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