Movies of Resistance: Even the Rain
Fiction has an uncanny ability to drive home a point and nail it down your brain. To Kill a Mocking Bird exposes racism stripping it bare. The Great Dictator makes fascism scarier than any documentary on dictators who may have and still are roaming around the world. In the same league, Even the Rain sheds the clothes of privatization efforts on the commons.
Sebastian, played by Gael Garcia Bernal (the young Che from the Motorcycle Diaries) is a Mexican film maker who is working on a shoestring budget. He and his executive producer Costa, in their bid to reduce the cost of production, travel to Cochabamba in Bolivia to make a movie. It’s just 2 $ a day for hiring extras. The movie is about the dark side of Columbus’ discovery of America and the bloodshed that accompanies his entry into the Americas. Before starting the production of the movie, they put up an ad for the screening of some local actors. Hundreds of men and women braving the hot sun turn up. Facing a long queue, Sebastian and Costa decide to pick a few people at random and send off the rest. This is when Daniel, a localite, arrives at the scene and demands that all the people present there be given an opportunity to audition. Impressed with his skills, Sebastian and Costa choose him to play the role of Atuey, an Indian chief who leads a rebellion against Columbus. Daniel also turns out to be the chief who is leading a rebellion against water privatization in his locality.
In 1997, the World Bank denied renewal of foreign debt relief worth $600 million, unless Bolivia privatized its water services. As a result, the Bolivian government, under Hugo Banzer, put Servicio Municipal de Agua Potable y Alcantarillado (SEMAPA), the municipal agency which controlled water supply, up for privatization.
Water is a scarce resource and increasingly becoming more scarce thanks to climate change. Private interests to wrest power on scarce resources will continue. Movies of resistances like Even the Rain will continue to unite people to reclaim the commons.
On September 3, 1999, the government signed a contract with Aguas de Tunari, a multinational consortium of companies and a subsidiary of US based Bechtel. Aguas de Tunari who was incidentally the sole bidder, won the contract. On October 29, 1999, the government passed law 2029, the Drinking Water and Sanitation Law to regulate drinking water and sewage disposal. With this law the contract for supplying water in Cochabamba and surrounding agricultural areas was passed on to Aguas de Tunari. Irrigation water had never been under the municipal agency SEMAPA and thus should have been exempt under this law. Before this law, peasants relied on free access to irrigation water, which was not even under the municipal agency, in order to survive. This privatization outraged many peasants living in the area. To add fuel to the fire, Bechtel increased rates by 35 percent to 50 percent. Bolivia was one of the poorest countries in South America and this hike meant that poor Bolivians would have to shell out 20-25% of their frugal income on water. The impact was immediate and drastic. As a countermeasure, the people formed La Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida (The Coalition Defense of Water and Life). The Coordinadora included peasant farmers, who were the worst affected, environmentalists and factory workers. They were led by Oscar Olivera, a union leader. Protests erupted a week after the hike in rates. Between January and April 2000, the people shut down the city on three separate occasions. On March 22, 2000, the Coordinadora held an unofficial referendum in which 96 percent of 55,000 voters demanded the government end the contract with Aguas del Tunari. In April, demonstrators took over the central plaza in Cochabamba followed by arrests the next day. On April 8, 2000, President Banzer declared a state of siege - a suspension of constitutional rights. Eventually, on April 10, Olivera and government officials canceled the contract with Aguas del Tunari and passed the control of water to La Coordinadora, which demanded that law 2029 be repealed. The state of siege ended on April 13, 2000.
The Politics of Water
One common denominator in most privatization efforts on water is the pressure of international lenders and/or MNCs. Those in favor of privatization argue that state provided services are inefficient, corrupt and largely ineffective. However, in cases where this doctrine was applied, powerful private monopolies were created and prices have almost always increased. From the beginning of 1980s until 2000, huge pressure from international financial institutions and multinational corporations has led to privatization of public water companies. Five major corporations, Veolia, Suez, Agbar, RWE and Saur, held 71% of the global water market in 2001.
In South Africa, privatization of water supply resulted in one of the worst cholera epidemics in the poor neighborhoods of Johannesburg in 2000-02. Slums were disconnected since their residents could not pay the hiked up bills resulting in consumption of contaminated water from rivers. Manila was regarded as a success story for privatization efforts of water as prices fell to half in the first few years because of competition but things started to change later. Prices went up by 500% in 4 years and the average family spent 10% of income on water bills. As a result of poor maintenance of pipes, 800 people were affected by cholera. The last decade and a half saw protests against privatization efforts around the world. In the last 15 years, 235 cities in 37 countries have brought water services back under public control benefitting 100 million people.
Interesting alternatives have propped up across the globe – from water cooperatives to public – public partnerships. Aguas Bonaerenses Sociedad Anónima (ABSA), a workers’ cooperative, has been heralded by the UN as a model water company. The province of Buenos Aires has 10 million inhabitants distributed over 74 cities with 48 municipalities, which is served by ABSA. The workers’ cooperative filled the space vacated by Enron. In Huancayo, a city in central highlands of Peru, water movements have developed an innovative public-public partnership (PUP) as an alternative to privatization. The social movement organization FREDA JUN (Frente de Defensa del Agua de la Región Junín) successfully resisted privatization and, in a participatory bottom-up process, developed an alternative proposal to reform the public utility, SEDAM and successfully established a public-public-partnership with ABSA. Water is a scarce resource and increasingly becoming more scarce thanks to climate change. Private interests to wrest power on scarce resources will continue. Movies of resistances like Even the Rain will continue to unite people to reclaim the commons.
“We don't have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world” – Howard Zinn, to whom the movie is dedicated to.