Thousands march in Santiago for the nationalization of water

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Published On : Mon, Apr 28th, 2014

Community representatives from around the country join in protest of Pinochet-era legislation that privatizes the management of water.

Thousands march in Santiago for the nationalization of water

Despite rain and cold, upwards of 7,000 people joined the second annual March for the Recovery and Defense of Water. Photo by Belinda Torres-Leclercq

A diverse group of over 70 organizations and thousands of citizens gathered in Parque Almagro in the capital Saturday, united under one demand — the end to the private management of water in Chile, and to have the resource named a basic human right in the Constitution.

According to event organizers, upwards of 7,000 people joined the second annual March for the Recovery and Defense of Water — double the number that attended last year’s march — as the movement perseveres in its calls for reform of the country’s Water Code.

In 1981 during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the creation of the Water Code established water as private property, giving the state the ability to grant water usage rights to private companies.

Rodrigo Mondaca of the Movement for the Defense and Access to Land and Water (Modatima) which helped coordinate the march, said that the end to profiteering from a basic human resource was among the movement’s demands.

“We have to stop the privatization of water, we have to formulate policies to protect our glaciers and stop the criminalization of social movements’ leaders,” he told The Santiago Times.

Alongside rejecting the privatization of the essential resource on principle, critics — including Catalina Rollo from the Molina District Ecological Council in Southern Chile’s Maule Region — claim that water rights are acquired or sold without consultation of local communities.

“We’ve been fighting for a long time, since 1991,” Rollo told The Santiago Times. “First we fought against the privatization of the Río Claro and now we are mounting opposition against a large salmon project they want to install nine miles from the city of Molina. Salmon aquaculture is not sustainable, we want to protect our river, our life, our agriculture and the biodiversity of the national park which which is under threat.”

According to Camilo Rice, member of sustainable development nonprofit País Ciudadano, the privatization of water has led to conflict with indigenous communities in Southern Chile.

“In Valdivia the private company Osorno S.A. wants to construct a hydro project along the Río Pilmaiquen,” Rice told The Santiago Times. “According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169 they had to consult the local community. They asked some people but there were no representatives of the Mapuche community which has its own spiritual leaders. Those representatives have opposed the project and now one female leader is being charged with terrorism while defending her cause.”

Millaray Huichalaf is the “machi,” or religious leader, of her Mapuche community in Valdivia and is charged with concealing the attempt of two individuals to set fire to a local private farm in January of last year. According to Huichalaf, the ongoing trial is “an attempt by the government to silence” the Mapuche’s struggle for the Río Pilmaiquen.

In her electoral platform, President Michelle Bachelet announced plans to declare water as a “national property for public use.” Public Works Minister Alberto Undurraga will take up an initiative attempted by Bachelet’s first administration (2006-2010) that was eventually blocked under President Sebastián Piñera’s government.

Cristian Flores, president of the Valle de Pupío Defense Committee, said he was not confident the government would deliver change untill social movements generated a national conversation on the issue.

“One of the ways we can change the Water Code is through civic pressure,” he said. “The political class is linked to the water business so they form part of the problem. Therefore the pressure has come from within society and it has to be strong in order to change the code.”

By Belinda Torres-Leclercq & Celia Scruby
Copyright 2014 – The Santiago Times

About the Author

Belinda Torres-Leclercq
Belinda Torres-Leclercq
Belinda studied political sciences and Latin American studies in several European Universities. She wrote on food issues for Latin American news organization Noticias.nl and blogs about Chilean politics for MO*. Contact her at belinda@santiagotimes.cl or follow her at @BelindaMTL on Twitter.
Celia Scruby
Celia Scruby
Celia studied English Literature at The University of York and worked for the Daily Mail before coming to Santiago. She specializes in arts and culture.