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Defending Water, Defending Life: The Fourth Red Vida Assembly in Mexico City

by Marcela Olivera and Susan Spronk – October 25, 2012

We are sitting in a large Catholic hall nestled in the heart of Mexico City, the type of space where many Latin American social movements have historically sought refuge from dictatorships. Today, we are not fending off the military but big multinationals and our governments who want to sell our water, use it to grow soy or poison it with their mines.

We have gathered for the general assembly of Red Vida, an inter-American network of social movements working in defense of water from Canada to Argentina. Forty of us are debating political strategy to build on our successes in reversing the tide of privatization of the 1990s (see Struggles for Water Justice in Latin America).

Mexico in hot water

We can’t rest on our laurels. Mexico is just one ‘hot spot’ where our brothers and sisters are fighting private water companies and governments that support them. They have seen how private providers in Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina have failed to deliver on their promises for cheaper and higher quality water services, and they can’t let their country make the same mistakes.

In Mexico, a national coalition of environmentalist organizations, COMDA, is currently embroiled in a campaign to reform the water law. COMDA wants the law to respect the right of communities to manage their own water resources and to defend the commons against ‘enclosure’, particularly from contamination by big mining companies.

Debating strategies

One of the productive tensions that has emerged in this meeting is whether we should be pushing our governments to include the ‘right to water’ in legislation or whether we should be focusing our energies on struggles to defend ‘the commons’.

Oscar Olivera from Fundación Abril (Bolivia) spoke eloquently about the need to defend spaces of self-government such as community-run water systems in the peri-urban areas of the Andes. If people have constructed their own water systems with sweat and blood, do we really ‘need’ the state to provide these services? Many members of such autonomous communities, most self-identifying as indigenous, see the state as an alien institution imposed by colonial rule.

By contrast, Adriana Marquisio from Uruguay’s publicly owned and operated water utility OSE highlighted that state provision in her country has allowed to achieve near universal coverage, and much higher quality services than many of the small community systems could ever provide.

From our conversations it is clear that it is not enough to frame our campaigns around the right to water and we must document concrete alternatives to privatization. Red Vida is better able to do that thanks to collaboration with researchers from the Municipal Services Project, who attended our assemblies as invited observers in Buga, Colombia in May 2009 and are here with us again in Mexico.

If we can articulate what the alternatives are perhaps we can convince others that privatization is not the solution. We can also demonstrate the negative impact of the more insidious practices of sub-contracting and corporatization, which threaten the ‘public’ nature of our utilities. These trends are affecting every one of us, whether our governments claim to be left-of-center or not.

As our Declaration signed in Mexico by all member organizations of the Red Vida states, in the face of all these struggles, we will continue to fight “like water, in a manner that is transparent, joyful and always in motion…until the final victory.”

Marcela Olivera is the Latin American coordinator for the Water for All Campaign of Food and Water Watch, Washington, DC., and works coordinating the Red Vida.

Susan Spronk teaches international development at the University of Ottawa. She is an active participant in several projects of the Red Vida and a research associate with the Municipal Services Project.