Bolivia: Bechtel and the fight for public water

Back in 1999, the private construction contractor Bechtel took over control of the public water system in Bolivia’s third largest city, Cochabamba. The corporation then held a monopoly over this very basic human necessity and proceeded to raise rates by as much as 200 percent, far beyond what families could afford. The law even said that people had to obtain a permit to collect rainwater! (that means even rainwater was privatized!)

This is a country where indigenous farming communities previously had their own water rights, but their water sources were converted into property to be bought and sold by international corporations. When the company refused to lower rates, the people began to rise up and revolt against this injustice; they confronted Bechtel during five months of mobilization and managed to defeat them, breach the contract and change the law.

A 17-year-old boy named Victor Hugo Daza was killed in the protests along with four indigenous people from El Alto, while hundreds were injured. It was this popular uprising in Cochabamba that led to the election of their new president Evo Morales, the first ever indigenous head of state in Bolivia.

So Bechtel was thrown out of Bolivia, but months later they moved to do the exact same thing in Ecuador‘s largest city of Guayaquil. And in November 2001, they filed a lawsuit against Bolivia demanding $50 million, an amount which is just short of what the corporation makes in a day. The case will be decided behind closed doors in a secret trade court at the World Bank headquarters in Washington; it will tell whether the people of South America’s poorest country will have to pay $50 million to one of the world’s most wealthy corporations.

Recent Update: In 2006, Bechtel dropped their case against Bolivia.