Saturday, March 26, 2011

Bolivia’s Water Fight

An irrigation lake above Tiraque. (Photo: Daniel Aldana Cohen)

Bolivia’s Water Fight
Will violence in Bolivia deny water rights to its indigenous people?
| by Daniel Aldana Cohen

Tough talk at the top of the world

Shiny black hair tops Andrés Gonzales’s long, sturdy face. It catches the pale Sunday morning light as he stands to rebut an angry farmer in an asamblea of some eighty peasants. The community has purchased a field for communal use with the surplus from their drinking water collective. The farmer, a long-settled German immigrant who wanted the money spent elsewhere, speaks in Spanish, but Gonzalez answers with the hard k’s and ch’s of Quechua, the language Inca settlers brought to this Andean valley a century before the Spanish arrived. Not yet thirty, Gonzales leads a farming community in Tiquipaya, a relatively prosperous municipality in Bolivia’s Cochabamba province.

The meeting’s slow, collective cadences are the legacy of Andean traditions of communal deliberation. Mostly, the custom is banal, the habit of long arguments over small details. But the endless hours are never wasted—a social fabric is being woven.

The rest of us sit in plastic chairs. The men are wearing fedoras or baseball caps, the women polleras (traditional gathered skirts) and wide straw hats. Behind me rises the yellow cordillera, a rugged chain of mountains whose stark, blunt landscape seems like an extension—or maybe the source material—of the campesinos who have lived among them for thousands of years. Over sixty percent of Bolivians self-identify as indigenous, the highest share on the continent.

When the assembly ends, Gonzales takes me on a tour of the village’s irrigation system, a maze of cement canals carved through hillside fields of vegetables and flowers. As in most communities where fields are irrigated, the farmers are known and organized as regantes, irrigators. When a fight breaks out over the scarce water that is the source of their livelihood, they know what to do. “It can take entire mornings, even days, of meetings to resolve water conflicts,” Gonzales explains in his clipped, matter-of-fact voice.

But talk isn’t always enough. In South America’s poorest country, fights for water are fights over life and death.

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