Threats to a Sustainable Future: Water Accumulation and Conflict in Latin America

Author:Rutgerd Boelens - Mourik Bueno de Mesquita - Antonio Gaybor - Francisco Peña
Position::Coordinator of the Justicia Hídrica / Water Justice alliance, Associate Professor, Dept. Environmental Sciences, Wageningen University, The Netherlands - Coordinator for the Water and Environmental Management program, Colegio Andino, Bartolome de las Casas Center, Cusco, Peru - Director of CAMAREN, President of SIPAE -Foundation for Agrarian ...
41FALL 2011
By Rutgerd Boelens, Mourik Bueno de Mesquita, Antonio Gaybor and Francisco Peña**
In Latin America, debates over natural resource manage-
ment policies and legislation fill discussion forums. This is
a needed discussion as coherent policies that both promote
democratic, equitable water use systems and also safeguard the
sustainability of water resources are rare in the region.1 The
absence of effective water regulation that considers the common
interest and long-term water availability results in poor manage-
ment and use of natural resources, driving explosive conflicts.2
As in many regions of the world, there is growing demand and
competition for access to water in Latin America. Agricultural,
industr ial, mining and energy companies, as well as large cities
and housing developments, have altered socio-natural geography
and are changing the rural panorama profoundly.3 These recent
demands are competing with existing water rights and ignoring
local water management rules in rural communities and indig-
enous people’s territories.4 Moreover, climate change and eco-
system degradation are further reducing water availability in the
Generally, new water reform processes have done little to
curb this situation and some have even worsened it. In many
cases in Latin America, elites and corporations have taken
advantage of government interventions.6 New international
privatization policies trample over the water rights of indigenous
and other rural peoples, monopolizing water access and control.7
This article reviews the general context and issues of water
governance in Latin America and analyzes the accumulation of
management power by a few elites through modern extractivist
policies and neoliberal governance. Using case studies in Ecuador,
Mexico and Peru, this article also illustrates how the prevailing
water economic and policy models lead to a deepening of
societal water conflicts, triggering reactions “from below.”
Studies in Latin America have shown a serious disconnect
between water laws and actual governance. This is particularly
evidenced by fragmented enforcement of these regulations with
separate agencies administering different water uses.8 These
agencies take actions that are often contrary to public interests
and collective rights.9 State projects and water management
agencies also favor political agendas, often creating economic
opportunities for elites and government players.10
As a reaction to the Latin American government’s disjointed
and inefficient efforts to manage water resources, there is
consensus among most of the region’s stakeholders–both
groups with investment power and indigenous organizations,
promoting a move toward decentralized water management.11
Water management agencies have thus initiated decentralization
and privatization schemes that have transferred some authority
to local or municipal authorities, user groups, private companies,
and public-private institutions.12 However, redefining water
policy is difficult given the varied ideologies and interests held
by the relevant stakeholders. 13 Among the issues discussed
is whether water can, or should, be treated as a privatized com-
modity rather than as a fundamental, non-transferable human
need.14 Discussion also centers around what roles the State and
private sectors should play in decentralizing water governance,
as well as whether market forces could effectively allocate water
to meet various needs.15 Even if these difficult ideological ques-
tions are answered, current Latin American governance structures
provide a challenging platform for the effective implementation
of new water management ideas. In some cases, weak agencies
run by bureaucrats or local elites leave little room for multi-actor
participation.16 Therefore, even if the government takes action
to decentralize or privatize water services and establish water
markets they are face inadequate regulation and enforcement.17
Furthermore, central government agencies also reject and
supplant local and indigenous water management initiatives.18
In general, cultural practices of water management are not taken
into consideration in national lawmaking; society is portrayed as
homogenous, with no room for differing water rights or forms
of water governance.19 Water policies and laws often assume
that simply adopting official legal norms will work to shape
and standardize the multi-faceted reality of water management,
creating a “modern”, “efficient” and “rational” management
system.20 Therefore, these methods of local water management
are discriminated against, and water rights are instead turned over
to “modern production and producers” – legally and illegally.21
*This paper presents results from investigations done by researchers associ-
ated with the International Justicia Hídrica / Water Justice Alliance (www., in collaboration with the NWO-WOTRO (Nether-
lands Organization for Scientific Research) inter-Andean projects ‘Strug-
gling for Water Security in the Andes’ and ‘The Transnationalization of Local
Water Battles’, all coordinated by Wageningen University, The Netherlands.
**Rutgerd Boelens is the Coordinator of the Justicia Hídrica / Water Justice
alliance, Associate Professor, Dept. Environmental Sciences, Wageningen
University, The Netherlands; and Visiting Professor, Catholic University,
Peru. Mourik Bueno de Mesquita is Coordinator for the Water and Environ-
mental Management program, Colegio Andino, Bartolome de las Casas Center,
Cusco, Peru. Antonio Gaybor is the Director of CAMAREN, President of SIPAE
- Foundation for Agrarian Research Ecuador, and Coordinator of the Ecuador
National Water Platform. Francisco Peña is a Professor of Anthropology and
Researcher at the Water and Society program, El Colegio de San Luis, San Luis
Potosí, Mexico.
These centralized practices have disrupted a localized, plural-
istic water management system that has existed for centuries,
especially in irrigation-based communities that have developed
management practices by incorporating both ancient water tradi-
tions and modern norms.22
Water accumulation and control by the few is a long-standing
problem in Latin America. Recent national and international
policies, combined with the economic power of multinational
corporations, make this problem more pressing than ever
before. Water thievery by these privileged stakeholders in times
of increasing scarcity, is leading to numerous conflicts, most
of them local.23 Unfortunately, these conflicts are usually not
mentioned in the national or international media.24 The few local
conflicts and protests that do reach the national media, which is
dominated by the ruling political and economic power sectors,
are immediately demonized.25
Latin American is not the only place where public water
policies are problematic. International interest in coordinating
better water management and enacting laws to enable local deci-
sion-making is growing.26 This vision calls for a greater decen-
tralization of power from national authorities to local watershed
organizations, where local citizens would have a voice in decid-
ing how to allocate water resources.27 The following sections
present some Latin American examples from Ecuador, Peru and
Mexico that highlight the issues of water governance.
Ecuador has witnessed two simultaneous growing trends
over the last three decades: the increase in water use for agricul-
ture and the development of irrigation for particularly profitable
crops.28 In the field, this is producing a certain type of com-
modities.29 In the past, exports were mainly dry land crops, but
current exports now require higher irrigation water content.30
Irrigated cultivation of certain commodities has become a
necessary condition for competitiveness in the international and
national markets where costs are low and the selling prices are
high.31 Some crops, such as bananas and flowers, would never
reach the international market without irrigation.32 The main
exporters of these water-intensive crops are the countries of
the South; in Ecuador, for example, all corporate agriculture
(“agribusiness”) for export is irrigated.33 This practice has
spread throughout Latin America, including growth in Mexico,
Colombia, and Peru. The domestic large-scale agriculture
market is also highly extractive of water resources, as evidenced by
water-demanding sugar cane production.34 In contrast, agriculture
for domestic consumption from small and medium farms, including
coffee and cacao for export, is not irrigated for most crops.35
This asymmetry helps explain the highly differentiated
dynamics of production and reproduction in these distinct
types of agriculture. In Ecuador, agribusiness profits for some
crops are high while profits for other crops are extremely low or
non-existent, especially for most small farmers.36 Thus, to
narrow the specificity of the agricultural crisis, only small farm-
ing has a crisis while large-scale agribusiness is booming.37
Agribusiness hoards the best land, almost all the water, and all
the profit.38 Ecuador is heavily concentrating water with the
industrial few - this is the age of water dispossession.39
Neoliberal policy has given national and multi-national
power groups a normative framework to ensure their monopo-
lization of Ecuador’s water and land.40 Water is plundered two
ways: formally, through concessions or authorizations granted
by the Ecuadorian government, or illegally.41 This historical,
long-standing process has continued to grow over these last
decades.42 The concentration of water in the hands of a few
mirrors the similarly inequitable distribution of land in Ecuador.
According to official figures, rural and indigenous populations
with community-based irrigation systems account for eighty-
six percent of users, but have only twenty-two percent of the
irrigated land area.43 What is worse is that these populations
have access to only thirteen percent of total water flow whereas
the private sector, representing one percent of agricultural
production units, has amassed sixty-seven percent of the water.44
When it come to land distribution, three quarters of farms in the
country account for only twelve percent of arable area, while the
two percent of farms owning larger than one hundred hectares
account for forty-three percent of the national total.45 Water, like
land, is becoming increasingly scarce, and most irrigation-ready
water has already been allocated formally or seized illegally to
national or international corporations.46
Examining some examples reveals the magnitude of this
water theft. Water monopolies are evident in three parishes
in the Ecuadorian province of Imbabura where large farms are
allocated ninety-one percent of the flow and only nine percent
is left for small and medium farms.47 In the lower Guayas river
basin, case studies of six rivers show that seventy-six percent
of water flow is used by sixty-one companies, while nearly one
thousand small and medium farms are left with the remainder.48
In the Guayas province, some sixty-two companies formally
receive water for irrigation at an average rate of six hundred
liters per second, an amount that could irrigate one thousand
small farms on the Ecuadorian coast.49 It is common in these
areas for large companies to block an entire river without
government authorization to use all or part of its flow.50
Of further concern, some large companies control the entire
production process, including the transformation of products,
the marketing of inputs, and capital goods.51 In Ecuador, an esti-
mated 400,000 hectares of farmland (out of eight million total)
are dedicated primarily to agribusiness and the industrial pro-
duction of sugar cane.52 This area constitutes only five percent
of the country’s farmlands but demand at least 400,000 liters per
second of water.53 To put this in perspective, this flow rate is
eighty percent of the total volume granted by the entire country
in 2008 (499,000 liters per second).54
Increasingly, this concentration of water rights and use
in the hands of a few creates conflict with and mobilization by
the larger population. These conflicts have historically been
localized as the farmers and rural residents who are affected
cannot afford to oppose the more powerful organizations.55 H ow-
ever, increasingly, conflicts have begun to branch out from the
local level to become regional, and even national, mobilizations.56
43FALL 2011
In modern Mexico, it is not only water rights that are being
concentrated but wealth as well. Scholars estimate that fifty to
seventy-five percent of Mexico’s population can be classified as
poor.57 Half of them are in “food poverty,” a federal classifica-
tion whereby their income is not enough to provide the calories
required to survive.58 In the year 2008, the wealthiest ten percent
received thirty-six and a half percent of the nation’s income,
while the poorest ten percent received a mere four and a half
percent.59 Fifty families repeat and interweave their names
on lists of the country’s most industrial, financial and service
groups, thirty-nine of which are among the country’s richest
families.60 The deciding threads of Mexican economic life are
held by a small, powerful ruling class.61
Post-revolution Mexico, which for decades claimed to grant
social rights and promote “balance among production factors,”
has instead driven the concentration of wealth to favor the most
powerful economic groups over the past thirty years.62 For
example, the political class transferred government property to
private ownership in exchange for juicy bribes to top officials.63
Similarly, there has been a wave of water rights concentra-
tion by large landowners (mainly in northwestern and northern
Mexico), and by industry, especially those using large volumes
of water. Examples can be seen in the food industry, chemical
plants, cement plants and mining industry (particularly open-pit
mines using huge quantities of water to separate metal ores by
leaching).64 Real estate developers also purchase low-priced
agricultural water rights to transfer for urban use.65 These devel-
opers increasingly expropriate the water of rural communities
and small localities to supply resort developments (Acapulco
and Cancún for example) and expropriate community springs to
promote “green” tourism.66
In such a socially polarized country, this water concentra-
tion is not as visible as it should be. The media tends to conceal
the realities about the concentration of water rights and uses,
claiming that water is scarce due to global warming, and waste
by municipalities.67
Finding legal documentation of this water concentration
is no easy task. The Mexican Public Register of Water Rights
(REPDA) is an unreliable instrument with rampant under-
registration of actual use, disclosing little about concessions
realities.68 Not recording the water used, or under-recording,
is common practice in Mexico and is often tolerated or even
promoted by the agencies responsible for enforcing the law.69
Although federal administrators often complain that small and
medium farms are the ones to blame, there is evidence that
industry, urban water supply companies, and even the govern-
ment are guilty of under-reporting actual usage.70 For this reason,
inequality in accumulation of water rights is revealed through
direct evidence, such as the size of water facilities, production
volumes, amounts of wastewater discharged, and the like.71
This under-recording reveals at least two different things.
First is the existence of a legal pluralism in which indigenous
and rural communities do not feel it necessary to register their
water use, simply because this use is perceived to be based on
their local and historical water sources and rights.72 The second
revelation is that large landowners who under-record avoid
paying for their water rights, demonstrating the power of the
Mexican elite in conjunction with governmental complicity.73
Corruption also enables major under-recording of industrial
water use and pollution by large industries.74
Water rights are no exception to the overall concentration of
wealth throughout Mexican society. The government’s asserted
efforts to incorporate society into the water management respon-
sibility are far from the truth. Watershed councils, theoretically
designed to assist this management and build consensus, don’t
work because they have become yet another arena for deal-
making by controlling elites.75 The councils systematically
exclude rural groups, small businesses, environmental organiza-
tions and social platforms.76 For example the construction of the
La Parota dam (designed to supply tourism businesses in Aca-
pulco) was completed without notice from the watershed agen-
cies supposedly responsible for sustainable water management.77
Conflicts over water continue to increase in number, intensity,
and regional coverage.
The recent history of water governance in Peru demon-
strates the contradiction between nationalization efforts by
reform governments in the 1970s and a push for privatization in
recent decades.78 Common themes in this recent history include
the denial of rural communities and small farmers’ management
of their own water sources, the concentration of water access
with the few, and the centralizing of water control in government
agencies and economically dominant sectors.79 When Alan Gar-
cía took office as President in 2006, he aggressively promoted a
neoliberal policy that included the total opening of investment in
agro-export, mining, hydrocarbon extraction, and forest conces-
sions.80 He also declared social protests to be “anti-system.”81
In July and August 2008, the Peruvian government prepared
a portfolio of ninety-nine legislative decrees to fill the gaps in
Peru’s policies on natural resources, environment, water, land
access, and the management and organization of rural and native
communities.82 These decrees ushered in a Trade Cooperation
Agreement, generally known as the Free Trade Agreement, with
the United States and intensified neoliberal economic policy.83
The Amazon indigenous peoples’ movement led protests
against these legislative decrees which threatened their territo -
ries and livelihoods.84 They argued that the national government
was not recognizing their rights to territory, natural resources,
and their cultural systems.85 These groups pointed out that Peru’s
Constitution obligated the government to consult them before
any legislation involving them.86 The government’s response
has been both counterproductive and repressive.87 The conflict
led to the violent repression in Bagua, in the Amazon region.88
And while the government made some concessions, its leth-
argy and lack of political will gave indigenous peoples little to
no hope.89 The same goes for the protests by Andean peoples
and communities about mining companies.90 The relationship
between government and civil society is quite fragile and there
is no productive dialogue.91 Admittedly, this dynamic has earned
some indigenous movements political presence and influence in
Peru 92—for example, the government is promoting the legaliza-
tion of land titles and family ownership of land in rural commu-
nities of the Highlands93—but the successes are limited.94 The
formalization of water rights among as groups and individuals
ultimately grants mining companies access to water and land
owned by communities.95 Rural households are threatened
with the disappearance of community farming and communal
resource organization.96 These conditions are encouraging youth
to migrate to seek alternatives in cities or mining.97
A new water law, drafted by a team of professionals in urban
Lima, enacted with little debate in Peru’s congress,98 speaks
broadly of integrated water resource management by water-
sheds.99 This new law, however, actually reinforces top-down
management, creating local offices that are strongly dependent
on their central offices.100 This practice promotes watershed
councils that do not effectively involve constituents.101 More-
over, though the law makes vague claims to regulate the “usage
and customary” rights of rural and indigenous communities, in
practice it leaves significant gaps regarding the scope of privatiz-
ing water management and access.102
The weak management of water resources by Peru’s pub-
lic sector has resulted in widespread water pollution as well as
increased concentration of water access by extractive industries
and some major cities.103 These trends are further generating
socio-environmental conflicts. For example, the Ombudsman
Office, which monitors conflicts in Peru, reported 32socio-envi-
ronmental conflicts in April 2007 and 132 in October 2009 (79
percent involving mining and hydrocarbon companies).104 The
conflicts between corporations and local communities center
around inter-basin water transfer, water access, and ownership.
Some of the corporations involved include hydropower compa-
nies, rural communities, and mining companies.105
Conflicts have also increased between communities in
micro-watersheds regarding water division, scarcity and degra-
dation. The effects of climate change over the last thirty years
have only worsened these problems.106 In the Peruvian Andes,
for example, communities are estimated to have lost fifty percent
of their water from sources such as springs and high-altitude
wetlands (bofedales), creating vulnerable rural communities and
decreased food security.107 Although Andean communities are
accustomed to climate variations, they are also facing increas-
ing limitations on social governance of rural communities under
such adverse circumstances.108 Lack of vision and limited socio-
technical capacity for public governance provide no support for
Andean adaptation efforts, which is worsened in conflicts with
economically powerful stakeholders.109
The newest Peruvian government regime has a different
discourse regarding rural communities and indigenous peoples,
speaking of “inclusion.”110 However, as seen in neighboring
Bolivia and Ecuador,111 which also have governments who
are supposedly “anti-neoliberal” policy discourse is often only
rhetoric as mega-cities and agribusiness or extractive industries
pressure for water access and control for– water flows in the
direction of power.112
A variety of responses from populations affected by dis-
possession of water or land and environmental pollution have
emerged. In general, such mobilizations are both dispersed
and localized throughout the continent.113 They vary from road
blockades to litigation, and eventually to partial agreements.114
Frequently, mobilizations rely on specialized advice from civil
society organizations working with local leaders.115 In some
cases, mobilizations can lead to the temporary inclusion of the
conflict into public and political dialogues.116 However, any
dialogue is typically prolonged over long periods of time while
the controlling elite maintains the status quo by dividing the
mobilizations and prosecuting their leaders.117 However, a select
few civil society responses have been more successful. In Ecua-
dor, for instance, various social groups—mestizos, montubios,
indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorians—mobilized to advocate for
the inclusion of water rights principles in the Ecuador Constitu-
tion in 2008.118 These groups, working with the Water Resources
Forum (Foro de los Recursos Hídridicos) and the National
Constituent Assembly (Asamblea Nacional Constituyente),
held three major events focusing on the issues of water rights,
allocation, and concentration.119 Approximately 1000 civil soci-
ety delegates from around the country participated, discussing
water rights at length.120 The conclusions of the delegates were
then delivered to the Assembly, whose representatives publicly
committed to incorporating the proposals for the equitable redis-
tribution of water in the political and constitutional plane.121
The Constitution, approved in October 2008, incorporates the
proposed redistribution of water in the following terms:
The Executive Branch, within two years after the
entry into force of the present Constitution, shall review
the situation of access to irrigation water for the purpose
of granting concessions, avoiding abuse and inequity in
the fees charged for water use, and guaranteeing more
equitable distribution and access, especially for small
and medium-sized farm and cattle producers.122
It should be clarified, however, that the Ecuadorian govern-
ment has not followed through with this proposal.123 More pres-
sure is needed from social organizations, particularly along coastal
regions where the concentration process is the most severe.
Currently, a new water resources bill is pending in the
Ecuadorian legislature.124 Also addressed was the human right
to water.125 Without a doubt, one of the most transcendental
subjects in the debate was the decentralization of water.126 The
national indigenous movement also presented on two main
themes. The first revealed the large amount of irrigation that is
concentrated among the wealthy as a result of the concessions or
water theft.127 The second was the implementation of a collec-
tive right under the 2008 law that makes water a public asset.128
In Mexico, less powerful social groups, such as rural and
indigenous, low-income urban residents, and small businesses,
45FALL 2011
are also taking various lines of action. These groups are promot-
ing local management and action, such as advocating that private
corporations obtain renewable permits from local communities
to develop and use water resources, and pay communities to
preserve water resources from production.129 The movements
focus on local control of springs, rivers and wells in addition
to some agricultural water.130 These community actions have
involved regulations on access to water, shared responsibilities
to maintain common availability, defensive actions to protect
community assets, and agreements with neighbors.131 A second
promising trend is the preference for smaller water systems and
less-centralized administration. In the last two decades, social
opposition to large water systems, such as inter-basin transfers
and dams, has come back to life.132 Conversely, governmental
programs are now accepting smaller works, even involving
direct labor input by local inhabitants.133
A third trend is an increase in mobilization and direct politi-
cal action, particularly in the heaviest conflicts. These actions
generally overlap with local action, involving coalitions of com-
munity authorities, groups of neighbors, and national or interna-
tional non-governmental organizations.134
In Peru, like in Mexico, the mobilizations are usually less
coordinated and less integrated between local and national
movements.135 However, increasing social mobilizations has
generated political influences that commonly express themselves
in electoral processes and strengthen movements at the regional
and national levels.136 These movements generate high expecta-
tions by the affected populations, but their impacts on big inter-
ests and dominant powers are rarely substantial.137 Instead, the
influence of international opinion is frequently more influential
in the Peruvian government.138
When mobilizations begin to have a political presence, the
government actively works to divide the movements and weaken
momentum.139 Recent political changes that promise social and
cultural inclusion or new discourse rarely come to fruition.140
For actual change to take place there needs to be a restructuring
of the Peruvian government and a redefining of its relationship
with the population.141 In Peru, the government resistance is ever-
stronger, easily overcoming the cries for water equity by social
In the last three decades, Latin America has experienced
aggressive governmental implementation of neoliberal policies
that are favorable to extractive exploitation and agro-export com-
panies.143 This has generated the accumulation and concentration
of natural resources in the hands of the few at the expense of water
security, food security, and less-privileged parts of society.144 The
affected parties are enveloped in frequent conflicts. State interven-
tions often end unfavorably for rural and indigenous people in
light of the massive power asymmetry and cultural marginaliza-
tion.145 Under these circumstances, these parties feel increasingly
excluded and marginalized, making protest intense.146
This article has analyzed how in Ecuador, Mexico and Peru
this process of water concentration limits and seriously affects
potential for local development, prospects for survival among
small communities and reproduction of the social fabric.147
In “modern” Latin American societies, natural resources—
-particularly water—are valued predominantly in economic mar-
ket terms, to the detriment of social, cultural and environmental
values.148 At the same time, these last two decades of interna-
tional policies claiming to democratize water management and
decentralize decision-making, have instead aggressively taken
over governments in the Latin American region, obscuring any
interference by the majority of localized water users.149 Political
and legal reform for water management is grounded in standard-
izing management norms.150 To facilitate bureaucratic control
by “hydrocrats,” or to create an efficient market for water rights
along neoliberal lines, it is considered necessary to leave behind
the practices of the rural or indigenous population labeled
as “backward.”151 Diversity in rules and rights is actively dis-
couraged because it would obstruct regional and international
transfers and sales, which require a uniform legal framework.152
Local rules and rights are considered anomalies that would curb
investments and profits.153 Therefore, decentralized water poli-
cies are not replacing bureaucratic policies, but instead regiment
and oppress local pluralism.154 Government bureaucracies are
“reformed” to draft and enact legislation that enables water mar-
kets to emerge.155 Community and collective rights systems that
do not fit in the neoliberal system are, by definition, denied as
“backward” and “inefficient.”156
For these reasons, there is a lack of trust between the gov-
ernment and civil society with obvious exceptions when shared
public governance is recognized by the public.157 This unwill-
ingness to engage in intercultural dialogue about management of
natural resources, water, land, and territor y is problematic.
The effects and impacts of concentrated water rights by
dominant economic producers will likely worsen with increasing
climate change phenomena.158 The vulnerability and poverty of
rural peoples deepens as water is less available and competition
increases. If this neoliberal policy and economic development
model grounded in extractive industries and large agro-export
companies remains, this situation of accumulation, concentra-
tion, and waste cannot change and conflicts over access to and
uses of water, land and territories will only increase.
Nevertheless, “bottom-up” responses are useful. In some
cases, large public protest and the proposals for alternative law and
policy can be influential, potentially even influencing the national
constitution, as in Ecuador. In other cases, as in Peru and Mexico,
mobilization and alternative policy-making tend to be of lower
profile and the few successes can be noticed especially in localized
events. Along with protests and mobilizations by civil society and
rural and indigenous communities against private and concentrated
water rights, there is also a more subtle struggle for these constitu-
ents to establish and enforce their own rights and rules.
Endnotes: Threats to a Sustainable Future: Water Accumulation
and Conflict in Latin America on page 67