Perhaps you’ve seen the film: in 2001, a coalition of campesino irrigators, factory workers, Indigenous federations, and civil society groups blockaded the streets and paralyzed Bolivia’s highland city of Cochabamba. They were demanding the exit of a multinational corporate conglomerate that sought to monopolize their valley’s water—the very stuff of life. The government declared martial law and one young man was killed in the ensuing police crackdown. But against all odds, and to the world’s great surprise, the coalition won.
The story earned international headlines, including a long-form story in the New Yorker, and inspired a feature-length film starring Mexican heart-throb Gael García Bernal. Suddenly, the dry mountain valley of Cochabamba was a global symbol of promise—welcome proof that popular resistance to global privatization was possible.
The multinational’s departure was applauded as “the first great victory against corporate globalization in Latin America.” But the Water War’s distinction as a historical “first” surfaces a parallel explanation for the conflict’s wide appeal: it neatly satisfied a growing appetite for myths of the anti-neoliberal political imagination.
The Cochabambinos’ was a stunning victory, and a heartening one. But the Water War of 2000-2001 was merely the most explosive episode in a long legacy of water conflicts in Cochabamba that date back to the Incan Empire. This considerably longer history is the subject of Water For All: Community, Property and Revolution in Modern Bolivia by Latin American historian Sarah T. Hines. The book recounts the shifting landscape of water infrastructure, rights, and political power in the city of Cochabamba and the adjacent valleys of Valle Alto and Sacaba from the late 19th century to the early years of the Evo Morales presidency.
Hines situates the headwaters of Cochabamba’s hydrosocial history in the drought of 1878, the harms of which expedited the state’s ongoing efforts to dismantle and eradicate the valley’s Indigenous communities. The drought also cleared the way for the 1906 privatization of the valley’s water. The unequal terms of ownership and access asserted here, at the turn of the century, would become the arena of conflict between the state, the landed elites, and the interconnected ethnic communities who fought to reclaim their right to water over the next hundred years. While hyperlocal, these disputes were at the same time deeply imbricated in global geopolitics: from the aftershocks of the Mexican Revolution in the 1920s to the incursion of the Inter-American Development Bank in the 1960s, and the growing retinue of foreign engineering consultants flocking to the valley in the second half of the century.
It is all too easy to read the history of water in Cochabamba teleologically, with the Water War as its Hollywood-worthy climax. But this gets it backwards. Rather than filling in the backstory to Cochabamba’s moment in the global spotlight, Water For All serves to tell a more important and comprehensive kind of story about conflict, resources, and survival.
The story is messy, morally ambiguous, and unhurried. It makes for a plodding read. But this is precisely the point. Hines’s work, which chronologically unfolds her painstaking archival and ethnographic research, shows that disaster strikes quickly and often, but that survival moves slowly. Our histories should too.
One reason that the Water War proved so captivating was that its good vs. evil narrative neatly pitted an unquestionably callous American multinational against a uniquely unitary coalition of the Bolivian “people.” But Hines’s research, at its best, complicates this notion of “people" considerably. In most of the preceding century’s water conflicts, lines were not so clearly drawn.
For instance: small landholders and the descendants of laborers on the valley’s vast haciendas, large landholdings established during the colonial period, often shared Indigenous roots and inhumane treatment at the hands of Cochabamba’s elites. Yet their differing relationships to land and water access regularly put these two groups at odds, creating political rifts that were routinely exploited by the city’s municipal government.
What’s more, the very designation of mestizo emerged in part from the expropriations that set Cochabamba’s contemporary water conflicts in motion. When a deadly drought struck in the 1870s, the national government seized its moment by waging war on the country’s Indigenous communities, slicing and dicing collective lands into private parcels, among other harmful policies. As Cochabamba’s ruling class accumulated water titles in volumes even more grossly disproportionate than their land holdings, so-called “indios” once defined by their tributary membership in traditional Indigenous communities found themselves either small landowners or, even more precariously, at the mercy of the haciendas. With the legal and demographic status of “indio” suddenly dissolved by the elimination of their community groups, these transplanted laborers were lumped into the undifferentiated designation of mestizo—a category now central to Cochabamban identity.
There can be no stories of water without stories of land, but Water For All diverges from well-trod histories of Latin American land reform. Where it does, it reveals the basic materiality of resource politics: that is, how the physical characteristics (liquid vs. solid, perishable vs. non-perishable) of a given natural resource shape the structures of power that facilitate its distribution. Unlike land, water flows downhill. It can be diverted at numerous points along its path. And sometimes it dries up.
This has real consequences. Water’s downhill flow afforded unusual power, for example, to the Indigenous communities who lived between Cochabamba and the highland lagoons, and who could siphon water undetected or divert its path altogether.
Furthermore, the fact that extracting well water anywhere depleted the water table everywhere—unlike, say, a coal vein—meant that when French engineers consulted to satisfy World Bank loan conditions in 1994 recommended that the city drill wells in the valley’s western regions, their proposals were hobbled by fierce resistance. Anti-well irrigator associations marched in protest, contending that increased drilling would lead to soil erosion, aquifer depletion, and even earthquakes. After weeks of blockades, these coalitions were successful: municipal authorities scuttled the well-drilling plan, and the World Bank attributed the failure of the project to the opposition of farmers protecting their groundwater—“inadvertently admitting,” Hines observes, “that the farmers’ technical position was correct.”
Hines’s narrative is polyphonic and contentious—a cacophony of conflicting claims to a limited natural resource, and a chronicle of what she calls the “vernacular environmental governance” enacted by rural and working-class communities when their claims were, for the most part, subordinated to state projects.
Out of these convoluted claims, a now-familiar pattern emerges: the repeated insistence by governing powers on treating social inequality and ethnic oppression as problems that can be engineered out of existence. The military socialists of the 1940s expanded the valley’s water infrastructure more than any government to that point. However, they did so from a calculation that these technical fixes would quiet rural unrest without irritating the valley’s landowners. Pipes, rather than social reform, were the preferred response to poverty. That is, until wells became the technosocial intervention of choice in the 1960s, when the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and other international financial institutions observed that their subterranean workings were out of the reach of meddlesome peasants and thus safe from “theft.”
In other cases, the object of state engineering was the unruly citizen himself. When the IDB ordered the creation of an autonomous company to manage the valley’s water infrastructure in 1967, the municipal government recast the role of citizen not as an active participant in collective maintenance of lakes and channels, but as a passive customer. Two years later, the municipal water company blamed the “average person” for not voluntarily restricting water use, laying the responsibility for environmental catastrophe in the lap of the individual.
Contemporary narratives of resource conflicts in the Global South often draw their urgency from the growing threat of climate change and its attendant catastrophes. But Hines demonstrates that environmental crisis is nothing new, least of all in Cochabamba—“the most forsaken place on earth,” as one columnist described the thirsty valley in 1940. Nor is the use of crisis to justify centralized engineering projects that further consolidate power. Urgency has never transcended politics.
Hines’s book is dense, chronological and granular. It’s no easy read, but this is not to be held against her. In fact, these are precisely the kinds of environmental narratives we need: stories that move steadily enough to outlast the hysteria of disaster and moral triumph. Stories that attend to the quiet, insistent, and unremarkable work of communities creating the conditions of their own survival. It’s a deeply unglamorous form of history, but it’s grounded in the wisdom that novel solutions are the oldest trick in the book.
Indeed, as Hines notes in her conclusion, revolutions are not events, but processes; they move through time rather than disrupting it. Which is to say that any viable solution to environmental and social injustices must arise from preexisting struggles for representation, access, and power.
The demands of coming generations might seem sufficiently dire to merit our full attention. But we find an instructive metaphor in the history of Cochabamba’s water conflicts, which returned endlessly to the water’s source. We would do well to heed the work of historians in like fashion, by recalling that the futures we need can only be found in the past we already have.
Peter Schmidt is a writer, artist, and facilitator from Missouri.