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Bolivia Water Dispute Spurs Anger By KEVIN GRAY, Associated Press Writer

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia (AP) -- Around the leafy plaza of this colonial city in the Andean foothills, steps from a 16th-century church and Indian women hawking fresh fruit, spray-painted messages tell of a battle waged.

''Water is not for sale!'' reads one slogan, painted in black. Another in red declares: ''The water belongs to the people of Cochabamba.''

A decades-old dispute over water rights sparked demonstrations, roadblocks and violent confrontations across Bolivia last week. In this city, thousands of Indians crowded the Plaza 14 de Septiembre to protest.

For angry campesinos, the matter was simple: They had for decades shared among themselves the cost of maintaining their local wells, and now the government was privatizing the water supply. Under an approved plan, an international consortium began administering water in parts of the city, and initial bills shot up between 35 and 200 percent.

The result was a head-on clash of the free-market policies of modern-day Latin America against decades of Bolivian tradition. The struggle brought Cochabamba, Bolivia's third-largest city, to a standstill.

Brandishing sticks and iron bars, men, women and children manned roadblocks in a haze of smoke and tear gas. Buses idled, store shelves sat empty and the price of soda skyrocketed fivefold. By the time the protests subsided nationwide, six people lay dead.

Cochabamba, 350 miles east of the capital of La Paz, has had water problems dating back a quarter century. Only half the city's residents have regular access to treated water; slightly less have a working sewage system. It's not unusual to see throngs of Indian families washing their multicolored wraps in the shallow rivers snaking around the city.

But mountain water flows freely just beyond the jagged Andes mountaintops, and a consortium led by London-based International Water Ltd. had hoped to redirect the water through a long tunnel. The $200 million project, which the government can't afford by itself, would have served as a source of electricity and provide water for corn, alfalfa and fruit on nearby land.

But the farmers argued against the plan, saying they were backed by a 1906 law written when Bolivia was a mostly agrarian economy. They said it states that water is not for sale because it belongs to the state.

''That's where the government's problems with this whole privatization began,'' said Gonzalo Rico, director of a state-owned company involved with the water project. ''It didn't help that the farmers didn't understand how the project worked and that it would bring better water to them in the long run.''

One protest organizer, Juan Flores, said the farmers never considered water a resource that could be bought or sold by the state.

''Suddenly the government was selling water sources that had been financed and maintained by these communities,'' he said. ''And the new prices are way out of reach for many of these people.''

Many in the most humble neighborhoods make little more than $65 a month, said Victor Flores, a community leader in one barrio, called Vinto.

A few of the simple, one-level brick homes have running water, Flores said, but many don't. Barefooted kids carry metal cans to collect water from an open well. Elderly men, bent over by heavy plastic pails of water, stagger down dusty roads.

''Sometimes the water comes out looking like coffee, or algae will build up in the sinks or toilets,'' Flores said.

''Of course we want water that is clean and drinkable,'' he said, ''but we can't afford it at these new prices.''

Like much of Bolivia, Cochabamba has felt the sting of a government crackdown on coca leaf planting, once a leading source of income. And what first began as a battle over water soon spurred widespread protests against President Hugo Banzer, who Bolivians insist isn't doing enough to jump start the economy of South America's poorest country.

Soon after the first unrest began, policemen were demanding higher salaries. So were teachers at rural public schools. Meanwhile, thousands of Aymara Indian farmers upset over Bolivia's struggling economy filled the streets.

Banzer, a former dictator turned democrat, responded April 8 by decreeing a state of siege. The emergency declaration restricted travel and political activity while setting curfews.

A day later, the international water consortium, called Aguas del Turani, pulled out.

The people in Cochabamba cheered the news and the government's announcement that it would roll back the water law imposing fees for rural well water. It was a rare victory over the government by Bolivia's poor.

But the week of violence and the subsequent government concessions did little to solve Cochabamba's nagging water problem. The occasionally muddy water still flows, and many Indian families still gather around open water wells.

Sitting in his office off the plaza where the protests raged only a week ago, Cochabamba Mayor Manfred Reyes Villa contemplated the violence and its outcome.

''I think it's almost impossible that another business will want to come in here and invest in this project,'' he said.

Meanwhile, in another protest that broke out after Cochabamba's water protests ended, coca leaf farmers lifted roadblocks on a key road linking the Andes to the coast after the government agreed to suspend eradication of their crops.

The government said it would negotiate with the farmers over its plans to the destroy plantations of coca leaf, used in the production of cocaine, as part of anti-narcotics efforts.

AP-NY-04-18-00 2209EDT<

-- Martin Thompson (, April 18, 2000

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