Cochabamba, Bolivia: Water (commons) Fair

Massimo De Angelis

Commons, understood generally as the autonomous institutions and practices of people self-organisations and self-help, are the backbone of people livelihoods all around the world. Especially in the global South, without commons people would die, because they would lack access to the basic resources like food and water necessary for life. When we hear the often-quoted statistics referring to the 40% of world population living on less than a dollar a day, we in the North tend to see only victims. We do not see self-reliant and dignified subjects from whom we have a lot to learn. Indeed, how could they live on such a low level of monetary income, if not through the fact that they pool their resources and labour together and build commons, thus overcoming the scarcity that they face as individuals? But to the external and untrained eye, commons are either invisible or opaque, because they are relational fields among a group of people that constitute itself as community, hence build some sort of wall or border around them which obscure its workings or indicate its presence to the outside only as an amorphous cluster.

Obviously, one cannot demand transparency to a commons, unless its activity create negative externalities on other commons, because a commons is not a public institution, and the borders around it — in spite of the different degree of porosity and possibility for an individual to go through — have generally a rational kernel: they represent the contextual limit of the sphere of its activity. On the other hand, we can legitimately demand transparency to a public institution because such institutions ought to benefit all of us, and not only a part of us, ought to be our commons. Hence our demand for transparency in this case implies a demand that we should all be part of its relational field and be able to exercise control over it, whether by sending people reps to its board of directors, or as social movements contesting the effects of its managerial and top-down administration. This is the same as regarding public institutions as distorted commons, i.e. to regard them in an aspirational way, as what, from the commons perspective that understand commons through the lens of commoning and grassroots democracy, they ought to be.

Now, if commons transparency and visibility is not a given property of commons, when commons become visible and invite you to see how they work and what they do, when in other words they come out, celebrate and share among themselves and communicate with others, we know there is something going on, we know that we are in the presence of a social movement that is not made of individual “citizens” or “civil society”, but of . . .commoners.

A social movements of commoners is one that seek to extend the scale of commons, extend the social power mobilised by commoning. In this sense, the struggle undertaken by this social movement is not only one that manifests itself in cathartic street demonstrations, but is also hidden in the daily reproduction of livelihoods. Actually, it is this latter activity that gives this movement both strength and its rhythmical presence into the streets. I do not think we can measure a commoners movement with the yardstick of traditional social movements where we correlate the presence on the streets with the strength of the movement. When we talk about commoners movement, strength seems to be, if not the cause, definitively the material basis of the presence in the streets. While the presence in the streets is produced through events, the strength is reproduced in daily processes, and there is an obvious lag between the time of productive contestation and the time of reproductive commoning. So for example, 500 years of indigenous resistance is not 500 years of daily street battles, but 500 years of value reproducing commoning activity that sustained and reproduced itself in spite of the massive wave of murderous enclosures deployed against it. Commoners movement is a type of social movement and social struggle we should hope to see growing and develop in the next century if any change to our conditions of life and living must occur.

One such a social movement is the one I saw at the III Feira del Agua in Cochabama. And indeed, if anybody had any doubt about the existence and relevance of commons to people lives and livelihoods, well a Fair like this should help dispel any such doubt. Spread along the four sides of a large football pitch and beyond, dozens of community water associations and cooperatives like the one of Flores Rancho that I visited the other day (see previous post) are making their own showcase, with the help of hand-made posters and polystyrene models, to mark their presence and to exchange information, knowledge and technology.

From feira de l’agua
From feira de l’agua
From feira de l’agua
From feira de l’agua
From feira de l’agua
From feira de l’agua

Associations like these form the largest bulk of the third Feira del Agua, held in Cochabamba during the days of 15 and 18 April, coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the water war that forced the then Bolivian government to repeal its water privatisation law. Among other participants in this feira del agua, noticeable presences besides some international development NGOs, some associations proposing waterless bio-toilets and some documentation centers, are also Semapa, the municipal water company that is highly controversial for the allegation of corruption and ineffectiveness in providing water, and Misicuni, a consortium of national and international companies that is building a large dam in the mountains North of Cochabamba and that promises to fill the water deficit of the region.

From feira de l’agua

Cochabamba is indeed a region with a water deficit. In spite of all the amazing self-organisation efforts that community groups are doing, they cannot offer water to all the communities. The area of Cochabamba mostly affected is the South, the vast suburban area where about 200000 people live and water provision is poor. In the 1980s and 1990s, a large migration from rural and mines region into cities like Cochabamba occured, this putting pressure on water provisions. Three distinct realities in this region then developed with respect to water. First, the market reality, that is the reality of those who lack access to water, don’t organise and thus depend on private providers. This generally occurs in unsafe and unregulated forms. Water is delivered at home by private suppliers who drive cistern-trucks and is poured in “turril” , i.e. large 200 litres open canisters that households generally keep outside. Here the problems is not only the astronomical cost of this water (up to 30 bolivianos, £3, for a turril, and think that this is not just drinking water, but water for all household usage), but also the water contamination as a result of storage in old and rusty containers and exposure to the elements.

The second reality is of those who self-organise themselves and are lucky to live in areas in which there is water and community wells can be dig. Now, the work they are doing here is quite impressive, since community build from scratch entire water systems, dig deep wells (up to 100m), construct water deposits and connect pumps, lay the pipes for home distribution, monitor the water quality which in this region is always threatened by waste contamination, and manage the entire system. Not bad as a form of commoning! Interestingly, it is generally recognised here that the initiative to dig for water emerges in a population that has recently migrated from the countryside, and therefore has a memory of self-reliance and a relation to nature that is empowering. Rural people always go close to water sources and get their act together to use water. This is not a trivial fact, and I am starting to consider that indeed a crucial aspect of the countryside subjectivity’s everywhere in the world is such a self-reliance and autonomous spirit, one that is lost through successive waves of urbanisation which add mediations between people and nature in the form of money and bureaucratic and legal codes. A point here to be considered in the future: if we do not have the need for one revolutionary subject any longer, we may need a composite one, and one of its crucial components can be found in the self-reliant spirit of indigneous and campesinos wordwide.

From feira de l’agua

The third reality is of those who self-organise themselves but are not lucky to live in areas with water. The commons self-organisation in this case occurs through a system of water collection by cistern trucks. The water is generally purchased from the municipal water company Semapa at far lower prices than those of the market, and distributed in the community. Generally, the community associations also establishes systems of distribution through deposits from which water is piped into the houses. In one case (the Asociation de Produccion y Administracion de Agua y Saneamiento APAAS, a community based organisation set up in 1990) water is fetched 7 km away, and to get the water the community has set up pipes, pomps and deposits along the crest of a mountain down to their suburban neighbourhood.

From feira de l’agua
From feira de l'agua

The different community organisations seem to function in different ways according to different conditions, but all heavily rely on community work besides self-funding and some access to external funding. The need for some socialisation of production in some functions — and therefore of greater scale — is met with associations of the second level, i.e. associations of associations.

This is for the example the case of Asica-Sur (, one of the main organiser of this feira de l’agua.

From feira de l’agua

Asica-Sur pulls together about 90 community organisations of the second and third category discussed above roughly split in half among those which have access to a well and those that do not. Asica-Sur offers 4 types of services to their members: it offers community associations a platform of organisation and negotiating power vis-a’ vis the state and municipal water authorities; it strengthen the capacity of these water systems by facilitating information and sharing knowledge; provides technical assistance and services, for example through its cistern trucks that it provides to the communities without wells, but also enabling smaller community groups to access government and NGOs funds; and it offers help in the management of water resources, infrastructure and equipment. Its function seems also increasingly to mediate and find political solutions to problems encountered by larger water community systems.

For example, the case mentioned above of APAAS, is now encountering some problems due to recent human settlements along the 7 km pipeline, problems unknown 20 years earlier when it was established. The recent dwellers are allegedly stealing water and pretending that APAAS give them water for free as payment for the fact that the pipes are passing through their territory. Obviously, this water war among the poor need to find some solution, and political processes, rather than abstract recipees, are here fundamental. What situations like these also reveal is that the building of commons in a context ridded with socio-economic trends typical of capitalist systems (such as the continuous migration of the poor) is far from those studied as typical models in the West under the influence of neo-institutionalism. Unlike those cases, here the problem of access to a resource like water is never circumscribed to a given community, and although there is is an appeal to traditional forms of administrations or forms of convivir [living together] “based on ancient cultural rules and customs where the prevailing collective work and active participation in the deliberation and decision making on the assets and affairs concerning the community is under the principles of reciprocity, solidarity, justice , fairness and transparency” (from an Asica-Sur pamphlet), these forms have to deal with a reality in progress and a web of bottom-up and bottom-bottom conflictuous situations that continuously challenge the forms in which these basic principles apply. Here we have a major challenge of commons and commoning as a political paradigm, a challenge that is not envisaged by the many who while subscribing to this paradigm, offers static models as panaceas. The reality is one in which the commons and commoning perspective must embrace the new and the challenges of the times, while at the same time valorising and reclaiming the old and the ancient. The solution is not inscribed in written handbooks of given knowledge, but in the art of negotiation and political and organisational inventiveness of communities. In a seminar I attended I heard a Columbian activist referring not only to Mingas (community collective work) to build and maintain water systems, but also of Mingas of social resistance. And to this what we may add the need for Mingas of inter-communities relations and solidarity. In other words commoning of all types is really the ultimate material force of transformation of our realities.

One thing that it is clear while talking to the many associations and their collective organisations like Asica-Sur is that they all want to do more than what they are doing — whether it is a question of access to water to more members of the community, or of sanitation and water quality. We could say that in these days and age, their social movement is a social movement for growth (not so much “economic growth”, but growth in access to water and the betterment of its quality). This however implies that they all need more resources, i.e. to mobilise more social power. When we look into this more in details, we find that the question of resources and scale necessarily leads as to problematise the question of the construction of commons in relation to markets and states.

A “resource pool” is the first constituent element of a commons, the others being a community and commoning. Pooling resources address a specific need, the need of power to, that is to extend the scale of social production that a given community is able to mobilise for its own reproduction. Now, from the perspective of a community, and given its conditions of material and financial wealth, what are the sources of a resource pool or, which is the same thing, in what ways a community can increase its power to, or extend the social power it is able to mobilise? I think there are two general cases here to be considered. One, that applies to a community, say of fishers, who decide to manage their common fishing waters but in which production is organised by the individual fishers themselves. This is the case dealt with by a large bulk of neo-institutional commons literature, where much emphasis is put to confute Hardin’s tragedy of the commons. The commoning you need to refer to in order to make this confutation is only with respect to decisions and rules and not with respect of working together: the herders still go on the field with their own cattle and in their own time. There is in other words some equity principle at work (“now it is my turn and then is your turn” or, “not more than 5 cows each farmers”) and not some community sharing (“let us share the cows and the work on the field”)). The second case, which interests us here, is one that applies for all those resources that are required to engage in some form of common production.

If I am not missing something, I believe pooling of resources at this level can only occur in one or in a combination of the following ways — leaving out robbery of peers from other communities: a) the members of the community all tip in from their own material or financial savings; b) donors (like NGOs) are found; c) the community subscribe a debt; d) the state pour resources into the community; e) the community expropriate property, occupy, squats (like in the case of brazilian landless movement, MST).

Each of these sources represent challenges and limits from the perspective of scale and social justice, because themselves need to have “sources” and in particular sources of power. The first one, is of course limited by the degree of material wealth of the community, as well as complicated by the division of wealth within the community and the degree of cohesion in spite of wealth difference. The second one, a part from being limited by the money available and the work and know-how necessary to bid for the money, also may require to align local project to international NGOs priorities. The third one tie local community to repayment plans and therefore to markets. The fourth one bring with it the alignment of local communities to the state priorities and may favour their cooptation. The fifth one bring in the threat of repression. Talking to people from different water associations present in this Fair, I had the impression that all of these options have been used in one way or in another, a part from debt. For example, APAAS participated in a competition and won money from the World Bank to fund the purchase of pipes running 7 km. Some community organisations pull savings and buy the land upon which they dig the well partially funded by an NGOs. In another case, the state pour in money for a community water deposit as part of the “Bolivia Cambia Evo Cumple” campaign, and in others some foreign development funds are channelled into community organisations.

From feira de l’agua

In other words, it feels like that in order to grow commons cannot escape development, whether we are talking about transfers from states, supranational institutions such as the World Bank or NGOs, or the need to access money from the market in order to pull savings. In principle, we could of course imagine an alternative process that does not use any state nor markets, i.e. one based entirely on point e) above. In this case, all extension of commons occurs by means of all communities expropriating resources from the wealthy and simultaneously forming direct relations of association among themselves, giving rise to associations of second, third and upper level controlling all forms of social production and distribution made possible by the recently expropriated resources that extend the “pool”.

Obviously, this solution is in principle conceivable not only in moments of intense social revolution, but moments of intense social revolution that do not require an extension of the role of the state, neither in terms of its apparatus in defence of new property configurations against threat of restauration, nor in terms of extension of socialised functions that at the moment of revolution cannot be organised by communities nor by existing markets. Allowing for the state indeed simplifies enormously the problem of transition to a socially just society, as through indirect expropriation (case d) it is possible to fund organised communities of commoners and give rise to an increase in scale of commoning without the use of capitalist markets. This seems the avenue taken by Morales government, although timidly. As I was told by some community associations activists, the government has started to give money directly to grassroots associations and not to local authorities, and this is seen as a great improvement. However, this has happened significantly in areas where there is more opposition to the govenrment — such as Santa Cruz — while in area like Cochabamba — the stronghold of MAS, the party in government — there has been only timid disboursements. However, it may well be the case that the existing power relations and configurations of needs of the people necessitate the state to operate also for the development of market themselves — including capitalist markets — in which case the problems of transition becomes even more complex and risky. This is also the case here in Bolivia.

In any case, ultimately, the “socialist” principle to be a transformational principle must be articulated to the anarchist principles of individual freedom, and the communist principles of community constitution of values through commoning. The extent to which the measuring and valuing mechanisms of capitalist markets overpower the measuring and valuing mechanisms of commoning is a crucial factor to decide whether the “socialist” state is functional to a process of capitalist development or a transformational process towards the development of social justice. In Bolivia I think it is still too early to tell, and the process seems a very interesting process to study. The general question posed by the problems of access to resources becomes how can development be instrumental to the extension of commons, without the latter becoming in turn instrumental to the extension of capitalist development?

The 5 cases listed above apply from the perspective of an association of producers which aim at mobilising more social power than what they have at their disposal, and hope to internalise the means for such a mobilisation. But if we scale up and reach higher levels of association, we discover that there are other ways to extend the social power of commoners. One for example is posed by Asica-Sur with the question of cogestión — co-management. The question of co-management with Semeca is not yet defined clearly, and it raises several eyebrows among some community activists who are afraid that the messing up with the organisational forms of the municipal company would irreversibly contaminate the community organizational values. This would be a case in which the quest for extension of social power would backfire. But the rationale is obvious: to have access to more resources now available to the ineffective and corrupt structure of Semapa. The question is really to find a form that articulates community forms of organisation with this greater urban scale organisation.

Another issue posed, and it is perhaps linked to the question of comanagement, is that the state must allow organisations and firms that have at their disposal means of production and equipment to make it available to smaller organisation who do not have. This is perhaps a type of mild form of temporary “expropriation” that does not damage anybody really, but would give community associations access to fundamental resources and increase the scale of their operations. It is also evidence of a conception that sees the need for private and public property to be communalised, not so much in its formal ownership status, but in terms of the forms of its access and control, allowing us to move beyond old dichotomies.

But mega-projects are also on the horizons and bring new challenges. Misicuni, is a consortium of public and private companies that is building a dam higher up in the mountains around Cochabamba and that promises to fill the water deficit of the area. It is a project that has been in the pipelines for some decades now, but that only in the last few years started to move on. There is some controversy surrounding the project, whether a mega project of this scale was really necessary and whether alternatives could not be found. However in general, all the association representatives I have talked to where happy with the promised water availability promised by Misicuni. I was told by one of the Misicuni representatives present at the Fair, that it will be finished by 2012, a date however that raised some eyebrows of incredulity given the past history. I asked Carlos Oropeza, a dirigente of Asica-Sur, if this development would reduce the need for grassroots associations, but he did not seem to be concerned. “Local coop will buy water and distribute it themselves”, he told me. Asica-Sur is apparently already building the deposits and strengthening the infrastructure for local distribution.

Courtesy: author’s blog

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