Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Water, Power, and the Production of Neoliberalism in Chile, 1973-2005

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Water, Power, and the Production of Neoliberalism in Chile, 1973-2005

Article excerpt

1 Introduction

"Behind politics there is a long history manipulated by the economic interests, who have familiar names ... the same network of power that governed with Augusto Pinochet continues to rule today, attempting to influence the economic development and politics of Chile.

Maria Olivia Monckeberg (2001, page 10) (1)

Chile was the first country to implement 'neoliberal' public policies, from 1975. Chile's 'neoliberal programme' (programa neoliberal) was developed under the military regime of General Pinochet (1973-90), which sought to reverse the socialist policies and economic stagnation of the previous regime under President Allende (1970-73). The programme extended economic and market principles to many areas of Chile's economy and society. Chile's experience has thus been important in discussions of neoliberalism in public policy and environmental governance.

One important reform was the transition to a system of private water rights that were freely tradable with minimal state regulation under the 1981 Water Code. The stated logic was that the market would enable the reallocation of scarce water to higher value uses, as users would be incentivised to sell water if they did not need it (eg, Thobani, 1995). While the neoliberal features and the practical outcomes of the Water Code have been analysed, the role of water in consolidating the power structures that underpinned the neoliberal programme has been little explored. In this regard, some accounts of how and why neoliberal reforms unfolded in Chile conflate important events and the roles of key actors, and overlook the power relations that configured the new governance framework, while the literature on Chile's neoliberal reforms seldom refers to the role of water. In these accounts observed outcomes are explained as consequences of the neoliberal policies, rather than as products of the political interests that shaped the wider programme.

The aim of this paper is thus to examine the relationship between water and power that underpinned the design, implementation, and outcomes of Chile's neoliberal programme, through the contested production, retention, and reform of the 1981 Water Code. It demonstrates the significance of the transition to private tradable water rights not only for changing society's relationship with water, but also for consolidating the neoliberal programme and the ambitions of its core supporters: the military regime, government technocrats, and business conglomerates. Existing scholarship by Bauer (1997; 1998a) has documented and analysed how actors and ideology shaped the production of the Water Code as one of Chile's most emblematic neoliberal reforms. While this paper necessarily draws extensively on that work, (2) my intention is to consider the importance of water for the wider neoliberal programme. Similarly, while a substantial body of work has analysed the outcomes of the Water Code for water allocation, use, and management in Chile (Bauer, 1997; 1998a; 1998b; Budds, 2004; 2008; 2009; 2010; Hadjigeorgalis, 2008; Hadjigeorgalis and Lillywhite, 2004; Hearne and Easter, 1997; Romano and Leporati, 2002), I will consider how the Water Code consolidated the interests and motives of its supporters, which are still evident in contemporary Chilean waterscapes.

I locate my analysis within the political ecology tradition in order to explore the ways in which water and power shape each other, both materially and discursively, to form new socioecological arrangements, which become apparent in the formation of waterscapes (Budds, 2009; Budds and Hinojosa, 2012; Linton, 2010; Loftus, 2009; Swyngedouw, 2004). I make three related arguments. First, while some scholarship describes the politics around the creation and modification of Chile's Water Code (Bauer, 1998a; 2004; Budds, 2004; 2009), I argue here that water was much more central to the formation and effectiveness of the wider neoliberal programme in Chile, and to the consolidation of elite power and corporate alliances under both dictatorship and democracy, than hitherto acknowledged. …

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