New Water Wars in Bolivia: Climate Change and Indigenous Struggle

Bill Weinberg

On April 16, about 900 comunarios, or communal peasants, of Nor Lípez Province in Bolivia’s southwestern department of Potosí staged a daring protest. They invaded the operations area of Minera San Cristóbal, a mining subsidiary of the Japanese multinational Sumitomo, and burned the company office. They overturned two rail wagons loaded with 20 tons each of lead, silver, and zinc ore, and barricaded the rail line that transports the ore to Chile for export.1 San Cristóbal, established in 2005 by the Denver-based Apex Silver company, is one of the world’s largest open-pit mines. It is much resented in Nor Lípez because it uses some 1.7 million cubic feet of water every day, free of charge, in this drought-prone area high in the Andes. The comunarios, who said they had been petitioning authorities for months to no avail, demanded that the mining company pay local communities for its water use, as well as for electrification projects.2

The headline-grabbing action took place just three days before the opening of the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of the Mother Earth, sponsored and hosted by Bolivian president Evo Morales. The climate conference was conceived as an alternative to the moribund United Nations process, which has failed to produce a binding treaty, and brought together some 30,000 people from more than 150 countries in Bolivia, along with a good deal of international media attention. The timing of the Nor Lípez action was clearly meant to draw attention to the Morales government’s complicity in the San Cristóbal mine, and more generally to its ongoing support for environmentally destructive industries—just at the moment when Morales was asserting himself, and Bolivia, as leading international forces against climate change. Only after the conference was well under way did the Nor Lípez comunarios agree to lift the barricades on a pledge of dialogue.3

The symbolism of the comunarios’ action in defense of their water resources was heightened by the fact that the climate conference was held in Tiquipaya, a suburb of Cochabamba—the Bolivian city that became internationally synonymous with resource rights in 2000, when its residents fought off an attempt to privatize local water, in what came to be known as the Water War.4

Sadly, the Nor Lípez conflict may portend Bolivian water wars to come. The province has seen almost no rain since 2007, according to Francisco Quisbert, a peasant leader from Calcha K, a key community behind the direct action, about 18 miles from San Cristóbal. Quinoa crops have disappeared, and llama herds are thinning. “The people are forced to migrate to Argentina, Chile,” said Quisbert, former president of the Sole Regional Federation of Campesino Workers of the Southern Altiplano (FRUTCAS). “Some local people work in the mine, but it is very mechanized and can’t provide for all the communities.”

Even if all mining in Bolivia were shut down tomorrow, the country will likely soon face dire water shortages. In 2009, the 18,000-year-old Chacaltaya glacier overlooking the capital city of La Paz vanished—six years earlier than scientists predicted—threatening the city’s water supplies. The same year, water levels in Lake Titicaca, which some 2.6 million people depend upon, dropped 2.6 feet, reaching its lowest level since 1949, according to the Lake Titicaca Authority. Finally, Bolivia’s National Meteorological and Hydrological Service notes that the rainy season in the Altiplano, the arid tableland near La Paz, has contracted from six to three months in recent years. The drought has prompted water rationing in some Altiplano towns and cities.5

Morales and others in his administration have condemned global climate change as a consequence of rich northern countries’ overconsumption of fossil fuels, while demanding that the rights of Mother Earth be respected. And in calling for the conference, Morales emphasized that poor people everywhere bear a disproportionate risk from climate change, and that indigenous cultures and movements should be called upon for their wisdom and leadership on the climate question. Yet it is precisely because Bolivia is a poor country that it faces a formidable conundrum: how to lift people out of poverty without degrading the environment.6

The story of the San Cristóbal mine and the tensions it has raised is emblematic of the larger struggle in Bolivia between a local indigenous leadership that disfavors extractive industry and the national government, which emphasizes that such industries can be harnessed for the benefit of impoverished Bolivians.


The comunarios’ mine occupation was a wildcat action—not endorsed by the FRUTCAS, the regional campesino alliance.7 FRUTCAS, formed a generation ago to push for the titling of collective lands, is officially neutral on the mine occupation. In April Porfirio Cruz, the federation’s director, sat in his office on the dusty outskirts of the desert town of Uyuni under a large portrait of Morales. On the wall a poster read in Quechua: ¡Capitalistas Pachamamata Kankapuchkaku! Below is the Spanish translation: Capitalismo está liquidando al planeta y la humanidad. Capitalism is killing Mother Earth and humanity.

At odds with the government on the San Cristóbal issue, Cruz still has faith in Morales. He showed me correspondence from the Environment and Mines Ministry on the local water issue, and said it is unprecedented that the government is hearing grievances. “This is the democracy that we are practicing in Bolivia, thanks to the process of change that is taking place,” he said. “There is no need for blockades and occupations.”

From Uyuni, it is some 60 miles across the desert to the mine site and Nuevo San Cristóbal, the nearby company town where residents were relocated to make way for the mine. The most visible exponent of governance in Nuevo San Cristóbal is the mine company’s non-governmental San Cristóbal Foundation, which is attempting to promote eco-tourism with a mountain bike rental initiative. The foundation’s director, Ascensio Caso, almost portrayed the settlement as a boom town. “There were 20 families in Viejo San Cristóbal; now we have 500,” he said. The quinoa and llamas are doing fine, he assured me, and a 10-year development plan for the area will eventually include reforestation programs. He said 90% of Nuevo San Cristóbal residents work in the mine, which he claimed uses “cutting edge” technology to control pollution. About 30 miles across the desert in the canton of Calcha K, the mood was decidedly different. There was clearly widespread support for the mine takeover.

Freddy Cayo, the corregidor (magistrate), took me out to the ayllu, or collectively held farmland, on the edge of the pueblo, which at that time of year is usually full of blooming quinoa, with its brilliant red and yellow hues, ready for harvest. Instead, it is brown and barren. “This is our fourth year without a quinoa harvest,“ Cayo said. “The level of water is dropping in our wells since operations began at the mine. We demand nationalization of the mine.”

Unlike Nuevo San Cristóbal, Calcha K is not on the electricity grid and only received running water in recent years. The same is true of the municipal seat, Colcha K, my next stop. In his office in the pueblo’s adobe town hall, municipal officer Julio Huanca warned me that anger is rising.

“The people have always been so peaceable here,” Huanca said. “But they are tired of being ignored by the government—no roads, no development, no jobs. We are more economically linked to Chile than to Bolivia. And the mineral wealth of this region is contributing much to the national economy.” Do you support the direct action?, I asked. “As an institution [i.e., the township], no,” he said, “But as people, yes.”

Huanca said the municipality has had dialogue with the mine company on protecting local waters—to no avail. He charged that Huaylla Kjara, a desert lake where Andean flamingos make their habitat, has been contaminated with mine waste, and that the mine has taken no responsibility. Although he did not speak of nationalization, Huanca supports the demand that the mine pay for water. “Sooner or later the mine will leave,” he said, “but we will always be here.”

The Bolivian foreign minister responded to the Nor Lípez protest by striking a tone sympathetic to the comunarios, denouncing Minera San Cristóbal for “plundering” Bolivia’s natural resources and not “paying a cent” for its water usage.8 Mining Minister José Pimentel admitted that the mine’s contract was granted under “ neoliberal laws”—a reference to the 1997 mineral code—but said that since the law had not been amended, it must be honored.9

But that is not the whole story. The Morales government has accepted the conclusions of a study commissioned by the mining company, which found that the mine’s water use is not responsible for the aridity in Nor Lípez. According to Sumitomo, the mine draws water only from the Jaukihua micro-aquifer, which represents only a minute part of the regional watershed. These deep, heavily mineralized waters are unfit for human consumption or agriculture anyway, the company asserts, and the mining is not contaminating the freshwater aquifers.10

“I’ve seen the same situation all over the world,” said hydrological consultant Robert Moran, co-author of “Mining the Water,” a study commissioned by FRUTCAS and the municipality of Colcha K, with aid from NGOs, in response the mine’s official study. “The source of information is always the company itself, so they can make any claim they want. It’s very facile to say it’s all salty, but that’s not true. We don’t have the data to answer the question, but they’re just making blanket statements. They haven’t dug the test wells to do the measurements.” “Mining the Water” asserts that even if the mine is only extracting deep saline waters, this is almost certainly drawing down the freshwater aquifers above. “They are clearly dropping water levels,” Moran charged. “If you’re a local farmer, you’re going to have to dig deeper wells, pay more money to pump it up, and find that it is degraded.” He added on a sarcastic note: “But the nice thing is, there’s no data to back this up because the company wasn’t required to do the kind of studies they’d be required to do in the U.S. or Canada or Western Europe.”

Moran was not surprised that the government is backing the mine’s position. “The Bolivian government has an interest in having revenues come in from San Cristóbal,” he said. The Bolivian government collects $35 million each year from the mine, out of a $1 billion in total profits.11


The comunarios’ revolt had a direct impact on the proceedings at the Cochabamba climate conference. When it opened on April 19, a controversy emerged over an unauthorized working group, demanded by Aymara indigenous leaders, on social conflicts in Bolivia related to climate change. Table 18, as it was known, demanded its place alongside the conference’s 17 official “tables,” or working groups, with titles like “Structural Causes,” “Indigenous Peoples,” and “Rights of Mother Earth.” Grievances aired by Aymara and Quechua leaders at Table 18, officially dubbed the table on “Collective Rights and the Rights of Mother Earth,” centered on the San Cristóbal mine, as well as the state-owned Corocoro mine in La Paz department.

Bolivian environmental vice minister Juan Pablo Ramos was dismissive. “In reality, there is no Table 18,” he said, asserting that since it proposed discussion of Bolivia’s “internal problems,” it was therefore not appropriate to an international forum. But Rafael Quispe, leader of the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Cullasuyu (CONAMAQ), countered: “Table 18 is going ahead whether the government likes it or not, and it does not only deal with Bolivia’s problems.” He said the table would be held on the streets of Tiquipaya, outside the official conference, if it weren’t allowed in. Referring to the Bolivian government, he said: “We are not opposed to the process of change, nor are we against the forum, but it is important to deal with the problems in our own house.”12

Barred from the official summit grounds on the Tiquipaya campus of the University del Valle, the dissident Aymara elders convened Table 18 in a Brazilian restaurant just off the campus on April 20. Cleared of tables to make room for rows of chairs, the premises filled with pungent smoke as incense and coca leaves were ritually burned for the opening ceremony. With many drawn by the controversy, Table 18 was well attended— despite a contingent of UTOP, the national anti-riot police, stationed at the restaurant’s door. Table 18’s panelists credited the Morales government with recognizing the collective rights of Bolivia’s “original nations,” Afro-Bolivians, and “inter-cultural communities” (mestizos). But as panelist Pablo Regalsky of the Andean Center for Communication and Development (CENDA), stated: “Here in Bolivia, we are building a new model—in practice, not theory—so we have to discuss the problems that arise in the creation of this new model.” He warned that some in the Morales government, especially the Finance Ministry, are seeking a “forced march to industrialization.”

Regalsky charged that despite “the anti-capitalist discourse of Brother Evo,” “foreign capital” still often plays a decisive role in Bolivia’s development policies. He cited moves toward reviving plans for an inter-oceanic transport link through Bolivia, and mineral and gas exploitation on indigenous lands. Refuting government charges that Table 18 was dealing only with internal Bolivian issues, Regalsky added, “These questions also have implications for Paraguay, Brazil, Chile, and Peru. And they have implications for the rights guaranteed by the Bolivian constitution.” Figures in the Bolivian government attempted to discredit Table 18 by linking it to the right-wing opposition.

Chancellor David Choquehuanca, for example, said any effort to divide the summit—which was how he evidently viewed Table 18—is the work of “opponents and capitalists.”13 Yet when Norma Pierola, a national legislator from Cochabamba with the right-opposition National Convergence party, tried to enter the restaurant to address Table 18 (on environmental concerns, she said), attendees blocked the entrance, chanting “¡No pasará!” (she will not enter).

At the end of the conference’s third day, the Aymara elders who convened the dissident table held a final meeting, where CONAMAQ’s Rafael Quispe announced that Morales had agreed to meet with the Table 18 leaders and hear their demands. Morales, however, really had no choice but to meet with Quispe, because he had also convened the official Table 3, “The Rights of Mother Earth.” Quispe said the Table 18 representatives would demand “the expulsion of all extractive resource industries” from Bolivia, and that the government adopt a new development model based on ayllus and local self-sufficiency, or what indigenous political leadership calls the “Andean cosmo-vision.” Table 18’s final resolution was handed in to Morales with the “official” resolutions on the morning of Earth Day, April 22—but not formally adopted by the conference.

The People’s Accord produced by the climate conference, presented by Morales to the United Nations after the summit, calls for a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by developing countries over the next seven years. It demands that the United Nations adopt a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth; that the industrialized nations provide annual financing equivalent to 6% of their GDP to confront climate change in the developing world; and that an International Tribunal on Environmental and Climate Justice be created, with its seat in Bolivia. The summit called for a new global organization to press for these demands, tentatively dubbed the World Movement for Mother Earth—or MAMA-Tierra by its Spanish acronym.14 Morales told the press at Tiquipaya that he would demand that the resolutions be endorsed at the UN climate summit to be held November 29–December 10 in Cancún, Mexico, and warned that he would otherwise seek redress at the International Court of Justice.15

A week after the conference, however, Morales hadn’t shown for a follow-up meeting at the CONAMAQ office in La Paz to discuss Table 18’s demands. “There’s still no response,” Quispe said. “There’s just a lot of bureaucracy.” Angered, he accused Morales of hypocrisy. “The government says ‘capitalism or Pachamama,’ ” he said. “But this government is neoliberal and capitalist. It’s all a political show. Evo’s election was a step. But the marches, strikes, blockades that brought him to power are continuing.” (For more on Quispe’s position, see “Beyond Extraction”).


One of the top priorities of the Morales administration has been to establish greater state control over Bolivia’s hydrocarbon and mineral resources. But how does this affect global climate change? After all, the carbon under Bolivia’s earth will still be burned and released into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases. “The nationalization, as a method of recovering the property rights of the Bolivian state, does not imply change in technology,” conceded Mario Katari, environmental director at YPFB, the Bolivian state hydrocarbon company, via e-mail. “If the environmental controls do not change and the consciousness does not change, it cannot be said that nationalization averts climate change.”

But he added that the nationalization has coincided with a commitment to protect the environment. He noted that the new Hydrocarbon Law bans the use of flares to burn off excess gas and that there has been a “significant decrease in exploration and exploitation” since nationalization. But he also admitted that the government policy is to “increase production and all activities related to the hydrocarbon cycle,” and that this could lead to “greater foci of greenhouse gas emissions if there isn’t a corresponding environmental control.”

His words on Table 18 were harsh. Evidently referring to Rafael Quispe, he said, “I think [Table 18] was led by someone influenced by the first world and out of touch with the national reality.” He said that if the demand to end all extractive activities in Bolivia were fulfilled, there would be a “dramatic contraction in the national economy, with consequences that cannot be predicted.” Therefore, he said, fulfilling this demand would be acceptable only “if the compensation Bolivia receives for putting an end to all extractive activities in the country is equivalent to or greater than the amount that would be received from these activities.”

Despite such accusations, Quisbert defended the airing of concerns about San Cristóbal at Cochabamba— and the ongoing indigenous and campesino protests over resource issues. “The international debate on climate change needs to be had, and it is good that our compañero Evo is doing this,” he said. “But in our own house, we are not guarding the environment. This is my difference with President Morales.”

1. Bloomberg, “Sumitomo to Boost Zinc, Lead Output at Bolivia Mine,” June 3, 2009.

2. Los Tiempos (Cochabamba), “El Gobierno no descarta usar la fuerza pública para solucionar el conflicto en San Cristóbal,” April 17, 2010.

3. EFE, “Campesinos bolivianos suspenden bloqueo de vía férrea hacia Chile,” April 23, 2010.

4. Óscar Olivera and Tom Lewis, Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia (South End Press, 2004); Jim Shultz, “The Cochabamba Water Revolt, Ten Years Later,” Yes!, April 20, 2010.

5. Bloomberg, “Vanishing Bolivian Glacier Ends Highest Ski Run,” August 5, 2009.

6. For more on this problem, see Linda Farthing, “Bolivia’s Dilemma: Development Confronts the Legacy of Extraction,” NACLA Report on the Americas 42, no. 5 (September/October 2009): 25–29.

7. Los Tiempos, “Nor Lípez: inician diálogo en la zona; sigue bloqueo,” April 22, 2010.

8. Agence France-Press, “Bolivia Slams Japan Mining Firm for ‘Plundering’ Resources,” April 18, 2010.

9. Erbol Comunicaciones (Bolivia), “Gobierno prevé reunión con pobladores de Nor Lípez para esta semana,” April 19, 2010.

10. Minera San Cristóbal, “A la opinión pública,” paid statement, La Prensa (La Paz), April 25, 2010.

11. Erbol, “Minera San Cristóbal gana mil millones de dólares y sólo tributa 3,5 por ciento al año,” March 17, 2010.

12. Ramos and Quispe are quoted in Erbol Comunicaciones, “Darán el primer paso para un referendo mundial, pero sin reconocer la mesa 18,” April 18, 2010.

13. Los Tiempos, “Sectores y ‘mesa 18’ piden parar labor extractiva,” April 21, 2010.

14. World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of the Mother Earth, “Bolivian President Evo Morales to Deliver Results of People’s Conference on Climate Change to UN,” press release, May 7, 2010.

15. Los Tiempos,, “Evo amenaza con una demanda si no se toma en cuenta la Declaración de Tiquipaya,” April 22, 2010.

Bill Weinberg is the editor of World War 4 Report and author of Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso, 2000). He is working on a new book titled Pachamama Returns: The New Indigenous Struggles in the Andes. Elements of this article originally appeared in April on


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