El pueblo unido jamás será vencido. The title of this song from the legendary South American band Inti-Illimani has long been the slogan of many movements against injustice and oppression.
How to turn a beautiful slogan into reality? How to create unity among a large number of people with different backgrounds, life histories, and problems towards a common goal?
To answer these questions, I have talked with activist Oscar Olivera, recipient of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2001.
Olivera was one of the leaders of the popular protests that took place in Cochabamba, Bolivia, which started at the end of 1999 and culminated in April 2000 in response to the privatisation of the water supply in the the country’s third largest city.
At the end of a long process supported by the Bolivian government, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, Aguas del Tunari – a joint venture that included several multinational corporations – took charge and was responsible for a dramatic rise of water rates.
The privatisation of water had a devastating impact on the households living in the city and a disruptive effect on small farmers living in the surrounding areas. But there was even more. To put it in Olivera’s words:
“Water is the blood of the Mother Earth, from which Water is a living being and a generous gift from Pachamama (a goddess worshipped by indigenous people of the Andes, editor’s note) for all living beings, just like the land, the mountains, the plants, the animals.” (from Palabras para tejernos, resistir y transformar en la época que estamos viviendo, page 23).
Many forces joined to oppose the decision, from an academic committee of engineers and experts to farmers living around Cochabamba and workers in the city.
And it was in the professional world that Olivera had been active for a long time as a trade unionist, uniting many different important figures in the city. Shopkeepers, clerks, even sex workers sat next to each other during the assemblies.
It was this ability to involve people from different walks of life that would turn out to be a key element in the success of the Water War demonstrations.
Interview to Oscar Olivera
Despite the violence exerted by the police resulting in a young man being killed and many being wounded and in spite of differences in social, professional and financial status, you managed to gather an impressive number of people. On April 10, 2000, 500,000 people demonstrated in Cochabamba’s Plaza Principal.
On the contrary, it is often very difficult to make 2 or 3 families agree on a small decision for the maintenance of their building. I would like you to tell us how it is possible to create such unity within so large a number of people.
It’s a very difficult achievement. Obviously, there are no scientific formulae or fixed rules. Every situation is different and must be tackled accordingly. What might work in Cochabamba, might not work in La Paz or Chile, let alone the USA or Italy.
You have to know the context in which you’re working and use your creativity and innovative spirit to find new ideas and solutions.
For example, sometimes we used music in order to get people involved. In other cases we used games. One night we organised a fishing game where people were given a rod and they had to fish the image of the person – in position of power – who was thought to be the most corrupt.
One day, I displayed a Bolivian flag out of my windows. My neighbours asked me why I had done that. My answer was that we were fighting a just battle as patriots who were acting for the sake of the people and the principle that water isn’t a commodity you can privatise. My neighbours understood and within a short space of time the entire street was full of Bolivian flags.
One should think hard to understand the best strategy and be as inclusive as possible.
Exactly. In our assemblies of the World of Work we had included all of the representatives of the professional world. However, the unions’ big shots still didn’t understand. They wanted to give orders from above, but if you act like that people will never follow you. You don’t need bombastic speeches, but rather patience and the ability to create mutual trust.
Nothing works better, if you want to strengthen unity, than speaking de corazòn a corazòn, from heart to heart, with people.
This is what makes everyone feel important and actively involved.
The participation of everyone is something we need to treasure. Unfortunately, Bolivia’s current government are not working in that direction, which is really sad, because some of the people now in power who fought against the oppressors 15 years ago have turned into the arrogant people they were rebelling against. They provided a very dangerous message, i.e. that in order to improve the country you just needed to replace the people in key institutional positions. But this is untrue. Things improve only if everyone is an active player of the change.
I’ve never been as worried about the future of my country as I am now.
The people from Cochabamba managed to chase Aguas del Tunari out of the city. The key to success was to use the skills, expertise and passion that came from everyone.
It’s very important to learn something from everyone. Everyone can contribute. You see, this should be the role of the media: to tell valuable stories so that other people’s inspiring experiences can be shared and used for adding value to society. But they don’t do that.
Your Fundaciòn Abril, an organization that was created in 2002 after the success of the Water War, fosters participatory processes in the management of water. At the moment it is working on Cochabamba’s Rio Rocha.
On the one hand, the foundation aims to free it from pollution, whilst on the other hand it is turning an open air dump along the river into land that is suitable for growing fruit and vegetables. This work is supported by NGOs and, above all, students from a nearby school. All of the kids that I talked to, though very young, expressed their enthusiasm for this project and seemed eager to contribute.
Stimulating active, participative engagement in very young kids is fundamental. Water is a very pressing problem in Cochabamba, which is located at the bottom of a valley, and the pollution of Rìo Rocha is a very big issue too.
In other cities there may be other problems, such as free education or public health care. Whatever the challenge, every organisation is in constant need for new forces and energies coming from the youth, or it will become static.
Like I said before, we must talk about inspiring examples, and the children’s fruit and vegetable gardens that you mentioned, which Fundaciòn Abril has been working on, stands out as a shining example.
PS1 My thanks to Camila Olivera and Stefano Archidiacono and the teachers and kids from the Jesús Terceros School.
PS2 My special thanks to my dear friends Laurita Garcia – for arranging the meeting with Oscar Olivera – and Luca Marinari – for the photographs – who made this interview possible and came with me to the meeting with Oscar Olivera. All of this, on the morning following their wedding! To them, my best wishes and congratulations!