Warning message

Please note that this page is from our archives. There may be more up-to-date content about this topic on our website. Use our search engine to find out.

There was barely time to toast their victory running the water multinational out of town before the citizens of Cochabamba, Bolivia had to turn to their next task: the challenges that came with winning back community control of their water system.

Bolivian union activist and community organizer Oscar Olivera brought the story of Cochabambas struggle and ongoing challenges to Canada in April, looking for solidarity and support. Olivera plays a key role in the community-based Coor-dinadora that led the water revolt and is now organizing to rebuild and expand the water systems of Bolivias third-largest city.

A year to the day after Cochabam-bans occupied the water privateers offices a turning point in the fight that eventually scuttled the water privatization plans Olivera marked the anniversary at a solidarity meeting with CUPE representatives in Ottawa on April 5.

[At the time of the occupation] the government said we were a group of five drug bandits who were paying the people to protest. But at the barricades were seniors, nuns, children they werent in the pockets of anyone, says Olivera, who has worked for nearly a quarter century in a Bata shoe factory.

Before meeting with CUPE, he participated in the Canadian Labour Congress anti-privatization conference and gave delegates a moving account of the Bolivian water fight.

Conference participants gave passionate support to a resolution sending a strong message of solidarity to the Bolivians adamant they will retain control of their water and build a strong, community-controlled system.

The water crisis sparked an uprising that spread across the country and was met with the violence of martial law.

The Cochabamba protests began soon after the Aguas del Tunari consortium signed a 40-year contract taking over the citys water and sewer services. The single-bidder sale of Cochabambas public system was pushed on government officials by the World Bank. The consortium was headed by International Water Limited, jointly owned by Bechtel and the Italian utility Edison.

With control of the system, IWL wasted no time imposing massive increases for water and sewer services that meant increases of up to 300 per cent.

The people engaged in massive civil disobedience, says Olivera. We burned copies of water bills in the city plaza, and called for people not to pay their bills. So the company had no money to cover its operating costs.

Residents who drilled wells in their own homes couldnt hide from the corporation. Each family was expected to pay to install a meter on their well, and then would have to pay 90 per cent of the commercial rate for the water they used. They were seen to be taking the companys water out of the water table, says Olivera.

Activists also organized a city shutdown, which together with the bill revolt forced an agreement to reverse the increases. That agreement was not honoured, and the activists returned to the streets to protest and blockade. The Coordinadora also organized a community consultation and referendum.

Ninety-four per cent of local residents voted that Aguas del Tunari should go home, says Olivera. And it wasnt just that the people said no. Whole neighbourhoods and consumer groups came together to articulate an alternative vision for water.

Reports emerged that the consortium had packed up and fled the country. When IWL then tried to backtrack, protesters led by Olivera and others stepped up the pressure through occupations and other direct action. During a series of tense confrontations, troops shot and killed a young protester.

By now, we had the support of the mayor and the business elites, says Olivera no mean feat in Bolivia. When the government finally bowed to public pressure agreeing that Aguas del Tunari had abandoned its contract, community leadership was needed right away.

The Coordinadora never aspired to run a water company, says Olivera. But we needed a solution. The people hadnt had water for a week. We asked the people, and they said the Coordinadora should run it.

The community set up a transitional board that includes a representative from each of the citys six main zones, two from the Coordinadora, two technical experts and one representative of the local water workers union.

Governing the water utility is new territory for everyone. Theres a high level of corruption in Bolivia. Public bodies are run by the political parties. So we wanted a body thats responsible and accountable to the community, and that allows community participation. Theres no real model for this, says Olivera.

Cochabambans and the country as a whole are also facing the wrath of the water multinational. IWL reincorporated as a Dutch company as it was taking over Cochabambas water, and is now using a bilateral trade deal between Holland and Bolivia to try and extract as much as US$40 million in damages and lost future profits.

The local water utility is also facing a $19 million debt (including $7 million run up by the consortium before it fled), and needs a projected $45 million in renovations and improvements to the system. In the 10-month period since the community took control of the utility, it has turned a $1.5 million surplus for reinvestment in the system the first time in the utilitys history, and at rates far below the multinationals profiteering.

There are also technical problems that bring with them inequality. The system is neither efficient nor fair. Rich communities have water 24 hours a day, while some barrios get water for two hours per week. There are illicit connections, and there are leaks, says Olivera, who says the goal is to connect everyone and develop a fair rate structure.

And, in a national election year, the political stakes are also high. The political parties are determined that we fail. The Coordinadora threatens their power. But community support is high, he says.

That support and the solidarity shown by unions and other supporters gives the Coordinadora the strength they need to complete the struggle against privatization by cementing a strong, community-based system. It gives residents a lot of energy, said Olivera, who was leaving to return to Bolivia.

A week after the CUPE meeting, Olivera was again on the front line of the struggle for justice, picked up by Bolivian security forces for his part in a march to the capital of La Paz. Demands of the march include an end to government attempts to privatize water. News of Oliveras detention spread through the internet. Released hours later, Olivera rejoined more than 1,500 farmers, teachers, workers and others on the March for Life and the Sovereignty of the Peoples.

To read the complete story of the Bolivian water uprising, visit americas.org/country/Bolivia. The dispatches of Cochabamba resident and Coordinadora supporter Jim Schultz, collected here, shared first prize in the 2001 Project Censored Awards, handed out annually to the stories most underreported or ignored by the mainstream media. The overall first prize was awarded to stories documenting the multinational push to privatize water.

Karin Jordan