The year 2000 brought a significant victory against water privatisation in Bolivia. Massive protests in Cochabamba forced the Bolivian government to revoke the contract it had with the US Corporation Bechtel. Under pressure from the World Bank the government had sold the water companies in Cochabamba to Bechtel. One of the organizers of these, known as water war protests, was the trade union leader Oscar Olivera. Fighting at his side, at the time, was also Evo Morales who in 2006 became Bolivia’s first indigenous president. Nevertheless, Olivera later turned down the government posts Morales offered to him. Today he involves himself, beyond government policy, as an environmental activist and activist for human rights for water justice and for the rights of nature. Olivera was also the role model for the central figure in the recently appeared film „Even the Rain“, which ties the water war in Cochabamba to the colonization of Latin America.
Oscar Olivera, water activist from Cochabamba, Bolivia
Fabian Scheidler: Welcome to Kontext TV Oscar Olivera. In the Bolivian city of Cochabamba there was in the year 2000 an intense battle over the water supply, which later was called the water war. What were these struggles all about, and what were the results?
Oscar Olivera: In Cochabamba it was about the privatisation of the water. It was basically a decision of the World Bank, with full approval of the Bolivian politicians at that time. The consequences were directly felt by the people. The water rates were raised by 300 percent. The municipally administered water infrastructure at the town's periphery was expropriated, including the water springs. A large artificial water market was created. Direct access by the municipalities to drinking water and water for irrigation was cut off. One could no longer directly take water from water sources like lagoons, rivers, or springs, water which had for centuries been used by the people.
Fabian Scheidler: How does the water supply look in Cochabamba and Bolivia today? Were there improvements, particularly after Evo Morales, supported by indigenous movements, was elected president? Has there been a policy change?
Oscar Olivera: Not as such. Nobody died in the conflicts of the water war. However, water is still scarce. We have one again relegated the water question to the technicians, the engineers and the politicians. We have neglected the water question. It remains a responsibility for the people to deal with the water question - now, however, within the scope of a public utility.
David Goessmann: In 2006 Evo Morales offered to you a ministerial office which you rejected. Why? And how do you see the relation between social movements and the government today?
Oscar Olivera: Twelve years have passed since the water war. Now we have a government under Evo Morales which has arisen from the water war. Evo Morales and his comrade-in-arms Garcia Linera are closely knit to the water war. The issue of water should stand in regard to the rights of nature and to mother earth far up on the agenda, but under the government of Morales the water issue is no longer a prevailing question. The issue has disappeared from Morales agenda. Morales knows how to effectively present himself abroad. His practical governmental policy, however, orientates itself on the sectors that bring in money: mining, the oil and natural gas sector. The Morales government does not care about the real interests and essential problems of the people, such as, for example, adequate supply of drinking water or the creation of irrigation systems.
Before Morales came to power, he had suggested I was to become a representative - a senator. Then when he became president, he offered me the position of employment minister. Two years later he offered to me the office of water minister. I always declined, because I did not see in Morales the readiness to dismantle a state apparatus which turned everyone who worked in it, into a thief and liar and which did not work for the people. I said to Morales that I would not change like those who ended up in the government. The state apparatus must be taken apart, opened to the people and the power given to the people. I would enter into government only when this change really took place, otherwise not. To this day the government of Morales has not initiated these changes. Thus to me I find my decision acceptable.
David Goessmann: In several new constitutions in Latin America, such as in Uruguay, the human right to water has been anchored into the constitution. Do the people win back control of their water this way, and could this be a model for other countries?
Oscar Olivera: The water war of 2000 did not just deal with the human right to water. We have a far more reaching agenda. Water is a necessity not only for people, but also for animals, for the earth as a living being, the mountains etc. Water is central for the reproduction of the life. To fight for water as a human right is to exclude other living beings from water i.e. to declare human access to water as a priority and to treat nature subordinately. But from an indigenous perspective we humans do not have priority. We are a part of the nature. Hence, we must harmoniously share our claims. Thus the human right to water is a rather western concept. Nevertheless, I believe it was an important step to pass a declaration declaring water a human right. The declaration can now be used in different countries and areas of the world. The aim must now be to anchor the human right to water in the constitutions of all countries.
Fabian Scheidler: Today many people feel helpless in the face of environmental destruction and climate change, in view of the social alienation which capitalism produces. What is your vision as to how to change the world?
Oscar Olivera: I have visited many peoples and communities, I have seen the learning ability of peoples who organise and govern themselves - from the Chiapas in Mexico to places here in France. I have been on the move for 12 years and have seen all of this. These new and alternative living spaces are being developed by the people themselves, far removed from state, government, or party structures. At the same time it is important to understand that the solution to our problems is feasible only through collective action beyond political parties or governments. Only so exists the possibility to change this world and halt the power of capitalism. I believe that these alternative forms must network with one another, and so form the basis for a new world. We have no other choice.