We met with Oscar Olivera from the Abril Foundation. He has been supporting water and labour rights for the past twenty years. He told us about his role in the Cochabamba Water Wars, details of which can be found in his article, “Even the Rain.” In 1999 when the government attempted to privatize all sources of water (including community built wells and rain water) the people united in protest. In April 2000, after months of attempted negotiations that were ignored by the government, more than 100,000 people gathered in the city centre, blockading the streets and interrupting government function. Although snipers shot at them and one civilian was killed, the people would not back down. The result was the rescinding of law 2029, and the cancellation of the water privatization contract.
In addition to this victory, Olivera believes that other important lessons were learned. People lost their fear and realized that together they could defeat powerful forces. They felt confident in themselves and in each other. Stong human values such as solidarity, respect and reciprocity were shown.
Today, however, Oliveira laments that the enemy is invisible. The snow on the mountains is disappearing, seasons are changing, rural areas are losing young people and the rain is not coming. Climate change is responsible, but the people are not working together as they have in the past.
There is hope, however, in local solutions. Sixteen schools have implemented rain water collection systems. Some of this water is used to irrigate school gardens returning students to their roots. Academic subjects are taught through these gardens, and they provide places for the community to meet and collaborate together.
Living on the shores of one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes and having just experienced the wettest spring in memory, I was struck by Cochabamba’s water issues. Clearly the response to climate change in my part of the world will need to be quite different than Bolivia’s. At the same time, there are lessons to be learned from Cochabamba’s experience and inspiration to be drawn from its collective engagement. As Olivera encourages, we must work together in our communities to find solutions. This will require active effort by all of us.