Back to
Two Dragons welcome the sunrise with an improvised dance atop the Andes. Photo by Ryan Gasper.

Organizing from the Grassroots: A talk from Oscar Olivera social leader of the Water War

Cochabamba is the third largest city of Bolivia.  It is in a valley in the middle of the Andes that faces many problems of water supply. This is a beautiful and productive valley and its people are willing to work and fight to change the precarious situation in which they live.

Bolivia has been a stage of structural adjustment policies that, with the promise of a better future, affected the lives of the people. Since 1985, privatization of public services and state-owned enterprises have begun to be accepted by the citizens of the country as a sort of fatal destiny. These were decided in almost secret meetings by the governors on duty in conjunction with international financial institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and large transnational corporations. In the 1990s, it was decided to privatize water in the city of Cochabamba.

Oscar Olivera, Bolivia’s social and trade union leader, shared with students from the Amazon-Andes Group A his experience in the defense of water as a common, public, and social good.

“The struggles of our peoples are not isolated struggles, they are the same struggles of all the peoples of the world who suffer injustice and oppression. These are people who create solutions to their problems and do not start from structured schemas or dogmas, but start with a collective action of the people “.

“El agua es nuestra carajo” (Water is ours, damnit!)

In Bolivia, according to Oscar Olivera, the so-called neoliberal governments decided to privatize water. With the support of the World Bank, a law was drawn up, without consulting the people, which allowed and mandated the privatization of public local water companies and deepened the historic dispossession of public property (and resources). In Cochabamba, these policies provoked an increase in water prices. People had to pay 20% of their family income for water consumption. Water sources that had been used by peasant communities for human consumption had to pass to private hands. People had also to ask permission to collect rainwater; even the rainwater was privatized!

Faced with this situation, people did not sit still. They began to organize in a horizontal and participatory way, with the aim of reclaiming water as a common good. This is why we left our homes and communities to confront this evil policy under the slogan “El agua es nuestra carajo”.

“Water is a common good for life.

Water is the blood of mother earth.

Water is a generous gift from Pachamama for all,

and that is why no one can appropriate the water.”

With this simple and deep vision of what water means people decided to take to the streets. At every corner of the city barricades were set up. We established fences and we confronted police repression. This struggle became history under the name the “Water War”. It lasted five months during which the people of Cochabamba firmly resisted until the government had to break the privatization contract of water and the modification of the law.

“This victory of the people of Cochabamba, of men and women, young and old, taught us, Bolivians, and all people around the world that they can make change happen and that confronting the powerful can change the course of history, breaking away from the models that oppress and impoverish us.”

In Oscar’s words, “when people start to regain self-confidence and trust each other, we discover that we are no longer afraid. People are no longer afraid of the police or transnational corporations. The main enemy is fear. When you conquer fear, you begin a process of building social coexistence and rebuilding your relationship with mother earth, with the environment, with the territory understood not only as geographic space but as a cultural space, as political-organizational space, as a living space.”

“Capitalism wants to destroy these forms of social coexistence that we have been building for many years. In Andean cosmovision, water is for all living beings and humans are part of nature, just like animals, plants, mountains, rivers; we are not above but we are part of this interconnected system.”

“From this great social mobilization, which I have been part of, I understood that the solution to our problems does not come and will never come from above (from politicians and experts). The solution comes from below, comes from a process of organization and collective work towards a common vision. From this struggle I learned that human beings should be like water: water is transparent, water is always in motion, water always brings us joy. Let’s be like water, brothers and sisters.”

Cochabamba, Bolivia, Thursday, October 23, 2017