Proposed Bolivian Law Declares that “Water is Life”

By Chenoa Stock | Mission Co-worker, Joining Hands Bolivia
mining holding ponds

Small holding ponds for mining waste near the community just downstream from the Huanuni Tin Mine – Huanuni (Oruro), Bolivia. Photo by Chenoa Stock.

As we gathered around the U-shaped tables on this Bolivian winter day, bundled in coats and scarfs – the typical meeting style in Bolivia due to the lack of central heating in any buildings or houses – we were not there to debate or be heard but to listen. We came from different backgrounds, representing two church denominations, institutions that work with child miners, youth, farmers, rural development and urban farming. Those gathered around the table were members of partner organizations of UMAVIDA (acronym for Joining Hands for Life), the diverse and ecumenical Bolivian Joining Hands Network. We came together this day to learn about the next step in our campaign for environmental justice.

Since my arrival in Bolivia five years ago, UMAVIDA’s campaign has primarily focused on water rights and accompanying communities affected by mining contamination. Bolivia, a country rich in minerals and natural resources, relies greatly on extractive (hydrocarbon and mining) industries for its economy and development. Though Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, it is one of the few countries to have developed and grown economically during these past years, even as mineral prices have dropped.

This is great for the country and its global status. But positive statistics and international recognition aside, what are the consequences for fishermen, farmers, children and families of a development model that is dependent on the extractive industries?

UMAVIDA has accompanied communities in the mining city center of Oruro, located in southwest Bolivia. These communities have been greatly affected by the extractive industry based economy and have seen their water and land deteriorate due to the levels of contamination these industries produce.

Over the years, we have worked with these communities to demand a government environmental audit to measure levels of mining contamination in the different Oruro watersheds. We have studied the different mechanisms to bring our case to the international level, subsequently submitting a Universal Periodic Review report to the UN Human Rights Council. We have built and continue to build relationships and trust with these community members through our visits to the affected areas, hearing their stories and realities first hand, as we plan together how we can protect this precious resource of water, recognizing that water is life.

Through these actions we have advocated and worked to reclaim this ‘life’ and address the root cause of the contamination in Oruro – uncontrolled and irresponsible mining activity. However, over time, we have realized that simply demanding that government and mining companies act responsibly and in the best interests of the people is not enough – there must be policies in place that protect water for all and hold government and industry accountable for destructive practices.

This past year, we watched Lake Poopó, the second largest lake in Bolivia and important water source for many in the Oruro department, dry up. This drastic change has caused a loss of livelihood for fishermen and a change in lifestyle for many indigenous groups who depended on the lake on a day-to-day basis. Many youth have migrated to the city to find work, leaving behind their families, as the job opportunities are now scarce in their village.

Now is the time to ask the hard question – how did we arrive here? Some suggest that the drying of the lake was accelerated by climate change and other natural causes. However, it will be very important to analyze the impact that water diversion for the extractive industries may have played.

With these situations, we knew we needed to go deeper to find that root.

In July 2012, the Water Law Bill, written in a consensus process among government officials, miners and civil society between 2009 and 2012, was presented and sidelined as the writing and swift passing of the Mining Law took precedence.  Ironically, the 2009 Constitution claims water as a “fundamentalísimo” (very fundamental) right and yet no law exists for its regulation and protection, which is why a Water Law is so necessary.

Corporate influence is blamed in large part for the fact that the Water Law Bill, written in a beautiful and participatory way four years ago, has not been discussed or passed since then.

UMAVIDA is now educating our partners and advocating to get the Water Law Bill back on the political agenda for debate and subsequent passing into law. With this legislation, the Constitution’s declaration of a fundamentalísimo right to water would be supported, as would the government’s dialogue of defending the Mother Earth and distributing wealth through social justice.

As the title of the Water Law Bill simply and deeply states, “Water is Life,” UMAVIDA hopes the truth of that title allows us to follow our Christian roots and, with you and our Bolivian brothers and sisters, protect this sacred resource that allows us to live the abundant life God desires for each and every one of us.

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