The last common property

  • 14/03/2003

The last common property 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

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