COCHABAMBA, Bolivia—Here in this small Andean nation of 10 million people, the glaciers are melting, threatening the water supply of the largest urban area in the country, El Alto and La Paz, with 3.5 million people living at altitudes over 10,000 feet. I flew from El Alto International, the world’s highest commercial airport, to the city of Cochabamba.
Bolivian President Evo Morales calls Cochabamba the heart of Bolivia. It was here, 10 years ago this month, that, as one observer put it, “the first rebellion of the 21st century” took place. In what was dubbed the Water Wars, people from around Bolivia converged on Cochabamba to overturn the privatization of the public water system. As Jim Shultz, founder of the Cochabamba-based Democracy Center, told me, “People like a good David-and-Goliath story, and the water revolt is David not just beating one Goliath, but three. We call them the three Bs: Bechtel, Banzer and the Bank.” The World Bank, Shultz explained, coerced the Bolivian government, under President Hugo Banzer, who had ruled as a dictator in the 1970s, to privatize Cochabamba’s water system. The multinational corporation Bechtel, the sole bidder, took control of the public water system.
On Sunday, I walked around the Plaza Principal, in central Cochabamba, with Marcela Olivera, who was out on the streets 10 years ago. I asked her about the movement’s original banner, hanging for the anniversary, that reads, in Spanish, “El agua es nuestra, carajo!”—“The water is ours, damn it!” Bechtel was jacking up water rates. The first to notice were the farmers, dependent on irrigation. They appealed for support from the urban factory workers. Oscar Olivera, Marcela’s brother, was their leader. He proclaimed, at one of their rallies, “If the government doesn’t want the water company to leave the country, the people will throw them out.”
Marcela recounted: “On the 4th of February, we called the people to a mobilization here. We call it ‘la toma de la plaza,’ the takeover of the plaza. It was going to be the meeting of the people from the fields, meeting the people from the city, all getting together here at one time…. The government said that that wasn’t going to be allowed to happen. Several days before this was going to happen, they sent policemen in cars and on motorcycles that were surrounding the city, trying to scare the people. And the actual day of the mobilization, they didn’t let the people walk even 10 meters, and they started to shoot them with gases.” The city was shut down by the coalition of farmers, factory workers and coca growers, known as cocaleros. Unrest and strikes spread to other cities. During a military crackdown and state of emergency declared by then-President Banzer, 17-year-old Victor Hugo Daza was shot in the face and killed. Amid public furor, Bechtel fled the city, and its contract with the Bolivian government was canceled.
The cocaleros played a crucial role in the victory. Their leader was Evo Morales. The Cochabamba Water Wars would eventually launch him into the presidency of Bolivia. At the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen, he called for the most rigorous action on climate change.
After the summit, Bolivia refused to support the U.S.-brokered, nonbinding Copenhagen Accord. Bolivia’s ambassador to the U.N., Pablo Solon, told me that, as a result, “we were notified, by the media, that the United States was cutting around $3 million to $3.5 million for projects that have to do with climate change.” Instead of taking U.S. aid money for climate change, Bolivia is taking a leadership role in helping organize civil society and governments, globally, with one goal—to alter the course of the next major U.N. climate summit, set for Cancun, Mexico, in December.
Which is why more than 15,000 people from more than 120 countries have gathered here this week of Earth Day, at the People’s World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. Morales called for the gathering to give the poor and the Global South an opportunity to respond to the failed climate talks in Copenhagen.
Ambassador Solon explained the reasoning behind this people’s summit:
“People are asking me how this is coming from a small country like Bolivia. I am the ambassador to the U.N. I know this institution. If there is no pressure from civilian society, change will not come from the U.N. The other pressure on governments comes from transnational corporations. In order to counteract that, we need to develop a voice from the grass roots.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.