The last common property

OSCAR OLIVERA is today an icon for all people's movements to regain control of their resources. He tells RICHARD MAHAPATRA why water is not for sale

Published: Saturday 15 March 2003

-- (Credit: Reuters)Oscar Olivera of Bolivia is something of a mascot for anti-globalisation movements across the world. During the recent Asian Social Forum meeting in Hyderabad, Olivera spoke in Spanish. And in spite of the tediousness of translated messages, his dozen-odd speeches found eager listeners in the 15,000 participants at the meeting.

In an atmosphere where privatisation of water is fast becoming a reality in India, Olivera's story was a reminder that people could make a difference. He spoke out powerfully against the global effort to privatise water. He views the global movement in the light of his own country's struggle against privatisation of water supply in Cochabamba, one of the largest Bolivian cities, during 1999-2000. Olivera led the anti-privatisation movement, which not only forced the government to cancel contracts with private corporations but also to transfer its own control over water to the people.

The soft-spoken Olivera is spokesperson for La Coordinadora, Coalition in Defence of Water and Life, the pivotal organisation in the movement. Olivera, a former shoemaker, admits that the fight against privatisation of water was "unexpected, given the political situation". Bolivia is a quasi-democracy that has suffered decades of dictatorship. He explains, "The government privatised everything, except air and water. So when they went ahead with privatisation of water, people were losing their last common property." "Water," he says, "is a shared right, and that right is not for sale."

The World Bank (wb), it seems, does not agree. Its June 1999 country report for Bolivia prescribed privatisation of water for Cochabamba. In 1999, wb conditioned its us $25 million loan towards water services in Cochabamba on privatisation of these services. It is said that wb officials participated in the Bolivian cabinet meeting that was to decide on the condition. The Enhanced Structural Adjustment Policy Framework for 1998-2001, prepared by the government, and dictated by wb and the International Monetary Fund (imf), put a deadline for the sale of all public enterprises, including water supply.

The water supply system was soldto a subsidiary of San Francisco-based Bechtel Enterprises. Bechtel got a40-year lease in a secretive, one-bidder deal. This is where Olivera's struggle began. He says that the investors putup less than us $20,000 as capital fora water system that is worth millions. The new owner of Cochabamba's water supply system lost no time in raising prices. Bolivians with a minimum wage at less than us $65 a month were presented with water bills that came to a whopping us $20 or more.

Cochabamba has never had a comfortable supply of water. The government, therefore, guaranteed water supply for the city and its rural areas. This was particularly significant for farmers in the area who grow vegetables in the main. "The people look at water as something very sacred," says Olivera.

With the Bolivian Act of 1999, water was declared a commercial commodity, and people were debarred from access to traditional sources of water. With this, even collection of water required the purchase of permits, effectively depriving the poorest citizens of all access to water. Even water from community wells was subject to access permits. Peasants and small farmers, in fact, had to buy permits even to gather rainwater on their own lands.

This was really the last straw in a country that had long resented privatisation. The government controlled all businesses in Bolivia, and provided about 60 per cent of the total employment in the country. In 1985, the country started its 'capital readjustment' programme, and most of its businesses were handed over to multinational corporations. For example, the mining sector, which contributed one-fourth of the country's revenue, was handed over to private companies. This was when Bolivia saw its first protest. "But the miners gave into the state, and for us that is when a new era began in Bolivia." Then on, from petroleum companies to custom posts, everything was privatised. "The government had no more jobs to offer," says Olivera.

With the privatisation of water, people began to lose patience. Before Bechtel had even finished painting its logo on all its newly-acquired water supply structures, the country saw massive protest rallies. Bolivians marched by the hundreds of thousands to Cochabamba. Mid-January 2001, a four-day general strike over water price hikes brought the city to a halt. By early April, Bolivian president Hugo Banzer declared martial law, freezing all civil rights. Olivera went underground, continuing to lead the movement. The Bolivian army killed one, injured hundreds and arrested several leaders.

On April 10, Banzer could hold on no longer. The government had no choice but to cancel its contract with Bechtel. But even before the contract was cancelled, Bechtel officials had fled Bolivia. They had even started the process to claim us $12 million as exit payment. Olivera addressed a jubilant gathering at the heart of Cochabamba, "We have arrived at the moment of an important economic victory."

With this victory, Olivera had the mandate to evolve an alternate model for water management in the city. The challenge was to evolve a structure that keeps corporate houses and a corrupt government at bat. Working on a community-based city water supply system, Olivera now propagates "a democratic way to exercise shared rights like water" (see interview: A historical reminder ).

Today, Bolivia has the only city water supply system run by democratically-elected people. Citizens elect the board of directors through secret ballot. Olivera was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2001 for his role in the struggle. "India and Bolivia are placed similarly on their water concerns. The Bolivian experience, therefore, is a lesson for India as well," he says.

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