Oscar Olivera: After the Water War

Source: Roar Magazine

Cochabamba taught us that the real issue is not the capture of state power, but the creation of new pathways from the grassroots up.

In Latin America, the struggle for water as a common good is present in almost all environmental conflicts—sparked by extractive, industrial, highway and energy projects—but also forms part of the agenda of urban and labor movements rallying against privatization, shortages, sanitation problems, and so on.

This does not come as a surprise, since water—as a common good and as a human right—is an essential part of our lifeworld, of how we relate to the planet and to each other. Water to be consumed and managed by humans; water for the reproduction of life; water as a living entity that flows and evolves; water as a sacred being or territory: all the above are perceptions radically opposed to water as a commodity, to water as a “resource” or financial asset.

The Cochabamba Water War

Water privatization signifies not only the expropriation of a public good, but also the destruction of collectively managed community water systems. The consequences of this destruction extend far beyond the loss of physical property: the aim of these actions is the dissolution of people’s power that was constructed around these organizations. This was one of the underlying motives that sparked the Cochabamba Water War in Bolivia in 2000.

Following a rise of more than 200 percent in tariffs, the expropriation of the self-managed water systems and the stripping away of their powers of deliberation and decision, various social, labor, peasant and neighborhood organizations began to mobilize. After days of protest and coordination between the different organizations in struggle, the Coordinating Committee for the Defense of Water and Life (Coordinadora por la defensa del agua y la vida) was formed.

The Coordinadora was an innovative kind of organization at that time, as it broke with the logic of trade unionism (a current that is hierarchical and even authoritarian to a certain extent), to establish processes of decision-making based on direct democracy. Through councils and assemblies, the Coordinadora achieved a broad social legitimacy at all levels—even among the upper and middle classes—as it did not recognize any leaders or chiefs; it was constructed as a space with which everyone could identify.

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