Latin America: Water Politics and Coups, with a Nod to James Bond

Washington Report on the Hemisphere, May 17, 2012 | Go to article overview

Latin America: Water Politics and Coups, with a Nod to James Bond


It has become fairly common for scholars to apply international relations theories to TV and film. In the last year, both Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs have published articles analyzing the television series Game of Thrones from an IR perspective. Over the years, James Bond films have also been analyzed from an academic point of view. In 2005, a group of academics published a book titled "Ian Fleming and James Bond: the Cultural Politics of 007."

In the latest Bond film, Quantum of Solace, a shadowy organization attempts to gain control of massive water resources in Bolivia, which would enable it to set prices on water access for both the Bolivian population and international consumers. Thus, Bond must prevent an exiled, corrupt Bolivian general from staging a military coup - assisted by foreign powers; - to overthrow the lawful government in La Paz.

In reality, the struggle for control of natural resources throughout Latin America, particularly in Bolivia, has already begun. Moreover, Bolivia does indeed have a long and complicated history of military coups and the routine pillage of its citizens. In fact, regime changes have continued to occur in Bolivia and throughout the region over the last decade by means of extra-constitutional steps. While fictitious, the plot of Quantum of Solace eerily resembles reality.

Water Politics in Latin America

The most high-profile incidents concerning water in Cochabamba, Bolivia, occurred in 1999 and 2000. The conflict is commonly known as the "Cochabamba Water Wars," or simply Bolivia's Water Wars. An April 2006 Inter Press Service article reported on the legacy of those "wars," characterizing them as protests by locals against the Bolivian subsidiary Aguas del Tunari, which was owned by a consortium of the U.S. transnational company Bechtel, Italy's Edison, and Spain's Abengoa. The consortium hiked water rates paid by local water consumers by as much as 200 percent after winning a 40-year concession in closed-door negotiations. With such price increases, water bills amounted to between 20 percent and 30 percent of the income of poor households.

Expounding on the effects of top-down privatization in his book "Dignity and Defiance Stories from Bolivia's Challenge to Globalization," Jim Shultz, director of the Cochabambabased Democracy Center, argued, "The contract gave Bechtel and its co-investors control of the city's water company for forty years and guaranteed them an average profit of 16 percent for each one of those years, to be financed by the families of Cochabamba. No one at the negotiating table could have had any doubt what that would mean for Cochabamba water bills." In other words, the process of water privatization that transpired in Bolivia in 2000 pretty much resembled the premise of Quantum of Solace.

Water-related incidents have also occurred in other countries. For example, in late 2011, Newmont Mining Corporation's proposed gold and copper mining project in northern Peru provoked major protests due to concerns that it would pollute local waterways vital for both human consumption and irrigation projects. Newmont' s extraction plans, known as the Conga project, could extract as much as 580,000 to 680,000 ounces of gold per year. The project's fate is currently unclear, as new discussions are taking place between the Peruvian government and the company.

Tensions regarding proprietorship of water have also appeared in Colombia. According to the Colombian project of the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), Greystar Resources Ltd. of Canada had planned to build an open-pit mine (for gold and silver) in Angostura, the heart of Colombia's Santurban wilderness of high-altitude forests and wetlands. Colombia's Ministry of Environment, however, denied Greystar' s environmental license application in May 2011.

Meanwhile, in Chile, the indigenous Mapuches have consistently protested against the construction of a hydropower plant on the Panqui River that would flood several of their communities. …

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