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Woman with cart in Bolivia
7.05.02
Science and Health:
Leasing the Rain
More on This Story:
Who's Who

The Coalition for the Defense of Water and LifeOscar OliveraJim Shultz, The Democracy CenterThe Government of Bolivia Aguas del TunariThe Bechtel CorporationThe World BankThe International Monetary Fund (IMF)International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID)

The Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life (La Coordinadora)

Bolivia is Latin America's poorest country, where five million residents (nearly two-thirds) live in poverty, and only about 40 percent of the population has access to clean water.1 Cochabamba, situated approximately 350 miles east of La Paz, is Bolivia's third largest city, with nearly 800,000 people.2 Poverty is rampant. The minimum wage is less than $100 a month.3 Before privatization, the region had a municipally managed water provider, SEMAPA.

In January 2000, shortly after it won exclusive water rights in Cochabamba, Aguas del Tunari imposed rate increases that doubled water bills for some residents.4 Cochabamban residents soon found themselves spending 20 percent or more of their monthly salary on water.5 In mid-January, protesters staged a four-day shutdown of the city, erected roadblocks and got the government to agree to roll back water rates.

In February, after rate relief failed to materialize, a group of union laborers and anti-privatization advocates came together as The Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life (La Coordinadora) and organized a march to demand the repeal of ordinances supporting privatization, more public participation in drafting water legislation and the termination of the Aguas del Tunari water concession.

Frustrated by the government's continued inaction, protesters expanded their revolt in April to other Bolivian cities and rural areas, supported by farmers concerned about the threat of water-rate hikes in their region. In one week, from April 8 to 14, dozens of protesters were arrested and wounded and at least six were killed.6

The water-privatization protest by the people of Cochabamba soon came to be regarded as something much greater than a battle for local control of water. For many, it spelled a victory against corporate globalization. Although La Coordinadora now controls the city's water system, many obstacles still lie ahead. The populist coalition is struggling to improve the amount of access townspeople and farmers have to clean water and to pay off millions of dollars of debt.7


Oscar Olivera, executive secretary, Cochabamba Federation of Factory Workers; spokesperson for The Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life (La Coordinadora)

In the spring of 2000, union organizer and anti-globalization activist Oscar Olivera gained international recognition for leading a grassroots protest against the privatization of water in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Olivera and his colleagues from The Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life, La Coordinadora, protested water-rate hikes of as much as 300 percent and urged the Bolivian government to let Cochabamba's water remain under public control.8 In April 2000, Olivera entered into successful negotiations with the government to cancel Cochabamba's water privatization contract with Aguas del Tunari, secure the release of persons arrested during the protests and have troops withdrawn from the city. Management of Cochabamba's water system was turned over to Olivera and La Coordinadora.

Olivera, a native of Cochabamba and former shoe-factory worker, has been likened to Cesar Chavez in his appearance and manner as well as in the strength of his populist convictions.9 A year after the Cochabamba crisis, he was honored as a 2001 Goldman Environmental Prize winner from Central/South America. For Olivera, the struggle in Cochabamba signified more than a collective refusal to pay excessive rates for water. It was, instead, an expression of the belief that "water is a shared right, and that right is not for sale."10

Jim Shultz, executive director, The Democracy Center; writer, Pacific News Service

Jim Shultz founded The Democracy Center, a nonprofit organization, in San Francisco in 1992 to work with community leaders and non-governmental organizations in America and abroad on social and economic justice issues, such as immigration and state tax spending. In 1998, Shultz moved The Democracy Center to Cochabamba, Bolivia. After the Bolivian government decided to privatize water holdings in Cochabamba, Shultz began disseminating news online about the massive water-rate hikes and the ensuing public protests. Browing the Bechtel Corporation's Web site, Shultz discovered that International Water Ltd., the main shareholder in the consortium that won exclusive water and sanitation concession rights to Cochabamba, was a subsidiary of Bechtel. Shultz initiated an email protest campaign, demanding that Riley Bechtel, CEO of the Bechtel Corporation, provide an explanation for the increased water rates. According to Shultz, "It was Bechtel's greed and Bechtel's price hikes that were at the center of the protests — and the damage and death left behind."

Prior to his affiliation with The Democracy Center, Shultz worked with California Common Cause and the Consumers Union, advocating campaign, tax and health-care reform. His reports on the events in Cochabamba have been published by the San Francisco Examiner and the Pacific News Service.11

1"Country Information - Bolivia", Christian Aid, September 1998; USAID CONGRESSIONAL PRESENTATION, FY 2000: BOLIVIA
2"Current Population for Cities and Towns of Bolivia", THE WORLD GAZETTEER, Bolivia, 2002
3"Who Owns Water?", by Jennifer Hattam (SIERRA MAGAZINE, 9/01/01, no. 5, vol. 86)
4"Leasing the Rain", by William Finnegan (THE NEW YORKER, 4/08/02)
5"Cochabamba - Water War", by Emanuele Lobina (FOCUS, vol. 7 no.2, Public Services International Research Unit, University of Greenwich, June 2000)
6"Bolivia Restores Guarantees Suspended in Wake of Protests" (The Associated Press, International News, 4/20/00)
72001 GOLDMAN ENVIRONMENTAL PRIZE: RECIPIENT PROFILE, OSCAR OLIVERA
8"Who Owns Water?", by Jennifer Hattam (SIERRA MAGAZINE, 9/01/01, no. 5, vol. 86)
9EVERY DROP FOR SALE: OUR DESPERATE BATTLE OVER WATER IN A WORLD ABOUT TO RUN OUT, by Jeffrey Rothfeder (2001, Jeremy P.Tarcher/Putnam)
10ibid., p.113
11"Bolivian Uprisings Flow from Bechtel's Greed", by Jim Shultz (SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER, 4/19/00)

Who's Who written by Sheraz Sadiq, an Associate Producer with FRONTLINE/World.

Leasing the Rain is a co-production of NOW with Bill Moyers and FRONTLINE WORLD.

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