. The community has purchased a field for communal use with the surplus from their drinking water collective. The farmer, a long-settled German immigrant who wanted the money spent elsewhere, speaks in Spanish, but Gonzalez answers with the hard k’s and ch’s of Quechua, the language Inca settlers brought to this Andean valley a century before the Spanish arrived. Not yet thirty, Gonzales leads a farming community in Tiquipaya, a relatively prosperous municipality in Bolivia’s Cochabamba province.

The meeting’s slow, collective cadences are the legacy of Andean traditions of communal deliberation. Mostly, the custom is banal, the habit of long arguments over small details. But the endless hours are never wasted—a social fabric is being woven.

The rest of us sit in plastic chairs. The men are wearing fedoras or baseball caps, the women polleras (traditional gathered skirts) and wide straw hats. Behind me rises the yellow cordillera, a rugged chain of mountains whose stark, blunt landscape seems like an extension—or maybe the source material—of the campesinos who have lived among them for thousands of years. Over sixty percent of Bolivians self-identify as indigenous, the highest share on the continent.

When the assembly ends, Gonzales takes me on a tour of the village’s irrigation system, a maze of cement canals carved through hillside fields of vegetables and flowers. As in most communities where fields are irrigated, the farmers are known and organized as regantes, irrigators. When a fight breaks out over the scarce water that is the source of their livelihood, they know what to do. “It can take entire mornings, even days, of meetings to resolve water conflicts,” Gonzales explains in his clipped, matter-of-fact voice.

But talk isn’t always enough. In South America’s poorest country, fights for water are fights over life and death.

Private water makes a killing (though not exactly as promised)

Around the world, a growing freshwater crisis is causing disease and death, sparking violence, and exacerbating the food crisis. More than a billion people lack access to clean water, and still more go without sanitation. A debate is raging over whether to address escalating shortages via public institutions or privatization.

Since the Conservative Party came to power in 2006, Canada has moved forcefully into the privatization camp. For example, in April of this year, the Toronto Star reported that Canadian negotiators had blocked the United Nations’ Human Rights Council from taking steps to declare water a human right. Yet Canadian-funded research conducted in Bolivia has suggested a very different tack—that a public, rights-based approach to water is the best way to distribute it fairly and effectively.

During the late 1990s, the World Bank began pressuring Bolivia to extend its campaign of privatization to its urban water utilities. It had little trouble finding allies in the country. By 1999, it had signed up the president, Hugo Banzer, an aging former dictator, and Manfred Reyes Villa, a wealthy businessman, former army man, and the popular mayor of Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third-largest city.

Under Reyes Villa, Cochabamba’s water utility was sold to the only bidder, a subsidiary of the American corporation Bechtel, and prices rapidly skyrocketed as much as 200 percent. Under the Bechtel contract, it became illegal for city residents or peasants in surrounding communities to collect rainwater for drinking, irrigation, or anything else. The water that irrigated the farm fields of communities like Tiquipaya would instead be confiscated and rerouted into the leaky pipes beneath the city.

In early 2000, Gonzales joined hundreds of his neighbours as they poured into Cochabamba to join a massive and initially peaceful insurgency against the privatization. “We came down in columns, different communities taking their turn each day,” he recalls. “We were gassed and hit with rubber bullets.” A seventeen-year-old boy was killed during a day of street fighting, shot in the face by an army sniper who was later exonerated and promoted.

Following the violence, Reyes Villa changed his mind about the water privatization. Bechtel executives fled the city after local police told them they could no longer guarantee their safety. Anxious to avoid more violence, the national government declared the contract void.

Coming as it did after fifteen years of successive privatizations of state enterprises, the water war represented a turning point in Bolivians’ political consciousness. In the five years following, they overthrew three presidents before electing leftist Evo Morales, the continent’s first indigenous president, in 2005 with an unprecedented 53 percent of the vote.

The irrigators who fought in the Cochabamba water war were essentially speaking out for their usos y costumbres (uses and customs). These are Bolivian indigenous communities’ common law—idiosyncratic, flexible methods of conflict resolution that embody five centuries of resistance to colonial lawmaking. When Gonzales talks about days of meetings, he’s talking about a key element of Tiquipaya’s particular usos y costumbres. These also demand that water remain firmly in public hands.

Thanks to a long process initiated after the water war, usos y costumbres now form the heart of a revolutionary new irrigation law based on research funded by Canadian aid. If this law, and other closely connected water laws, are successfully implemented, they could change the lives of millions of Bolivians and clarify the concept of water as human right.

Enter the Andean Bear

The man behind Bolivia’s new irrigation laws is a tall, pale, charismatic water engineer and NGO director named Juan Carlos Alurralde, known to most as Oso Andino (Andean Bear). When I visit him in a spacious conference room in his buzzing office in the Zona Sur, an affluent suburb of Bolivia’s capital of La Paz, Bear is wearing jeans and a black long-sleeved T-shirt. His beard is trimmed, and his hair is drawn back in a ponytail.

In 1999, Oso returned to Bolivia after working for several years on one of the world’s largest irrigation systems, in Pakistan. “That project was very technical,” he tells me. “When I arrived in Bolivia, I realized the central theme wasn’t one of engineering or design, but of rights. The legislative and regulatory frameworks, those are the central debates. To a community, what’s the use of a beautiful irrigation structure if you don’t have judicial security over your water?”

At the time, Bolivian peasants had no way of claiming ownership over their water. Companies could buy concessions, but the law treated farmers like squatters. In the decade leading up to the water war, Bolivia’s government had tried and failed to reform the country’s century-old water laws thirty-four times. Technicians and international consultants tended, however, to draft their proposals influenced by neoliberal theory without speaking to the people they would affect. In an attempt to break the deadlock, Oso convinced a Canadian agency, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), to finance an innovative research project.

The IDRC had been working on water issues in the Andes since 1996. Unlike the much larger Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), from which it is entirely independent, the IDRC is a crown corporation devoted to research with a view to development. (In other words, it doesn’t finance traditional development projects such as water pumps or dams, but mostly studies by Canadian and foreign researchers.)

Oso’s proposal to the IDRC was a blend of hard science and social science. Armed with a $270,700 grant, he and a number of colleagues from his NGO, Agua Sustentable, teamed up with Tiquipaya’s irrigators to map the area’s networks of water distribution. They then plugged their findings into MIKE, cutting-edge water modelling software developed by the Danish Hydraulic Institute.

“We took a real situation,” he tells me, still glowing with enthusiasm, “where there are real people, real systems, real demands for water—everything real. And we invented a new model called a ‘rights map’ that reflected the usos y costumbres with GIS, so you can see, visually, on the computer, how the water is distributed and what the demand is.

“We introduced the neo-liberal government model, and we modelled using the usos y costumbres, and we compared them. We had two parameters, efficiency and equity. And the result: the government model was less efficient and less equitable. Yes, the government model worked, theoretically, when the rain fell the way it was supposed to. But in Bolivia the climate varies tremendously. In years where there was a lack of rainfall, their model would provoke tremendous conflict. The Andean model knows how to distribute the water deficit without conflict, and the mathematical model proved this.”

Oso’s subsequent work has had its share of critics, but none of those I spoke to suggested that his initial study was flawed.

From the lab to the Senate

After Oso finished his research, he helped arrange workshops around the country where irrigators hammered out proposals for a new law that would recognize local usos y costumbres. In the process, many of the irrigators developed a sophisticated understanding of technical details. “In 2004, as the law was being debated, there was a moment when on one side of the table were government experts, and on the other were the campesinos,” Oso recounts. “And the campesinos just destroyed them on all the technical questions, it gave me so much joy. The experts said it was unjust, they were at a disadvantage—it was amazing. And they wanted us to train them!” He laughs. “You can see how much science can empower people.”

The toothless organizer

To get a better sense of the irrigators’ political savvy, I visited Senator Omar Fernandez’s partner, Carmen Paredo, in the city of Cochabamba. I heard in La Paz that she’s the real brains of the pair. Paredo works at the headquarters of FEDECOR, Cochabamba’s union of irrigators, on the first floor of an old union building just off the city’s central plaza. The dusty, rickety building felt like a squat, though upstairs you would find Oscar Olivera, perhaps the most important leader—certainly the most visible spokesman—of the 2000 water war.

I found Paredo working the phone, arranging a rally for the August 10 referendums that would ultimately lead to the recall of her hated enemy, the prefect Manfred Reyes Villa. “The issue, Carlos, is that you have to trust me!” she shouted into the headset, pounding her fist. “If you don’t, we’re fucked!” Technically, her title is “adviser.” A big woman, she wore cotton track pants and a colourful, patterned cardigan. She had a wide, tough face and spoke faster than most Bolivians, her thin lips revealing four missing front teeth. She’s been living politics since she was a kid. I asked her whether female irrigators here are locked into a subservient role, a generalization often made about the developing world.

“The roles are changing a lot right now,” she replied. “The family economy is evenly divided, and more and more women are reaching the senior ranks of the irrigators’ unions. As women, we’ve very clued in to the usos y costumbres. We can’t imagine life without irrigation. Women wake up at two, three in the morning, they go to irrigate, it’s their way of life. Women probably came out in more force than men in the water war.

“It’s not the discourse of before,” she continued, “where the woman has the house work and the farm work. Now, lots of women work in commerce and the roles are changing more and more.”

Then she shifted the topic from women to families, emphasizing the unity and intelligence of irrigators as a whole, in opposition to earlier governments and their worldviews. “The technician up above can have a master’s or a doctorate, but doesn’t know the uses and customs,” she said. “Many irrigators have academic knowledge, too. Their children are professionals and they have their own wisdom from their own culture.”

I asked her why, if there was so much force behind this new irrigation law, progress in granting the irrigators their registros has been so slow? “This is a process, change in a democracy. It’s slow, but sure.” Like the turtle? I asked. “Not that slow.”


Omar Fernandez is one of those people. As the elected head of Tiquipaya’s irrigators, Fernandez played a central role in the 2000 water war before leaping to the national stage as an elected senator of Cochabamba province. To meet him, I weave through endless bureaucrats in suits across the worn paving stones of Plaza Murillo, La Paz’s cozy, colonial central square, 3,500 metres above sea level. On the Senate’s second floor, I brush by three giggling women in indigenous polleras to step into his crimson-carpeted office.

Squat and round, he’s wearing a red checkered shirt and a nylon jacket zipped almost all the way up. Back home in Tiquipaya, he still grows corn and lettuce and directs the irrigators’ union. Here in La Paz, he draws on the experience in governance he picked up during the research process. I ask him about the moment when the irrigators overwhelmed the government technicians.

“It was interesting,” he says, “because we used to think that only congressmen and lawyers could write laws. And then I realized that the people, our communities, could do the same, they also had the capacity to work with these terms and concepts. With the support of technical people, we had lots of meetings, did lots of evaluation and analysis, looked at the laws we already had, and that’s how we wrote the irrigation law.”

The irrigation law was the first in Bolivia’s history to be drafted from below. In October 2003, during a pause between bloody battles in the streets of La Paz, congress voted unanimously to adopt it—an unprecedented level of consensus.

It was a typical Bolivian triumph. Social movements had forced the government’s hand and extracted a legislative victory. The president of the day, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada—soon to flee the country after allegedly unleashing a massacre—refused to pass the bylaws and regulations needed to implement the law. So nothing actually happened. It wasn’t until 2006 that the new president, Morales, passed the needed bylaws and Bolivia’s new water ministry was able to get to work.

Now, with the country on its third water minister in three years, things are finally moving. Early this year, Tiquipaya became the first of about a dozen communities to receive registros from the central government that officially recognize (and in legal practice establish) their legal right to use their water basin in perpetuity. Dozens more registros are on the way. All in all, Bolivia has about 500 irrigation systems providing for 1 million peasants, plus countless informal systems. (For more on what this has meant for women, see sidebar.)

For a research project to have such an impact is rare. “You don’t expect to play such a major role in the formation of a policy, never mind having it passed, ” says the IDRC’s Merle Faminow, a Uruguay-based program leader who has worked with Oso since 2002. The program’s success owes something to the IRDC’s emphasis on long-term projects, which allows its partners enough time to develop strong relationships and to adjust when conditions change.

The initiative is not without its critics, however. Carlos Crespo, a sociologist from Cochabamba, believes the new law gives irrigators too much power. It assumes the strength of their unions’ democratic structures and leanes too heavily on communities’ usos y costumbres. “This will only create a new aristocracy of organized irrigators within the broader peasant community,” he says. He doesn’t think the usos y costumbres can reign this tendency in, and suggests that Oso has romanticized their power.

A national irrigation board is nevertheless up and running, and eight of the nine provinces have set up or are in the process of setting up regional institutes. At both levels, the largest block of directors will come from irrigators’ associations. When I left Bolivia at the end of June, the Cochabamba province—the birthplace of the irrigation law, at the time being governed by Reyes Villa—was the only remaining holdout.

Since then, political events have taken dizzying turns. In August, recall referendums were held for the presidency and the country’s nine governors. Reyes Villa lost support, scoring beneath 40 percent and resigning his post. Morales, meanwhile, won 67 percent, a substantial increase over his historic 53 percent three years prior. Despite this, Bolivia’s elites are largely fed up with him, and last week, government opponents killed at least thirty indigenous people in one of the resource-rich eastern provinces where the opposition is based. Today, Bolivia is on the brink of civil war.

If Morales’s government survives, more change will be on the way. Oso’s Agua Sustentable, with IDRC’s continuing support, is using the irrigation law as a springboard to try to change all water laws. Bolivia’s water ministry is currently adapting the irrigation framework to drinking water. Agua Sustenatable has also helped legislators draft a new constitution (to be voted on in a future referendum) that contains a sophisticated concept of water rights: the right of agua para la vida, water for life, a concept that recognizes not just the rights of humans, but of all living beings and the environment itself.

A lengthy thirst

As I pace around central Combuyo, a small village in the outskirts of Vinto in the valley of Cochabamba province, I hear the soft purr of irrigation water rushing through a slender canal of potted cement. Here, I meet Félix Cáceres, an energetic and articulate campesino in worn wool pants and a grey, V-neck sweater. Deep squint lines radiate from his dark brown eyes, cutting across his temples and the bridge of his nose.

Combuyo’s farmers grow lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, peas, potatoes, and gladiolus flowers in small, square plots, but the dispute of the day here over drinking water—or rather, a basin that a wealthy local aristocrat has tried to fence off for his own use. According to Don Félix, he has even hired soldiers to fend off peasants. But the villagers have managed to maintain access, and without outside help built a water tank. “We’ve had the usos y costumbres from time immemorial,” he tells me.

We take up a pickup truck up a rocky path, then hike through a river of boulders to visit the spring that supplies the drinking water, through hundreds of meters of thick rubber tubes. Our ascent takes up past one of countless groves of Australian eucalyptus planted throughout the valley decades ago. The trees are fragrant and beautiful but suck vast quantities of water out of the already dry earth—one of many misguided foreign aid projects that still haunt Bolivia.

Combuyo is about to get Bolivia’s first official drinking-water registro, granting them legal title to their drinking water source in perpetuity. Cáceres is bursting with enthusiasm as he tells me how excited his fellow villagers are to finally have a title to their water to match their title to the land—with the difference that the water cannot be sold or otherwise brought to market.

He expands to more general topics. “Before, the guys with the cash were the presidents. Now, thanks to the unions, to the social movements, we’re in power and we’re in charge. Sure, our side is making mistakes,” he concedes with a smile, “But we gave the others two centuries!” Five, in fact: before Bolivia became a country, it was ruled for nearly 300 years by the Spaniards. Local control over life’s most basic material has been a long time coming.

Daniel Aldana Cohen