Water Wars in Bolivia


Sophie Styles 

Marcela
Olivera and Carmen Pereda both played a key role in the Water Wars,
which ousted the U.S. transnational Bechtel from Cochabamba, Bolivia.
Olivera helps to manage international links such as speaking tours
for her brother, Oscar Olivera, and volunteers from abroad. Pereda
is part of the Federation of Irrigators and a spokesperson for the
Co-ordinadora for the Defense of Water and Life. 

The
Co-ordindora is a coalition of workers, environmentalists, artisans,
peasants, market vendors, neighborhood organizations, local governments,
and other’s struggling against the privatization of Bolivia’s
water system. 

STYLES:
What is the representation of women within the Co-ordinadora? 

OLIVERA:
There isn’t a specific women’s group within the Co-ordinadora.
Carmen is the most visible person at the moment. We have never really
looked at the question of women and men—it has always been
open, anyone can get involved. This week we’ll be having our
first ever workshop on the participation of women in the Water Wars—to
explore the role of women and how they have been involved. 

When
Oscar, one of the spokespeople of the Co-ordinadora, talks about
the Water Wars, he always mentions the participation of women. Along
with the young people, women’s participation has been incredible,
he says. I remember that in one of the neighborhoods where one of
the largest blockades took place, the women stayed there to make
sure that no one would get through and that the police wouldn’t
break it up, while the men came to the center of town. 

PEREDA:
We did a workshop with the irrigators and it came out how resourceful
the women were—for example, against the tear gas, they came
prepared with vinegar. Then they stood in the front line to face
the soldiers saying that it would be harder for them to hit women.
You almost always saw women at the front. 

OLIVERA:
Yes, I remember that whenever there were confrontations with the
police, it was mostly women who were fighting back and getting arrested.
Their bravery was really incredible. 

PEREDA:
It’s also interesting that in the points of the blockades,
the people in charge of the groups were women, especially outside
the city center, because they are the ones that don’t drink.
They wouldn’t be drunk and starting fights. They would go around
and shut down the local bars and say, “Right, we’re going
to take things seriously here. No one is going to drink.” 

OLIVERA:
The women had more moral authority. And they were of all ages. Another
important thing was that when everyone was gathered in the central
square for a few days, it was women who brought food—like groups
of nuns. 

It’s
also very striking that at the start, people were talking about
“La” Co-ordinadora. Oscar, Gabriel, and others tell about
a day when they were being hunted and they went into a convent.
The nuns said, “We want to meet La Co-ordinadora, who is this
incredibly brave woman?” 

There
was this idea in a lot of people’s mind that the Co-ordinadora
was a woman. That it was a physical person, rather than a group
of people. There was an old man in April who went to Oscar’s
office and wanted to meet the Co-ordinadora, and Oscar kept saying,
“She doesn’t exist. We are a group of people.” This
was lovely—that people had an image of the Co-ordinadora as
a brave woman, from the countryside. 

Do
you think this has changed people’s attitude to women? 

PEREDA:
Yes, I think so. When the issue about water started in 1994 in a
village called Vinto outside Cochabamba, it was the women who organized
and started to fight against the government. 

What
was also incredible was the children and young people on the streets
who took over the square. 

OLIVERA:
One of the very important things that happened over these few days
was that the most marginalized sectors of society—the street
children, the unemployed, homeless, also women—took control
of very symbolic spaces. They were the ones at the center, the objects
of massive attention for a few days. People brought them food. 

What
are your personal experiences during these days? 

PEREDA:
I was in charge of the organization of the blockades, so I was in
an office. If there was a warning that the army or police were going
to break up a blockade, I was responsible for telling the companeros.
I was also involved in the meeting about an alternative proposal
to the law and lots of meetings with the state governors. Sometimes
I would go on my own and be in meetings that were only with only
men. 

OLIVERA:
One of the things that Oscar remembers is that when he was being
arrested and dragged away, Carmen went over and said “Just
wait a minute, you’re not leaving with him.” She started
to argue with police and they arrested her too. 

PEREDA:
That night I was the only woman arrested with other men, but I wanted
to be with them, I didn’t want to be on my own, and the police
said, “What if something happens to you?” I said I could
be in a cell with 20 of my companeros and nothing would happen.
It was a very interesting experience and there was a lot of solidarity. 

PEREDA:
I think it was worth it. It was a sign to the World Bank and the
IMF that there will be resistance to the privatization of natural
resources. I think it was a sign to the world that we can prevent
this kind of thing happening. 

We
are starting an election period, but we are against traditional
political parties. What they want is that we dissolve the Co-ordinadora.
They are terrified that we’ll convert ourselves into a political
party. But this isn’t our intention. I think we have shown
that transnational corporations are not the priority. I don’t
think the government would dare to pass a law without first consulting
the local population. The consciousness of people in Cochabamba
has been raised. 

What
was the response from groups in other parts of the world? 

OLIVERA:
The two people who played a key role in this were Jim and Tom—they
sent out information by email on what was going on in Cochabamba.
After they did this, we realized that there was an incredible amount
of support around the world and that lots of eyes were on Cochabamba.
There were solidarity actions in places as far away as New Zealand.
We never imagined that something like this would have so much resonance.
Another thing that happened is that contacts were made abroad. The
week after the Water Wars, Oscar went to protest against the World
Bank in Washington. There was so much solidarity. 

In
September there was a protest march by some of our companeros from
Cochabamba to La Paz and the government stopped the marchers, grabbed
them, and brought them back to Cochabamba. Some of our companeros
disappeared, so we very quickly sent out news of their disappearance.
Two hours after sending the emails, hundreds of faxes and letters
came to the government demanding to know what had happened, saying
“we are watching you.” This is really important. The government
now knows that it cannot treat us like this. 

Carmen
and Oscar are traveling to speak about what has happened and so
am I. Not only to share our experiences, but also to learn from
other struggles in other parts of the world. Something we have learned
over time is that we cannot only be against things and say “No
to the World Bank, No to the IMF.” We also need to have an
alternative, otherwise we’re doomed. 

That’s
a little bit what happened here. We got back the company and now
what do we do with it? We never imagined in our wildest dreams that
we would be in charge of a company. How are going to manage it?
At the most, we thought that we would be able to get a modification
of the contract, and to change a few parts of the law, but we never
thought we would have this kind of victory. 

Why
do you think you were so successful? 

PEREDA:
One of the main reasons for our victory is that we organized a lot
of educational workshops about the law so the people on the streets
knew exactly why they were there. A group of professionals analyzed
the contract very closely and found that it was completely illegal.
There was a lot of press coverage and the people of Cochabamba knew
that this transnational was of no service to them. 

OLIVERA:
I agree with Carmen—first, the clarity of information that
people had about Aguas del Tunari [a subsidiary of Bechtel] and
why they were against the it and, secondly, the company made a lot
of mistakes. Coming in and increasing the prices was very foolish.
This really hit people very hard. There were people who were earning
500 Bolivianos per month and had to pay 300 of those on water. It
was unbelievable. Also, when the government arrested people, more
came out in the streets. 

PEREDA:
When we organized the march, we thought everyone would get together—1,000
or so—and after a few speeches, that would be it. But the government
came with tear gas, beating people up, so people reacted. There
was a point when we were really weak—it was the seventh day
of the blockades. They arrested us. At that point, thousands of
coca growers came to support us, which was amazing. 

What
is the situation with SEMAPA? 

PEREDA:
Before the water wars, SEMAPA was directed by people related to
the government, but afterwards the management changed and it included
representatives of the Co-ordinadora as well as one of the workers.
We have worked to have a transparent process that is accountable
to the people. 

OLIVERA:
Another thing that has happened is that people have come to the
offices of the Co-ordinadora about issues other than water. We are
all realizing that the struggle was not only for water. You may
suddenly have control of the water, but other living conditions
stay the same. 

So
now the Co-ordinadora is moving into other types of campaigns, denouncing
other problems. An old woman came to us about her land being taken
away by the legal system. There are also parents who come to us
about the privatization of education and health. We are trying to
organize a series of campaigns, start discussion groups, go out
into the neighborhoods and let people know what is happening in
their area. We are also trying to give people legal advice about
their situation. People come from a rural community about a plan
the council has and we can analyze the project and let them know
if they are being cheated. People from all over the state now see
the Co-ordinadora as a trustworthy center where they can take their
problems. 

PEREDA:
We’ve had contact with people in these areas to help them resist,
organize, understand the legalities. Organizations have come together
in other parts of Cochabamba and Bolivia and have created a structure
like the Co-ordinadora, which the local and national government
are getting very worried about. 

OLIVERA:
We don’t want to enter the system and become another institution,
because we don’t believe in the rules of the game. We are going
to carry on as assemblies, as committees, with spokespeople. It
has to come from the grassroots and we see this as a long journey
of opening spaces, even if it is just a conversation with one or
two people. One of our companeros says that it’s about a process
of reweaving the social fabric. Neoliberal structural adjustment
policies have divided us and turned us into small separate cells,
so now it is about bringing these together—not just individuals
but whole social groups. The irrigators, a very rural group, have
linked with professionals, a very urban group; peasants with economists.
This is what it is about. 

Do
you feel part of a global movement? 

OLIVERA:
I do now, but I didn’t before, and I think this is the same
for a lot of people. Before, issues around the World Bank and the
IMF were very distant, in the newspapers that only economists read.
Since April, it has all changed. Both institutions are now in the
language of people on the streets. Everyone knows that they have
directly influenced what has happened here. When I had the opportunity
to travel and meet other people, it was incredible to realize there
are thousands of people all over the world in resistance, maybe
not about water, but against the same policies. I think that this
an important part of our work now, to make links with people abroad,
to understand what we have in common, and how we can find solutions
together—to learn from each other’s victories.                                         Z 


Sophie
Styles is a freelance writer and activist.