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 You are in: Home > Business> World Business Archive
World Business Archive
Broadcast 21st July 2000
Listen to the special report from James Reynolds

In the heart of Bolivia, a local community has managed to achieve the eviction of a multinational brought in to improve the region’s water supply. It has been seen by some as a a rare victory for locals over conglomerates and a setback, however small, for globalisation.

But where does the conflict and the victory leave the community? Our South America Correspondent James Reynolds reports from Cochabamba in Bolivia:

This is a story about running water, a multinational versus a local community, and a Bolivian factory worker with an admiration for Che Guevara.

Last year, the Bolivian government, in keeping with its privatisation policy, decided to sell off the water supply serving Cochabamba. The contract was won by a consortium partially owned by the US multinational Bechtel, who planned to improve Cochabamba’s water supply. It also decided to raise water rates.

The local community reacted angrily. Union workers, water truckers, and political leaders organised a campaign of opposition. Violence broke out. In April the government declared a state of emergency in Cochabamba. In the end, to calm the situation, the regulator told the water company to leave.

The man behind much of the campaign against the water company is Oscar Olivera, a worker with the poster of Che Guevara in his union office. He is buoyed up by his experience:

"The Cochabamba experience is new, perhaps unique in the world. Perhaps with the solidarity of everyone we can construct a new alternative, something which is not the corrupt state ownersship we have always had and something which is not privatisation imposed by the IMF or the World Bank."

Perhaps we can construct an alternative which is not privatisation imposed by the IMF or the World Bank. Oscar Olivera

What this "something" may be is rather hard to define. It is not clear as yet whether Oscar Olivera’s campaign will lead to anything. And despite the Cochabamba experience, private investors say they have not been put off from Bolivia or the rest of the region.

Even Geoff Thorpe, who is the the head of the water company which was thrown out, says that he would consider investing again:

"I think we have got to look at each business opportunity, each project, on its own merits. Each country on its own merits. And we have not changed our policy in relation to Latin America in any way."

For the moment there is stalemate. The private water company is now seeking compensation. Little has been done since it was thrown out to improve the city’s water supply. Almost half the population still has no access to running water.

Many of these people live in Alto Cochabamba, in tiny houses crowded on the outskirts of the city. People there have to buy barrells of water from water truckers, often at very high prices. Fidelia Gutierrez lives there with her seven children:

"When it rains, we do not have to buy water. But recently it has not rained. So we have to buy water. But this is difficult. We are poor. That is why we are living here."

There are many plans for improving the city’s water supply, but no one can agree on how to go about it. The victory over the multinational has not led to a new order - for many it has just preserved an old order few were happy with in the first place.

As long as the conflict continues and no alternatives are presented, people like Fidelia Gutierrez will have to carry on collecting rainwater from their rooftops.

As long as the conflict continues and no alternatives are presented, people will have to carry on collecting rainwater from their rooftops. James Reynolds

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