International Solidarity for the Struggle for Water Justice in El Alto, Bolivia


Tired of high connection fees and demanding expansion of service, thousands of citizens of El Alto took to the street earlier this year to pressure the government to return water to public control. The water and sanitary sewerage system was privatized in the neighboring cities of El Alto and La Paz in 1997, when the government granted a concession to private consortium, Aguas del Illimani, controlled by French water giant, Suez. The people of La Paz and El Alto never asked for their water to be privatized. In fact, since the government negotiated the contract in secret, citizens had to learn that the water system was privatized when the water bills arrived at their doors with a new name on them. Although it was heralded as a “pro poor” contract that promised new connections, the contract left between 160,000 and 200,000 people in El Alto without access to water. After eight years of broken promises to expand services the citizens of El Alto had enough and organized a three-day general strike asking for the exit of Aguas del Illimani. Their action was successful, and on January 11, the government promised to cancel the contract.

The struggle to return water to public hands in El Alto is not over yet. For the past few months the government has been playing a waiting game. With the clock ticking and no concrete resolution in sight, the social movement that organized the protests has to fight to keep their forces united. To help arm the struggle, there was an international meeting last weekend in El Alto with water warriors from all over the Americas, including Uruguay, Argentina, and Canada. Their inspiring words helped to remind the residents of El Alto that they are not alone in the struggle to reclaim water from the grasp of transnational corporations.

The international meeting to support El Alto was primarily the initiative of the Coordinator for the Defence of Water and Life (the Coordinadora)—the social movement that led the struggles against water privatization in Cochabamba in 2000—and the Federation of Neighborhood Committees (FEJUVE), which played a crucial role in the “Gas War” of October 2003 and led the recent protests in January that pressed for the immediate exit of Aguas del Illimani from the cities of El Alto and La Paz.

The similarities between the struggles going on throughout the world were highlighted throughout the event. Maude Barlow, international water activist from the Council of Canadians and long-time friend of the water justice movements in Bolivia, told the audience that similar struggles against the Water Barons—Suez, Vivendi, and RWE Thames—are happening all over the world in cities like Atlanta, Johannesburg, Manila, and Buenos Aires. She argued that in both North and South, people are saying “no” to the corporate theft of water. They kicked Suez out of Atlanta, and peasants are organizing a boycott called “Coke Quit India”, against Coca-Cola, which is sucking water from aquifers that are also used by poor rural farmers in India, leading to overexploitation of water resources. She stressed to that, “it is important not to give up right before you are about to win” and that we need to continue picking at Suez “like mosquitoes” until they leave Bolivia and the Americas forever.

Carlos Santos, communications director from the coalition that successfully entrenched public water as a constitutional right in Uruguay last year, spoke about how the Bolivian social movements for water justice inspired their own struggle across the border. The coalition in Uruguay named itself the “Coordinadora,” after the organization in Cochabamba that played a central role in the “Water War” of 2000. He argued that the two struggles in Cochabamba and Uruguay share much in common. First, both movements were headed by coalitions with horizontal organizational structures in which there was no formal leadership. Second, both brought together various interests from different sectors, rural, urban, workers, the unemployed, etc. He attested that this kind of social movement organizing demonstrates that different interests can co-operate and that the result is nothing less than a new form of doing politics in Latin America. Carlos highlighted that all Latin American countries that have suffered through dictatorships and the neoliberal regimes that followed them have a long historical memory of struggle.

Omar Fernández from the Federation of Small Irrigating Farmers in the Cochabamba Valley (FEDECOR), focused on the imperialist relations between the Bolivian government and “international cooperation,” in particular the German Technical Development Agency (GTZ). According to Omar, the GTZ is to blame for the privatization of water resources in Bolivia, since it has been both financier and consultant in the process to formulate the Water Law, which set off the “Water War” of 2000. He noted that the GTZ did not have to wait for the regulations for the modified water law to be approved to come forward with its own law, ratified by a Presidential Decree that authorized the German version of “public-private partnership” called “anonymous mixed societies.” There are two such projects underway in Bolivia. Omar argued that by passing this law, the Germans are trying to impose their own model of water management in La Paz and El Alto. The fundamental objection is that these “public” utilities are regulated by the commercial code, which means that water can potentially be sold for a profit. The Germans have also stuck their unwelcome noses into the democratic process that was underway in El Alto to define a what kind of new utility should replace the private company in the two cities. The FEJUVE-El Alto is pushing for a democratic, publicly owned company which is managed by an elected board of citizens and treats water as a “common good”, not a way to make profit. At the end of February, the German Embassy emitted a statement to the press that makes their position clear: the new water company in La Paz-El Alto must involve some form of private participation in order to receive international credit.

The event concluded with the presentation of a one-way plane ticket to Suez, asking the company to leave Bolivia. As discussion among the participants highlighted, there is a growing movement in the Americas to form a “Coordinadora” at the international level to pressure the water transnational to back their bags and leave the Americas forever.

Update on the El Alto “Water War”: Maintaining Unity against Divide and Conquer Strategies

International solidarity with the El Alto movement is much needed in this crucial conjuncture in order to support the movement for water justice in El Alto. Compared to the “Water War” in Cochabamba, the struggle in El Alto has been relatively isolated. One of the problems is that the social movement is that its social base is located in El Alto, although the water system is shared with neighboring city, La Paz. As with most Latin American cities, both cities are highly stratified by race and class, and the poor, indigenous majority is concentrated in El Alto. The composition of the social movement is quite different from the Cochabamba “Water War”, which was a broader-based movement of rural farmers, the middle class and the urban poor. In La Paz-El Alto, tariff increases brought by privatization have not been dramatic enough to guarantee the participation of the small middle class of El Alto who already have water services (and failed to participate in the mobilization in March), and the residents of La Paz. Indeed, there has been little solidarity from La Paz, apart from ex-workers of SAMAPA, the public utility that was privatized, who have proposed to re-institute the former public utility. It is very difficult to know which organizations to contact to build solidarity since there are three different neighborhood organizations in La Paz, and the largest one has been co-opted by the Mayor, who is promoting the formation of a new public-private partnership with Suez. Furthermore, the El Alto conflict has not received near the same level of international media coverage. The state has not used violence to repress the El Alto struggle, and therefore there have not been as many sexy news stories.

In this context, both the company and the government have been using “divide and conquer” strategies to try to fragment and disorient the movement. As time drags on, people in El Alto are growing tired. Now that a few months have passed, the residents of El Alto most likely to gain from the struggle—residents who lack household water and sewerage connections—have grown visibly frustrated with the lack of progress at the negotiating table. As one resident commented in a FEJUVE meeting during a discussion about the new public utility, “How much more time will pass until we know when we will have water?” The government has been stalling on making any firm commitments to satisfy the demand of the protestors—that “Aguas del Illimani get out now, damn it/Que se vaya Aguas del Illimani, carajo”—fearing the possibility that Suez would sue the Bolivian government in international court if they terminated the contract unilaterally. This is exactly what happened when Bechtel-Abengoa was kicked out of the country five years before, and although Becthel dropped the lawsuit, Abengoa still continues to demand $25 million for damages and lost profits. The government remains hopeful that it will be possible to reach a “mutual accord” with the company after an audit of their investments.

Last week, the government finally approved two Supreme Decrees that bring the conflict a few baby steps towards resolution. One promises that the proposal to replace Aguas del Illimani will be approved by the end of July. While it is clear that the new company will not be named “Aguas del Illimani” given all the bad press, it is still not clear whether Suez will stay or go. The company has suddenly decided that it can provide services to those residents outside of the “served area” and has been knocking on doors in El Alto to offer its services. It appears that if at one time it wanted to leave, now it wants to stay. It is possible that Suez is trying to control the damage all this conflict has caused to its public image, given that the contract was one of the models for Latin America. Suez is also receiving political support from the Mayors of the two cities of El Alto and La Paz, both of whom hope to form a “public-private partnership” with Suez in which they, instead of the company, will channel the international loans and donations. Local residents suspect that El Alto´s mayor, Juan Paredes, has personal business interests in forming a new consortium. The reason behind Juan de Granado´s support for a public-private partnership is much more obvious given the pressure he faces from the Inter-American Development Bank, which has given his municipal government a $28.5 million loan for “institutional strengthening.”

The second Supreme Decree authorizes the government to conduct an audit of the company’s investments. This topic is highly contentious, since the residents of El Alto claim that there have been little, if no new investment besides that the neighbors have made themselves. Unfortunately, the government has only committed $175,000 to this task, when it has been estimated that an “integral audit” demanded by the FEJUVE would cost around $400,000. The FEJUVE wants more than just a book audit, and is demanding that it be consulted on the choice of auditor. There is great risk that the experience of Enron-Anderson could be repeated if the auditors suggested by the company are chosen, for they are all big firms that have interests in privatization. Indeed, as a recent report by UNISON (the largest association of public unions in the United Kingdom) demonstrates, the big auditing firms such as Ernst and Young, KPMG, Deloitte and Touche, and Pricewaterhousecoopers, have played a key role in pushing for the privatization of public services within the British government. The large auditing firms have a direct interest in the proliferation of private water contracts worldwide, since the privatization of public service means more auditing contracts for them.

The Bolivian government has also been catering to the desires of the most combative zones to try to lessen the possibility of further conflict. When blockades were erected again in El Alto in early March, the government promised that they would find $15 million to build water and sanitary sewerage systems in District 8, which was central in the January “Water War.” While only a fraction of this finance has since been guaranteed, the community organized an event last weekend to thank the politicians for their promises.

The FEJUVE is in a difficult position given rising tensions amongst the citizens of El Alto. At the last meeting of neighborhood presidents in February, the presidents approved a resolution that no one was to pay their water bills. As the case of Tucumán, Argentina in 1996 demonstrates, a payment strike can be an effective way to get rid a company that is only interested in making profit. However, there was widespread failure to implement this resolution and now those who complied face disconnection of water service and fines. The problem is not that the strategy failed, but that the FEJUVE leadership seems to have forgotten that such a resolution was taken. The FEJUVE leaders have taken other steps to try to deal with the problems with bills, such as opening a consumer complaint office in El Alto. While this may be necessary to assuage the fears of residents facing fines and higher water bills, it risks encouraging angry residents to take individual actions rather than collective ones.

The Thirst for Justice

As Eduardo Galeano wrote during the brutal dictatorship in Uruguay, “They wanted to take away our right to water. But they could never because they could not take away our thirst.” The thirst for social justice and freedom from want still runs strong in the El Alto movement to reclaim public water. As with any social movement struggling for justice in against neoliberalism and imperialism, however, the road is long and difficult, and victory is uncertain. Building solidarity between international water justice movements and the local movement is just as important as maintaining solidarity within the movement. Given the powerful interests at play in the El Alto water struggle, the latter is going to be difficult to achieve.

Susan Spronk is a doctoral candidate at York University currently living in La Paz. Thanks to Jeffery R. Webber for helpful editorial comments.

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