The Battlefield of Water Rights: Rule Making Amidst Conflicting Normative Frameworks in the Ecuadorian Highlands

Article excerpt

Property relations in irrigation and water rights distribution have become central issues in current policy debates and rural development initiatives. Nevertheless, there is still a great lack of understanding about what water rights-in-practice are, how they function, and how they are created, consolidated, and transformed from abstract sociolegal categories into local procedures and in-the-field practices. Understanding users' rationality and local expressions of water rights in peasant and indigenous communities is of crucial importance if we want to comprehend their claim for water rights and perhaps support local empowerment processes in common property water control systems. This article explores irrigation development in the Ceceles zone in Ecuador. It is based on action research that has pulled the researchers into an analysis of the peasants' struggle to acquire and define water rights and to achieve recognition for the legitimacy of their normative system authorizing those rights. The article analyzes how different interest groups have sought to defend and control rule making amidst conflicting normative frameworks. The research made clear that actual water rights are not simply defined in lawyers' offices and at engineers' design desks; they are negotiated and enforced in processes of social struggle. Moreover, water rights not only give access to water but also constitute power relations that define the control over decision making on water management. Water rights are dynamic, and even long-standing rights may be sacrificed to strengthen local autonomous organization.

Key words: water rights, irrigation, peasant and indigenous organizations, empowerment, legal pluralism, Andes, Ecuador

With growing water scarcity and conflicts in many regions of the world, water rights and property relations in irrigation have become pivotal and strategic issues in water legislation efforts, policy debates, and rural development programs. However, policy makers, intervening agencies, and rural development analysts typically consider water rights as uniform black boxes filled only with water that must be distributed, be it equitably, efficiently or both. For peasant and indigenous communities a water right has other components as well, which are created, reconfirmed, and recreated in location-specific historical processes within cultural and political contexts. There is an intimate relationship between water rights and power relationships surrounding and evolving within irrigation systems. When we want to analyze and search for ways to support local empowerment processes, it is crucial to understand how these norms are constructed and reproduced. Of the many conflicts over water in the recent history of the indigenous communities of Ceceles in Chimborazo Province, Ecuador, we describe two, namely between local communities and the state irrigation agency and between two factions (participants and nonparticipants) that arose among the Ceceles irrigator families after winning the first struggle. However, before focusing on this case of irrigation development and organizational strengthening, we briefly outline some conceptual tools to approach the social construction of irrigation and water rights in Andean community systems.

Irrigation, Power, and Legitimacy

Water represents power and potential in the Andean highlands. Paradoxically, this leads to intense confrontations but also to solid collaboration among societal groups. Water's importance and worsening scarcity act to intensify conflicts for access to water and for control over water management. At the same time, water is also a means of empowering and mobilizing people and can be the driving force behind the formation of strong common property institutions, grounded in shared rules and collective rights. These irrigation management norms are the backbone of community systems in the Andes-a body of rights, obligations, and working rules for system operation and maintenance, shaping and being shaped by the users' organizational structure. …