17th April- Community Solutions- Community Struggles

April 18, 2010

The second main day of the Feria de Agua was held today. I went along not really sure what I’d find. The name Feria appears to cover a lot, there seems to be a Feria of something or other here every week.

As we arrived there were speakers on the main platform, mostly talking about the community strategies for getting the drinking water they need. This included raising money for wells, forming co-operatives and creating plans for the community for water use. All around the edge of the field there were stalls from all the different communities, many of them had made models of their communities. At the stall of ASEO, the ecological association of the East of Bolivia, I met Urbelinda Ferrufino. Her stall was demonstrating a community compost toilet system. She held up a jar of fine compost to the amazement of the assembled.

She explained to me that she saw these ecological projects as one of the only true solutions. “Many of these stalls say they are anti-neoliberal, but they are still buying into this model of having running water and sewage. It’s crazy!” She explained to me that there are blocks of flats and even hospitals in Mexico that have compost sewage systems.

The project she works with is also involved with tree planting, popular education and developing grey water systems. She invited us to visit the project and we talked about the possibility of linking up a small bit of funding from a seed swap in Bristol to a new seed swap project she wanted to start in the East of Bolivia. As I walked away she was beginning another round of explanations and giving out information to the assembled crowd. A few years ago I helped to edit a book with how to guides for gray water systems, solar showers and compost toilets. At this Feria it seemed like many of these projects were being demonstrated and linked up to the bigger issue of community control of resources and it was great to see things being scaled up to a larger scale level. See chapter from our book here:

Click to access HandbookForChangingOurWorld_chap2.pdf

A solar shower

A little later in the day I went to the 18th Table of the conference, or themed tent, “Collective Rights and Rights of the Mother Earth.” The assembled people discussed regional projects of extraction of natural resources. This is autonomously formed and in addition to the 17 official working groups of the conference and has been set up specifically to bring local issues of pollution, extraction and environmental degradation into the public eye.

It highlighted the contradictions between the discourse of mother Earth Rights and the projects which continue to expand under the MAS government.  There has been a battle between those proposing the 18th table, Bolivian National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ) and the government who insist that this conference is not for local issues.

From their press release;

“Copper mining in Corocoro, Bolivia. The water used in mining is dumped directly into the river, poisoning the land and river. With the construction of roads “rights” of Mother Earth are being violated in the Madidi
National Park in the northern of department of La Paz and Isiboro-Secure Park in tropical zone of Cochabamba. The people who live in these places will not be heard by Evo Morales.”

read more here http://achacachi.blogspot.com/2010/04/evo-will-not-hear-qulla-indigenous.html


16th April – An early morning wake up call

April 18, 2010

The day starts at around 5am with the sounds of a neighbours dog barking, loud bangs coming from doors at the other end of the hostel, and raised voices echoing across the courtyard. While we have been quite disciplined with our early morning starts, this morning we awake much earlier than anticipated.

The noise throughout the hostel increases, and it becomes quickly apparent that all is not well. “Open the door. Police. Immigration. Open the door” are the shouts from along the corridor, and the heavy footsteps come closer and closer.

Room by room is visited by the scores of police, flanked by members of the local immigration squad. We are each required to find our passports while answering questions as to our identities, countries of origin, place of arrival and reasons for being in Bolivia. The more unlucky in our group are subjected to full room and bag searches, as the raised voices and loud banging on doors continue around the building.

We each have our different conversations with the authorities in our individual rooms, and are led to believe that we’re on the receiving end of an immigration raid, linked to the upcoming conference, and as part of a strategy to ensure that there are no ‘undesirables’ in town as politicians and heads of state begin to arrive.

Though it’s hard not to be a little paranoid, and a fair bit shaken, our concerns are for those in this hostel and beyond that may not have the same passports and little official stamps as us. Satisfied that ‘we’ are here legitimately we are left in peace, though wondering how many local Cochabambinos are being viewed as undesirable by the authorities, and what that might lead to for them…

Later in the day we are told, with amusement, of a news piece that had been seen on a local television channel. A policemen inspects rooms in a local hostel, holding up slightly ripped bedsheets to camera, and pointing out signs of damp on the walls. He proudly explains the authorities role in ensuring that standards and conditions are good enough for the impending influx of foreigners heading to take part in the conference. While that might explain the continuing and vast amount of improvements that have been made to our hostel since our arrival, none of us recollect any of our early morning uninvited guests paying much attention to the state of our walls or our beds.

The evening treats us much better, as we meet with individuals from local collectives and autonomous groups to discuss their concerns and plans for the upcoming conference. While the focus of the conference remains steadfastly on international issues, and the historic climate debt owed by the most industrialised nations, no room is being made to examine the impacts of Bolivia’s current internal policies of extraction and commercialisation of natural resources. These policies can be seen specifically in the increased mining in San Cristobal, and the so called “green” mega-project dam in Pando, and none are on the table for discussion in any of the 17 working groups. “Everything inside the conference is already cooked,” we are told.

There was a strong feeling expressed that recent years have seen a co-opting of social movements in Bolivia, from a government claiming to represent, yet silencing those in dissent. We were reminded that during the Water Wars a foreign multinational was removed from the country without the aid or support of government of party political leaders, and no government is going to adequately deal with the current problems that the people face. Yet there is also a sense of paralysis felt, a fear that in speaking out against the current administration, social movements may play into the hands of the right-wingers that seek to destabilise and undo the achievements that have been gained.

During the interchange of ideas and positions, Alejandra spoke to us of the internal colonialism evident in many of the people of Bolivia. As small farmers and indigenous peoples have moved from rural areas to cities, in search of means of survival, they have also become increasingly effected by outside influences. Disregarding, and even feeling shame of, their cultural roots, many place the development models and cultures of the global north on a pedestal as something to aspire to.

While many in Europe have expressed the need for us travelling activists to have a mostly listening and learning role here in Cochabamba, she spoke of the distinct need for us to speak of our struggles. In making spaces for us to highlight the injustices and inadequacies of our own models of government, economics, development, and shallow cultures of consumption, we can help to displace the image of everything in the global north being ‘better’.

We look forward to continuing these conversations, and taking spaces in which these ideas can be shared and discussed further.


15th April – March to commemorate 10 years since the Water Wars

April 16, 2010

Water is Still a Privilege

The day began as we tried to get some breakfast and watched for the march to move off from the Plaza of 14th September. There were huge puppets, with a striking similarity to those seen in photos from the demonstrations in Seattle, a range of banners and a largely female crowd, with sun hats on. It was deceptive at first, appearing to be only a few hundred people, but as we moved out of the narrow central streets and along the main thoroughfare, it became apparent that there were many thousands of people marching. Banners included, ‘Water is a Right’, ‘The water is ours, dammit!’, and ‘Ten Years of Struggle’.

We marched quietly, apart from the occasional firecracker, along the main streets and over the heavily polluted river that runs through the city, toward the location of the conference being held as part of the commemoration. People were arranged in neighbourhoods or districts, and many walked in organised lines. An overwhelming majority were women, many with children and babies. It was a great atmosphere, determined and powerful.

We talked to Nellie, a woman from the Zona Sur, and asked her why she was marching. She explained that in the Zona Sur, or Southern Zone of the city, there is still no drinking water and it is expensive for families to buy it in. For them the struggle for water is ongoing, La Lucha Sigue! Zona Sur is made up of six districts and is home to around 250 000 people, some of the poorest in the city and those most affected by the ineffectiveness of SEMAPA (Municipal Service of Drinking Water and Sewage).

SEMAPA is the publicly owned company that was set up when Bechtel, the foreign multinational brought in during privatisation, was thrown out in 2000. One of the aims of the conference is to evaluate the failures and successes of SEMAPA, although that discussion was apparently cancelled last night, we don’t know why. The majority of people in Zona Sur still do not have access to water unless they buy it in containers at a high price, and this is one of the main criticisms we heard along the march. While 5-7 Bolivianos, (or 50-70 pence) per 200 litre container may not seem like much, Bolivia remains the poorest country in South America. The countrywide minimum wage is 175 Bolivianos a week, but this only applies to those with a contracted job. Many of those who live in Zona Sur will be eeking out a living as vendors on the streets or in the informal market, and therefore will only earn what they sell in a day.

It also became apparent that many of the people living in this area are not originally from Cochabamba, but have migrated from Oruro and Potosi. One of the reasons cited was the pollution from the water through the massive mining operations in these areas.

When the march arrived at the Complejo Fabril, (an old industrial estate that had been transformed into a football stadium) we dived for the shade under the trees. An elderly Quechuan woman, Justina, soon came over to where we were sat and began to inquisitively ask us questions, who are we, where are we from, what do we grow there and do we have running water? She was soon smiling and telling us not to leave Bolivia, or if we did to take her with us in our rucksacks.

The story of suffering caused by lack of water that she told us was very similar to Nelly’s. She said she was there because the authorities didn’t remember their areas, “We came here last year too, to demand water, but still there is no water and no sewage systems.” I asked her why so few men were participating in the march and she said that many were working, “If they don’t then how we will we drink?”

At the end of the march there was a platform, facilitated by Oscar Olivera, who was one of the main protagonists of the Water Wars. Water struggles from around the world were represented by the main speakers, giving an overview of the links between water privatisation and how this is a major issue being resisted globally. One theme that came out repeatedly was that the problems faced now will only be exacerbated by climate change. Speakers included Francessca Caprini from the Italian Forum, talking about how the water in Italy has recently been privatised, and Mary Ann Manahan from Focus on the Global South, Asia

Events will continue over the next few days, and communities will share experiences of self-organised technologies and ways forward.


14th April – The People’s and Social Movements Pre-Summit

April 16, 2010

Last night in the in the Plaza of 14th of September here in Cochabamba we went to the People’s Pre-Summit for the conference. This was organised by Red Tinku, an autonomous local collective who work on a number of fronts including popular education, and who have a daily presence in the square talking with people about issues relating to human rights, the environment, culture and social movements. This event was co-organised with local students from the sociology department, with invited speakers from CODAC, (The Committee for the Defence of the Environment of Cochabamba.)

As well as displays about impacts on the environment, the ozone layer and the problem of rubbish, there was a water engineer and President of CODAC, Maldonado Rojas, talking about contamination of the local river Rio Rocha and its surrounding areas. Following an eight month study, they now have a plan for recuperation of the river including work of sustainable reforestation and reduction of contamination. The river water is highly polluted, they describe it as being permanently black, and this is having health impacts on the surrounding population. It is affecting the crops and even the dairy products.

He also described how the beginnings of the Water Wars was a small group,in the plaza, talking to people and gathering information about price rises, impending privatisation and access to drinking water. The Water Wars, celebrating their 10th anniversary this week, was a popular uprising that spread from here across the country. The people forced out the foreign multinational Bechtel, and in successfully reversing the privatisation of the local water company they in turn prevented massive price rises that would have been untenable for the vast proportion of the population. We found out last night that still only 50% of people living in the area of Cochabamabinos have drinking water. The successes and failures of the publicly owned company, SEMAPA will be debated at the events over the next few days. Read more about the water wars here.


Thoughts and Analysis from Cochabamba and Beyond

April 16, 2010

Welcome to our blog where we will be posting relevant to the World Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth Rights in Cochabamba, Bolivia, 19-22 April 2010. See more here.