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Community for Water Solutions: Charla con Oscar Olivera

Oscar Olivera is the director of “la Fundación Abril,” an organization in Cochabamba, Bolivia which seeks to address water issues in the city.

Prior to meeting this icon of the Cochabamba Guerra de Agua (Water Wars), we read a chapter from the book “Dignity and Defiance” about social revolutions in Bolivia. Señor Olivera was mentioned many times as a leader of the movement, who was arrested during the conflict and later went to Washington, DC to share his story. We had the privilege to hear his perspective about the fight against the privatization of water and for it as a fundamental human right. We sat all together in the program house around a wooden table, Oscar, our three instructors, us eight students, and Jackie, a Fulbright scholar working with the organization. Oscar wore a stylish black v-neck shirt, blue jeans, leather shoes, aviators, and a sombrero. We sat together, riveted, as he told us about his lucha (fight) en la Guerra de Agua some 18 years ago, a moment which he says changed his life forever.

Oscar was a worker in a metal factory for many years. He had been involved in organization for much of his life, as a sindicalista (unionist). He gives us a bit of background of his country. In 1985, when global mineral prices dropped, there was a rupture in the economic, political, and organizational systems in Bolivia, and neoliberalism took charge of the three areas. For the next fifteen years there was a simultaneous weakening of the old workers’ movement- due to the closure of factories and mines and thousands of workers being left unemployed- and a development of a new workers’ movement of the younger generations. In 2000, Cochabamba was forced to enfrentar (confront/face) la privatización del agua, which triggered the union of two worlds and generations, those of the older workers and younger people of the city.

He describes to us the beginning of the fight. Oscar says, “As young people you’ll encounter situations that you just can’t take. We realized in our minds and hearts that there weren’t leaders or bosses and we had to create change ourselves.” He said that “la gente tiene que asumir por sí misma la posibilidad de cambiar una situación” (the people had to take upon themselves the possibility and responsibility to change a situation). There formed a new dynamic of organization for the fight through the synthesis of the two working class generations. Oscar was part of the older unionist movement: a system of hierarchy and delegation which was extremely structured but at the same time weak. They opened the door “y nos uníamos” (joined together) and formed a deep both with the young, passionate artists who consisted of both men and women, and had no rights and were invisible in society. In order to confront Becktel (the large, multinational water company), the IMF, the dictator government, and the military, people needed clarity to understand exactly what they were fighting for. As a principle of organization, they needed to view each other as equals; there was a little hierarchy or vanguard, and teachers, workers, prostitutes, and pilots fought together. Oscar attributes their ability to prevail to their unity and mutual understanding. He told us about their aim to recuperate community based, ancestral practices such as assemblies, dialogue, rotating leadership, and a transparent use of money.

After the Water Wars, Oscar won the Goldman prize for the defense of the environment. I remember learning about other recipients of the status in my ‘Environmental Justice and Sustainability Class’ and was incredibly awed to be in his presence. He was awarded 125,000 $, and he gave the money to seven trusted people to create la Fundación Abril. Their main purposes are to rebuild community values, to open lines of communication with sectors of society and to raise awareness of defending water rights. Oscar spoke of community as both a social and geographic space where people come together with deep values and establish formas de conviviencia (forms of co-living). The values he listed off the top of his head were solidarity, reciprocity, respect, transparency, collective work, and a harmonious relationship with nature. He spoke of “autonomía- que permite la gente tomar sus propias decisiones y tareas” (Autonomy- which allows people to take their own decisions and work). As to what the Fundación is working on directly now, they are deciding where to focus efforts. Oscar remembers how Becktel was a clear, visible enemy, whereas cambio climático (climate change) is an invisible enemy. There is still a lack of solutions about access to water. The people in the organization ask, where is it possible to, as quickly as possible, solve problemas cotidianos (day to day problems) in Cochabamba. The foundation’s solution was to build huertos (edible food gardens) and rainwater catchment tank in schools. These are pedagogical tools to teach the communities about climate change, water scarcity, and lo que está pasando en el mundo (what is happening in the world). He says, “Es un espacio de encuentro en que podamos organizar, trabajar y conectar a matemáticas y biología” (it is a space of encounter where we can organize, work and connect to math and biology). Oscar also brings up Ayni, a fundamental Quechua value about collective work and reciprocity. With the gardens, the work in not only physical but intellectual and they can learn about labor. After the huertos and rainwater catchment tanks are built, la Fundación follows up many times with the schools.

San Salvador is a community in Cochabamba where la Fundación will build two tanks. It is five years old, the first place which does not have a partner school, and the first site which reached out to la Fundación rather than the reverse. There is no water, no school, no church. “Maybe that’s a good thing,” Oscar jokes, referring to the lack of church. He said that rapid urbanization has created a situation where the people live in “condiciones precarios” (precarious conditions), as has happened all around the world. Oscar relays the process of building the water tanks. “La contraparte de la comunidad” (counterpart to the foundation’s financing and technical expertise) is providing physical labor and organization, so that they are part of the process and take ownership. La Fundación Abril receives funds from an organization in Europe, where a partner city in Italy is taxed per space occupied. The funds go to a municipality, and are awarded in grants on the basis of the capacity to demonstrate efficacy, transparency, and proof that they benefit a community directly. “Ciudadano directo a ciudadano.” Each system takes roughly three weeks to construct, and costs 2,000$, as opposed to Evo Morales’ similar program which costs five times as much, and is a beaurocratic, long, and complicated process.

Our group went to learn about the construction and helped out for the first three days. Before the project, the community performed a q’oa, a spiritual ceremony, in order to conversar con la Pachamama and explain why they’re digging into the ground. From Oscar, I learned about a local nonprofit organization looking to find sustainable community solutions. Water is the biggest crisis the city of Cochabamba faces, and is being confronted all over the world as pollution and climate change melts glaciers and takes away water sources. His positive attitude and extreme determination in the face of a changing planet is inspiring, as is the work that he has done for the past decades. Oscar Olivera hopes to work with communities to build a new world full of solidarity and justice.

He brings up our presence, as foreigners in his country. “No existe concepto de extranjero. Todos somos hermanos y hermanas en caminos de aprendizaje. Todos vivimos en el mismo mundo, solo vienen de un poco lejos.” Thank you for your time and wisdom, Oscar. ¡Gracias!