Creating the Commons: On the meaning of Bolivia’s water wars

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Tom Murray
Irish Anarchist Review #11

‘In the history of humankind every act of destruction meets its response, sooner or later, in an act of creation’ - Eduardo Galeano

In Bolivia, there have been remarkable experiences in urban peripheries, notably in Cochabamba, that reveal the capacity of grassroots associations to construct a free society based on solidarity and mutual aid. The background to the country’s Water War of April 2000 must be understood against preceding waves of struggle, particularly the huge marches for sovereignty and livelihoods of coca growers, Amazonian groups, and others that emerged with the implementation of the neoliberal model in 1985 [1]. Subsequent mine closures and rural migration occasioned huge increases in Bolivia’s urban centres, particularly in Cochabamba, the country’s third largest city. The state water company, Semapa, served only half of the city’s population. In the neglected southern peripheries, neighbourhood groups organised associations to bring water to their homes. Cooperatives, formed without state assistance, dug wells, built water mains, and even created drainage and sewers. In cases where wells could not be dug, the committees bought their own water tankers and organised daily deliveries. By 1990, some 140 urban water committees had formed in the south of Cochabamba, with between 300 and 1000 families in each one [1].

Urban water committees played a key role in the Water War that erupted following the state’s decision to hand control of Semapa to a multinational company, which raised water rates and threatened to expropriate the water obtained by residents through their own labour. The Cochabamba Water Coordination, a coalition of community groups, organised mass demonstrations involving tens of thousands of people. One civilian was killed and almost 200 injured in clashes with the police. The struggle opened a cycle of protests that undermined the neoliberal model and led to the election of Evo Morales of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS). The expulsion of the multinational allowed people to elect their own representatives to control the state-owned water company.

Installing water services in the urban peripheries now became a priority. In August 2004, the urban water committees created the Association of Community Water Systems in the South in order to ensure the provision of quality water. The large number of wells drilled had damaged the water table around the valley and centralised water provision was deemed necessary. However, the residents had spent a decade fighting for autonomy and were not prepared to surrender it. As the Association stated: ‘Will we become individual and anonymous users for the municipal company? Or can we keep our organisations, our decision-making capacity, and the self-managed forms that we used for years?’ [1]. They decided to allow Semapa to provide water ‘wholesale’ to the committees, who would retain control of distribution and continue to deliver water to residents.

Conquest and Community

How can we understand these events? Perhaps the most important context is Latin America’s colonial history, the 500 hundred year old process of exploitation by and resistance to European and later North American powers [2]. Latin America’s colonial history not only divided countries from one another, it also left a sharp internal division within the countries between a very wealthy small elite (often white, European, westernized) and a huge mass of impoverished people (indigenous, Indian, black, intermingled or mestizo) [3]. From the 1960s onwards, the imposition of the Washington consensus, or neoliberal programmes, ultimately prompted large social mobilisations, greater co-operation among increasingly left-populist Latin American states and, in particular, a broad politicisation of indigenous peoples. In Bolivia, as far back as 1973, the Tiahuanaco Manifesto, issued by members of the Aymara and Qhechwa peasantry, linked their oppression to economic exploitation, invoked the memory of Indigenous rebels such as Túpac Katari, Bartolina Sisa, Willka Zárate, and claimed that ‘the starting point of the revolution should be our people’ [4].

The Indigenous way of doing things, based on co-operative practices rooted in ancestral memory, community and ecology, inspired resistance to expropriation in the countryside and the reclaiming of political space by those displaced to the cities [1] [5]. Co-operative practices resonated with non-Indians, especially in peripheral urban neighbourhoods [1]. Internationally, the ideas of Indigenous populations resonated with environmental movements who pointed to Bolivia’s attempts to defend in its constitution the ‘rights of Mother Earth’ not just to exist but to regenerate [6]. Nevertheless, ‘the indigenous-Latin American movements’, Raúl Zibechi argues, ‘are very different to social movements rising in other parts of the world because they are, firstly, combative movements based around the defence of territory. The struggle for territorial autonomy is very important here. Secondly, they are composed of people who have been dehumanised by their societies: black, indigenous, mestizos. These are movements not only of the poor but of the subaltern, those who have been made to feel inferior’ [7].

State Power versus the Social Fabric

Latin America’s new governments must be understood not just as a result of these popular struggles but also as an attempt to destroy them [1]. Defenders of the progressive governments sincerely argue that they are tied by international markets and the United States, that they are better than right-wing governments, and that they offer movements opportunities to consolidate gains. This argument is valid but it is also short-termist and a view from above. Oscar Olivera, a leader within the Cochabamba Water Coordination, criticised year one of the Morales government: ‘The state is expropriating capacities that we recovered at great cost: the capacity to rebel, to mobilise, to organiser, and advance proposals. They give institutional positions to movement spokespeople, embassies to social leaders, and dismiss and stigmatise those of us who do not want to enter the state institutions but rather want to break with them, alleging that we are funded by the Rightwing’ [1]. This process of co-option and repression has continued to the present day, with predictable results. Most recently, the MAS-Morales government has allowed Bolivia’s booming mining sector to use huge quantities of water, placing mines, many foreign-owned, in direct competition for water resources with local communities [8]. Notwithstanding what Bolivia’s Constitution says, this is occurring without the consent of Indigenous populations, even as climate change is provoking drought conditions across large parts of the country [6]. At the same time, oil and gas revenues have provided an economic stability of sorts, a bulwark to MAS’s electoral support.

In March 2015, Olivera expressed his sense of betrayal: ‘The government is not interested in the water struggle now because there is no money behind it; it is interested in extractive industry. And the worst of this government is not that it established an extractive economic model, the worst is that it has dismantled the autonomous social organizations, to turn them into spaces of party political propaganda for the government. Organizations such as the Cochabamba Water Coordination, that were the social basis for Morales to become president, have been destroyed, with social activists tempted by the government into public officialdom’ [9]. There exists a deep distrust among those activists who remained in the grassroots. Meanwhile, the majority of people have returned, as before, to disorganisation and to everyday distress. ‘For us’, Olivera says, ‘the fight in 2000 was not to raise our level of consumption, but so people could, from below, collectively make decisions and set their own course, so they could give content to their lives and decide how do it. Today, once again, the State has expropriated our politics, our democracy, our voice, our ability to decide and to build’ [9].

In sum, the real significance of the Cochabamba water committees then is not their role in bringing a left-populist government to power but rather their providing a striking example of alternative, co-operative ways of managing the commons [See also 5]. The communities of Cochabamba rejected the concepts of ‘individual private ownership’ and of ‘state public ownership’ in favour of what they described as ‘communal public ownership’ [1]. This type of ownership does not depend on the state but on the people directly, nor does it belong to one individual, but to the entire community. According to Anibal Quijano, this form of anti-capitalist ownership, operating on reciprocity, equality and solidarity, has widespread and deep roots in Latin America. Community organisations are ‘not islands in the sea of the urban world dominated by capital. They are part of the sea that, in turn, modulates and controls the logic of capital’ [10]. It is this social fabric that now requires re-weaving in Bolivia, even as economic and state forces seek to unravel it. As Olivera put it when asked about his hopes for the future of Bolivia: ‘We know how to kick a government, military or civilian dictatorship. We know and we can. And we are going to do so, certainly, when the time allows it and the people are determined. The trouble is to remake and to remake the social fabric: that requires years, efforts, sacrifices, and blood’ [9].


[1] Raul Zibechi (2012) Territories in Resistance: a cartography of Latin American social movements. Edinburgh: AK Press.

[2] Eduardo Galeano (2009) The Open Veins of Latin America. London: Monthly Review Press.

[3] Noam Chomsky (2006) Historical Perspectives on Latin American and East Asian Regional Development. Available at:

[4] Tiahuanaco Manifesto (1973). Available at:

[5] Tom Murray (2014) Hope, Friendship and Surprise in the Zombie Time of Capitalism: An interview with Gustavo Esteva. Irish Anarchist Review 10. Available at:

[6] Naomi Klein (2015) This Changes Everything. London: Penguin.

[7] Raul Zibechi (2014) Interview. 18th October.

[8] Tom Hennigan (2014) Water war in Bolivia led eventually to overthrow of entire political order. Irish Times, 14th Nov.

[9] Oscar Olivera (2015) Dirigente social boliviano: "Evo Morales ha perdido el contacto con el pueblo". Interview. 6th March. Available at:

[10] Aníbal Quijano (1988) Modernidad, identidad y utopía en América Latina. Lima: Sociedad y Política.

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