The community of Flores Rancho is about 50 minutes drive South East of Cochabamba. It is a rural community where 120 families (or about 480 people) live and manage their common water system. This community was at the forefront of the water war 10 years ago, when in a couple of months of street battles, they forced the then Bolivian government to make a U turn and repeal the water privatisation laws. In this way they also opened the political process that brought Evo Morales to become the first indigenous president in South America.
I meet people from the Flores Rancho community in the occasion of a visit organised by a network of organisations that are preparing the 3rd feira de l’agua, few days of demonstrations, seminars, workshops and exhibition to talk about the many problems that still are afflicting water systems in Bolivia ten years after the victorious water war and share information and commoning practices. We meet with men and women from the community in the middle of a half built house, the building of what will be the escuela de l’Agua.
While we sit around the open walls, workers are busy on what will be the roof doing their shift of community work. The building is partially funded by Yaku, an Italian NGO, and its purpose, according to different people, seems to be a mixture of community centre, cloth washing center, education center, dorms, place to host public meetings and a node in the future tourist infrastructural network of the area. But the general point to have this building seems the need to have some structural reference point in an international network that aims at valorising the “Andean vision on water”. The building is built with a mixture of traditional (mud bricks) and modern material (cement and bricks), as evidence of a compromise within the community among those who prefer tradition and those who would like to leave traditions in the past. It is built on common land, purchased by the community, next to the other piece of common land in which the community has its water well. (For a short video see www.youtube.com/watch?v=HeLyMLlSODY)
Don Abdon is an articulated and proud man, and he has got reasons to be proud. His name is written next to the well that he wanted the community to dig to find water. Before the community well, each family had their own small well, which was sufficient for human consumption, very few animals and no irrigation. Don Abdon returned from Argentina with a degree in Agronomy and in 1982 convinced the community to pool the little savings available together, purchase some land and pay for the drilling of 84 meters deep well. It costed 18000 bolivianos (£1800), but they found abundant water. Three years later, in 1985, at a cost of 45000 Bolivianos (£4500) they built a 20 meters high tank for drinkable water. They spent a further of 18000 Bolivianos to bring in electricity on the land (cabling, erecting an electricity pole, etc.). With the help of a Spanish NGO they paid for the pipes and the bombas. When the community water well was installed and started working, given its depth, all the private family wells run dry. But the community choice offered a good pay off. All families could now have access to more water than before, allowing to increase the amount of animals they kept as well as increase the quantity and increase the variety of crops produced, thus improving both income and the quality of food available to families an the community.
A part from the very specialised work like that of drilling, all the other construction and maintenance work has been and is carried out by the community itself through what here is called umaraqa, the same as in other regions of the Andes is called minga or minka, i.e. non waged community work. The tank is regularly cleaned, water is piped into the houses, and problems fixed by a group of 10 people drawn from the community. Actually, there are 10 of such groups, and each year one group takes over the responsibility of the administration and maintenance of the system: in other words, a shift of one year every ten years.
Don Abdon however stresses that those like him who have expertise and experience are always available to help those who have a shift and lack the knowledge. The work of the team of 10 is of course all gratuitous, something that contributes to keep the price of water very low. Each community member pays 1 Boliviano (10 pence of a British Pound) for each square meter of water, that is 8 times less than the price paid by costumers of municipal water in Cochabamba. The community also meet on the 5th of every month, to discuss all matters of regarding the water system. However, as it is generally the case with these community meetings, water becomes only the occasion to discuss and organise around all types of issues. Participation is taken quite seriously. If one family representative does not show up at a meeting without an acceptable justification, they have to pay a fine: one working day for the community. Conflict, I was told, is generally dealt within the community, and very rarely is solved outside it by appealing to the police or the state courts. I also discover that indeed there is a system of penalties as retribution for what are regarded as offences to the community. With respect to water for example, one receive a 3 days water cut if found “wasting” it, i.e. using water in measures and forms that run counter those decided by the community itself. Other penalties are also issued if one is found selling the community waters to the outside (which, given the relative scarcity of water in the Cochabamba region, especially in the South, I suspect is a quite tenting thing). Many of the communities around the areas have had an experience similar to Flores Rancho, where they built their own community water system. And we can understand how in 2000, people in a communities like Flores Rancho got really pissed off at the government! They pooled resources together, they managed water, they organised their work together to get water out and distribute it, and then comes a law that allow a multinational company to put their own meters next to the infrastructures that the community built and maintained so as to charge you for the water: thank you very much! The threatened enclosures on water was truly a robbery on a form of property, of community property, i.e.not just an enclosure on an abstract “resource”, but on a system of autonomous and self managed control and community work. We also learn that from the perspective of a grassroots association like this the need for external funding like NGOs and some degree of access to markets circuits — whether for specialised services like drilling or access to income for families — is an obvious necessity (I have not heard of any funding by the Bolivian state). But it is also the case that the practices of community work and commoning reduce the dependency on markets. The substantially lower price for water paid by the community with respect to the market price, together with the system of community rules for its usage which defines its upper limit, represent — given all other conditions constant — a substantial lowering of the income necessary to pay for reproduction and agricultural water needs, while at the same time allowing more use for water to individual families. This represent a substantial loosening of the knot tying the community to the necessity of money for its own reproduction. Obviously, the question becomes not only what will communities like these do with the freedom gained, but also in what form they will be able to increase the scale of their resource pool.