EDITORIAL BY Amaru Villanueva Rance
Strangely, the national identity is defined more by the absence of water than by its abundance. Water permeates through every layer of Bolivian history beginning, of course, with the loss of the sea following the armed Chilean invasion of 1879. Bolivia became a mediterranean island surrounded by an ocean of land, closed off from the world beyond our geopolitical borders. The ocean now exists for Bolivia merely as an absence, a void which has scarred and taken hold over the national consciousness ever since.
In 1932 Bolivia went to war against another of its neighbours, fighting Paraguay to defend the Chaco region in the south-east of the country. Campesinos from the highlands, largely illiterate and indigenous, marched south-east to defend a country which barely recognised them as citizens, to defend an inhospitable land they had never before seen. Yet scores of these soldiers didn’t die in battle but perished in the heat and dryness of the Chaco. As Miguel Navajo, a military officer, records in his diary: 'No hay agua' - 'there is no water'. Navajo is the narrator of Augusto Céspedes’ famous story El Pozo which follows a squadron of soldiers who spend months digging a well in the Chaco with no result. They dig 50 metres into the ground with no success. 'Will this end one day?... Digging is no longer about finding water, but to accomplish a fatal plan, an inscrutable purpose', Navajo explains. The soldiers are suddenly attacked by Paraguayan forces, who are also in the search for the precious liquid. Most of the Bolivian soldiers die either digging or defending the well which never yields anything but humidity, heat, and silence.
This was not the last time Bolivians were to fight for their water or die trying to find it. Fast forward to the dawn of the 21st Century, and we find people across Cochabamba taking up banners, sticks and stones to defend their right to have access to water. This time the adversary was not an army but a multinational corporation who, with the help of the government, had secured rights to distribute and sell the water in a region where it is scarce and therefore dear. Facing the prospect of not being able to afford the most basic of human needs, several protesters died in the defense of el agua. Yet unlike the martyrs of centuries past, the fighters of the Water Wars succeeded in claiming back what was theirs.
The beginning of March 2014 saw the yearly reappearance of water wars of an entirely different type. Most of the combatants were under 18, and battles were fought across city in broad daylight. Ambushes were frequent and no civilian was safe from the menace. We are referring, of course, to the carnival season water fights. Armed with water pistols, balloons and white foam (yes, chemical warfare takes place here too), it is that time of the year when thousands of people take to the streets to engage in some fun with a good dose of tradition-sanctioned violence.
Tragically, water has also claimed several victims over the past month. The northeast of the country has seen some of the words floods in decades, leaving over 60 people dead and thousands of families homeless. Some have described it is a natural disaster but others protest there was nothing ‘natural’ about it, arguing that with sufficient foresight and adequate infrastructure, these disasters are preventable. We take this view, and dedicate this issue of Bolivian Express to all the people affected by the floods.
ARTICLES FROM THIS ISSUE
Putting Shoes on their Feet
02 Apr, 2014 | Alison Walsh
Zattaro is an organisation that works with small rural communities to create sustainable development opportunities through fashion products. Bolivian Express visits the women behind an initiative...
Snowboarding Bolivia’s Glaciers
27 Mar, 2014 | Laura Van Antwerp
Making the Most of a Disappearing Water Source Loose rock and snow crumble beneath my feet as I struggle to keep up with David, my leader, who is gliding effortlessly up the mountain ahead of me. I’...
THE CARNAVAL WATER WARS
27 Mar, 2014 | Laura Van Antwerp
THWACK! I knew the minute I felt it hit my backside. I has just experienced my first globo attack. I spun around to find myself face to face with a grinning boy, no older than ten years of age, c...
AGUA = GUERRA
27 Mar, 2014 | Alison Walsh
When water was worth fighting for In the year 2000, the streets of Cochabamba were turned into a battleground, as the city’s residents protested against the privatisation of their water supply, and...
The Beaches of Santa Cruz
22 Mar, 2014 | Finn Jubak
Three New Developments Promise Seaside Living to Bolivians Who Are Willing to Pay for It ‘In five years, there will be a city there,’ Francisco Cibrián tells me from behind his desk, his eye...
Portrait of a Void
22 Mar, 2014 | Neil Suchak
How has the loss of the sea influenced Bolivian contemporary art? To those of us who come from a country surrounded by the sea, the plight of a landlocked nation, like Bolivia, is almost unfathomable...