By Sarah Hines, author of Water for All: Community, Property, and Revolution in Modern Bolivia
In January 2006, Evo Morales Ayma became the first indigenous president of Bolivia. He was elected in the wake of a five-year period of popular rebellion that began with mass protests against water privatization in the Cochabamba Valley.
In 1999, the Bolivian government had contracted Aguas del Tunari, a consortium of companies that included the US construction giant Bechtel, to administer water provision in the city of Cochabamba and the surrounding countryside. The new company dramatically increased water rates for municipal customers and took over autonomous drinking water systems in neighborhoods on the city’s outskirts and irrigation networks in farming communities, charging these new “customers” to use water systems they had built and paid for themselves. In response, water users from across the region occupied streets and highways, erected barricades, and held mass assemblies and rallies. Rather than negotiate, the government dispatched soldiers and police who unleashed tear gas, clubs, and bullets against protesters and bystanders alike. Undeterred, the protesters regrouped and their numbers grew.
Remarkably, the protesters won. In April 2000, the Bolivian Congress rescinded the 1999 law that permitted water privatization and Hugo Banzer — former dictator turned elected president— canceled the government’s contract with Aguas del Tunari. News of Cochabamba’s 2000 Water War, as this conflict came to be known, spread among activists across the world.
At the time, I was a college student in New York City and was active in the Global Justice Movement that opposed neoliberal economic policies like free trade, deregulation, and privatization of public services like water. In April 2000, I attended the “A16” protests against the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Washington, DC. Oscar Olivera, the Cochabamba union organizer and Water War leader, spoke about Cochabambinos’ victory against water privatization. I was inspired and intrigued by this movement that had won while so many others like it were losing.
Over the next five years, Bolivians protested water privatization in other cities, foreign control over natural gas, coca eradication, and other policies like tax increases that increased the cost of living. Social movements around the country took up Cochabamba water activists’ call for a constituent assembly that would transform Bolivia into a more just and democratic nation with a new constitution (a proposal first made by lowland indigenous groups). Through grassroots mobilization—strikes, roadblocks, rallies, and marches, from the highlands to the valleys to the lowlands—social movements built enough power to defeat neoliberal policies on the ground and then neoliberal political parties at the polls.
I first traveled to Bolivia in June 2004 when I was a high school social studies teacher in the Bronx. By then protesters had forced President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to resign over recent events; state security forces had killed upwards of 80 people during October 2003 protests against a government plan to allow a transnational company to export unrefined natural gas through Chile to the United States. I met union activists in La Paz and water activists in Cochabamba who were transforming Bolivian politics.
I returned to Bolivia in 2006–2007 with a Fulbright grant to research the roots of Cochabamba’s Water War, and again from 2010 to 2015 to research and write my doctoral dissertation on the history of social struggle over water. What I found was that the Water War was the latest battle in a century-long struggle over water access and property rights. Rather than simply protesting rate hikes or privatization of the municipal water company, Cochabambinos were fighting to defend something that they had already won over many decades through their labor and protest: democratization of water access and decision-making.
My new book, Water for All: Community, Property, and Revolution in Modern Bolivia, tells the story of how Cochabamba’s water users broadened access to water through their labor and protest in the century before the 2000 Water War. It begins in the late 1800s when rural estate owners hoarded water sources that city residents, small farmers, and estate workers needed for irrigation and drinking water. By the end of the twentieth century, a wide array of groups, including public water utilities, urban neighborhood cooperatives, and small farmers’ collectives owned and controlled water sources and systems that had been estate property a century before. The book shows how water users’ labor, protests, purchases, and seizures of hoarded water sources brought about this sea change. The watershed moment in this process came after Bolivia’s 1952 revolution, when estate workers won not only land but also water rights away from estate owners. The struggle for water access in the decades that followed involved payment strikes against rate hikes, caravans of city dwellers to the mountains to take over delayed water supply expansion projects, and sabotage to prevent the municipal service from siphoning off well water from small farmers.
While Cochabamba water users have at times competed over water, they have repeatedly united to set the terms of intervention by powerful outside entities like the national state, transnational corporations, and international lenders like the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank. Cochabambinos won the 2000 Water War due to their ability to unite despite their differences, their shared experience of building popular control over water provision and policy, and their shared vision of a more just, bottom-up democracy where water users themselves determine how to ensure plentiful water for all.