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Reviewing Water Wars

Cochabamba conference targets corporations

Published May 16, 2010 9:56 PM

I had the opportunity to attend the April 20-22 World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where people from all over the world initiated a discussion about finding real solutions to the climate crisis. During this conference, I attended an April 21 workshop called “Taking action against corporations that damage the climate,” which brought up the Water Wars against Bechtel Corporation.

From a pamphlet on the events of 2000: ‘a Bolivian woman holds back the advance of government forces with a single slingshot during the Water War on the streets of downtown Cochabamba.’
Photo: Thomas Kruse

Evo Morales, the Indigenous president of Bolivia, had called for the conference. It was appropriately held on the ten-year anniversary of the Water Wars against Bechtel, which also took place in Cochabamba. President Morales was a key actor in the Water Wars. At that time he was a leader of the cocaleros, the coca growers in the Chapare region of the department of Cochabamba.

The cocaleros were known for fighting against U.S. repression and resisting the so-called war on drugs, and they joined the water uprising because they were fighting foreign control in general.

The Water Wars against Bechtel came at a time when foreign companies were privatizing many Bolivian resources: Before the water they privatized gas, oil, electricity, and more. When Bechtel came to Bolivia under an assumed name and tried to privatize the water with the backing of the World Bank, the people had had enough. From factory workers to farmers to environmentalists, the people of Cochabamba rose up to drive out the gigantic Bechtel Corporation.

All over the world, water scarcity is swiftly becoming a crisis situation. The world’s fresh water supply is dwindling, as demand for it increases, tripling between 1950 and 1990. This situation creates an incredibly lucrative industry for corporations looking to invest in water.

The World Bank, which already has control of the economies of many indebted nations in the global South, has also taken the opportunity to get into the water business. But water is just one example of dwindling natural resources, and corporate interests are scrambling to gain ownership of all the remaining supplies. Faced with such a challenge, we can be encouraged by what the people of Cochabamba did in 2000 as an incredibly important and powerful example of taking on corporate control of resources.

Water Wars’ veterans take the lead

The facilitator of the April 21 panel was Jim Shultz of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba, which played an instrumental support role in the Water Wars. The panelists included Bolivian Water War activist Marcela Olivera, an organizer from Amazon Watch in Ecuador and an activist from Camp for Climate Action in Britain.

The panel’s goal was to take advantage of the collective wisdom in the room and share different strategies and tactics for taking on corporations. The audience was made up of people from all over the world. At the end of the presentations, each person in the audience was asked to write on a piece of paper one idea they had for taking on corporations.

Then we passed them to the person to our left and a few of them were read aloud. Some of the things we came up with were:

* Interview disgruntled employees of the corporation who may be willing to disclose insider information that can be used against the corporation.

* Stop drinking Coca-Cola.

* Become educated and smarter consumers and develop an independent press to help.

* Create discontent among the masses about the heads of the corporation so that they don’t want to show their faces in public.

* Create community versions and control of the services the corporations provide so that the people are no longer dependant on corporations, and they become obsolete.

What happened in that room is a miniature version of what is happening in people’s social movements around the world. Using the Water Wars and other similar struggles as our guide, the people must channel our energy into chasing off the corporations that privatize our local resources and sell them back to us at exorbitant prices — all the while destroying our habitats and throwing off the equilibrium our Mother Earth requires to sustain human life.

Discussions among the world’s big powers at the White House and the United Nations — and likewise the conference in Copenhagen last December — have evaded the true structural causes of the crisis we face. They fail to address the exploitation of Mother Earth at the hands of corporations and the idea that the natural resources we all require for survival can be privatized, bought and sold.

On the Cochabamba conference’s final day, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said, “If the hegemony of capitalism continues on this planet, human life will one day come to an end. For those of you who believe that’s an exaggeration, one must remember this: The planet lived for millions of years without the human species.”

The workshop showed one way to start working to overthrow this hegemony, by coming together as one and brainstorming ideas of ways to channel our anger into action. Now write down your idea and pass it to the person on your left.