On the pearl-gray morning of July 17, 2017, they gathered by the river for the burnt offering. The Cochabambinos, residents of Bolivia’s Cochabamba Valley, stood quietly on the dusty rocks, their eyes dark and patient, their wool jackets buttoned in the morning chill, their hands resting on the butts of the shovels and pickaxes they had carried up the mountain. Tardy neighbors arrived in a steady stream, emerging from overcrowded taxis and stepping from rock to rock with caution.
They came here once a year to fulfil the mita, an obligation that dates back to the rule of the Inca. The canals that carried water from the River Khora to their fields and houses had to be cleared of silt and vegetation, even on a Monday. For the residents of this dry, crowded valley, river water is life, and life, like everything else, requires sacrifice.
The people of the Cochabamba Valley have been forced by scarcity to care for their water supply for hundreds of years, and the lagoons and rivers that remain are drying up faster than ever. As global populations grow and climate change intensifies, similar communities across the world face the danger of a future without water. Among such imperiled company, however, the Cochabambinos are distinguished by their experience: life in this dry valley has always been a fight for survival. The tradition that took place on that cloudy morning presents an alternative to the prevailing modern paradigm, where technological solutions and the cult of the future often dominate conversations about human survival. Perhaps the best defense against an inhospitable future is a quiet faith in what has worked before.
Nearly everyone who lived in Tiquipaya, the nearby town, was expected to be there: alfalfa farmers, owners of livestock, and families whose drinking water came from the river. It was Monday, but everyone had skipped work for the mita. The men sat with hat brims over their eyes, pulling coca leaves one by one out of the green plastic bags tied to their belt loops and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. The women came in satin skirts, holding machetes with one hand and pulling their children with another. I went with Violeta, a friend who waters her small plot of land six times a month.
As the adults waited quietly for everyone to arrive, one of the children kicked at the shallow stream with his rubber Spiderman boots. Undeterred by the water’s apparent lack of concern, the child laid into the river bed with an infant-sized pickaxe, clawing at rocks and unsettling silt that was washed downstream in cloudy fingers. His purpose was unclear, but he was deadly serious about it. His mother, distracted from her conversation, hissed and smacked the back of his head. He was ahead of schedule. They were there to clear the ancient waterways between the river and the town, but first there was a k’oa (a ceremony named for the fragrant k’oa herb that is burned) to be had. In the k’oa, the Cochabambinos express their request for harmony with Mother Earth by burning herbs and offering alcohol, which evaporates instantly on the hot rocks.
The general director, distinguished only by her clipboard, pulled the ingredients of the k’oa from a black plastic bag and set it on a high spot, where the gravel was charred black by previous ceremonies. She patted the dry herbs into a round shape atop the newspaper and covered them with orange and pink sugar tablets, clumps of llama fat, and colored balls of cotton. Spiderman Boots suspended his attack to watch. She struck the match with a phosphorous crackle and held it below the paper. Fragrant smoke began to rise from the offering.
Next, the alcohol. To the celebrants standing near her, she passed around some red and gold cans of Paceña beer, a single glass bottle of Corona, and a plastic container of Ceibo, an alcoholic brew so head-spinningly potent that it’s taken by the capful. The crowd of two hundred or more watched quietly as each of these recipients poured a dash of the liquid around the k’oa in a cross formation. One, two, three, four: cardinal directions of the Incan realm. They took a sip of beer (the brave ones grimaced through the Ceibo) and passed the bottle to their right. “Let there be rain!” cried the director. “Let the river be full! Let there be no fights over water!”
As the imported beer sizzled at the four corners of an extinct empire, the plastic bag below the k’oa caught fire, giving the sweet smoke an acrid edge. Soon, when the offering was a pile of embers and the booze was gone, everyone grabbed their tools and followed the concrete canals downhill.
The reality of the Cochabamba Valley belies its name. It’s a Latinization of kocha pampa, a Quechua phrase meaning, roughly, “swampy plain.” Years ago, before the conquistadors realized that the fertile valley could feed the silver mines of Potosí, before the population soared and sucked the hills dry, and before the valley’s peasants fought a war against a corporate Goliath, the valley was dotted with lagoons. A few remain, just barely, in the nearby Cordillera. These days, though, Cochabamba is thirsty. The local government’s repeated attempts toward a just water infrastructure have failed to support the valley’s poorest residents, so the Cochabambinos have continued to take care of it themselves, as best they can. After all, missing work on a Monday is a small price to pay for the right to life.
Water has always come at great expense in the Andes mountains: the account of Spanish conquistador Felipe Guamán de Ayala describes Incan townsfolk slitting the throats of one hundred white steers, a sacrifice which apparently failed to satisfy the fickle gods upon whom the Inca depended for rain. Accordingly, the Incans would tie one hundred black cows to posts in the town plaza and leave them there without food. Sooner or later, the cows would start bellowing in protest. The Incans would process from hill to hill, crying out to the gods for water, their supplications amplified by the moaning of the hungry cows.
The gods provided rainwater, but the humans had to collect and distribute it. Even the Spanish Ayala was impressed by the skill with which the communities engineered their waterways:
…And they lifted [the earth] with the greatest ease in the world, by hand, without tools, that it seems that each Indian would pick up one rock, and by virtue of the huge number of people, that would be enough, and so throughout the realm, the earth was like bread to be carried.
Once the gods took care of the rain and the mita took care of the canals, the Incans faced the tricky job of determining how to share the water. Their system was determined by the necessities of agriculture: the more land you farm, the more water you get. Water was distributed to plots of earth, not to individuals. “Neither the richest, nor the noblest was preferred,” Ayala wrote. These stone canals were vessels of democracy.
The River Khora begins its journey at Laguna Mayu (literally, “River Lagoon”) high in the Cordillera mountain range north of Tiquipaya. From there, it follows a turbulent path down the mountainside, during which minor rivulets are diverted (often illegally) to the adobe huts that sit pressed against the mountain, caked in dust.
In a cleft above Tiquipaya, the mountains split, and the river slows and widens into a broad valley full of tall grasses and twisted cacti. After a series of man-made cascades, its descent is halted by a metal grille, which diverts it into a network of algae-slick concrete canals that cross and conceal each other like so many layers of Roman streets, destined for fields of potato and alfalfa. Cold air rises off the rushing water and the eucalyptus canopies high above block the sun. Here, the dry heat of the valley seems a world away.
It depends who you ask, but the Australian eucalyptus was brought to Bolivia by the Spanish either to drain Cochabamba’s eponymous swamps or to prop up the mine shafts in the mining town of Potosí, or both. Either way, it was all about silver. The Cerro Rico (“Rich Hill”) of Potosí was so rich with silver that the Spanish would do just about anything to extract it, including importing trees from Australia, draining a fertile valley in the sub-Andean valleys to feed the miners, and digging mine shafts, each of which was said to be as expensive as a cathedral.
Where extraction leads, bureaucracy must follow. In order to control the Andean native, the Spanish crown dreamed up the “reductions,” a law similar in its purpose and anodyne verbiage to the United States’ “relocation” of Native Americans. The Andean natives were forced into “reduced” areas, within which they could implement the social and political systems that they had before. These spaces were called “Indian Towns,” and many still exist. The town of Tiquipaya, through which runs the River Khora, is one of them.
Nowadays, the road that connects Tiquipaya to the banks of the River Khora is called the Avenida Reducto, and it is a lifeline of sorts for the people who live here. On the morning of July 17, before the k’oa, the busy intersection at the center of Tiquipaya was more crowded than usual with a veritable militia of shovels, pickaxes, pruning knives, and the people that wielded them. They waited in the town center for the taxis that would carry them up the mountain. A pair of women sat cross-legged in their billowing skirts, prepared to wait all day to sell the few lumps of fresh cheese they had made the night before. The butcher’s knife sounded against her wooden block, and the muted roars of dubbed WWE footage emerged from a video store nearby.
The morning is quiet, but matters concerning water access aren’t always so pacific. Because the climate of the cordillera is drier every year, the mountainside communities that live between the lagoon and the valley are starting to divert water to their own fields, thus breaking a centuries-long contract with the people from the valley. After all, they claim, the lagoon is on their land.
A few years ago, the citizens of Molinos, a town abutting Tiquipaya, accused the citizens of Incupata of stealing their water. Farmers in Incupata pointed out that the people of Molinos had sold the rights to all of the natural springs beneath their homes, and therefore were to blame for their own water problem. Valley people and mountain people clashed. One of the farmers from Molinos was murdered in the confrontation.
The buying and selling of water rights has often had disastrous consequences for the Cochabambinos, who are often forced to sell their water out of desperation. This system was originally imposed upon the Cochabambinos by the Spanish. As a way to incorporate the natives into the imposed Spanish economy, the conquistadors demanded that everyone pay their taxes in Spanish coin. Unsurprisingly, the farming citizens of Tiquipaya struggled to reach the often unrealistic quota and sold their watering rights away. By the year 1800, most Tiquipayeños had a legal right only to the natural wells beneath their feet—and sometimes, as the tale of Molinos suggests, they lost even that. Thus, the river Khora effectively became a liquid asset of the Spanish Crown.
The new system wasn’t totally unfamiliar, however. The Spanish knew how to use pre-existing social structures and traditions to their advantage, and even they had to tip their plumed hats to the Inca; the mita system worked. One condition of the “partition” was that, once a year, everyone who received water had to help clean the canals. These days, that particular obligation falls on June 17.
On a bulletin board in Violeta’s room, between a poster from Disney’s “Frozen” and her daughter’s finger paintings, a hand-made calendar is tacked to the wall. Mita Khora Mayu, it reads (Mayu means “river” in Quechua). A few days a week are either circled or shaded, or both, denoting night and day shifts for watering her family’s patch of land. Sometimes she forgets to open the sluice gate that admits water from the canal outside her fence, and the water goes shooting down into the valley.
Her father’s family is a Tiquipaya family; “Tiquipaya Tiquipaya,” she stresses, perhaps to differentiate themselves from the wealthier urban families moving to garish high-rises in the countryside—and this is evidenced by a somber concrete mausoleum bearing their name in Tiquipaya’s cemetery. It’s the first one you see when you walk in, flanked on one side by the purple- and black-ribboned graves of stillborn infants and on the other by a two-story stretch of shoebox-sized shrines.
But although her father bought this countryside land for her and her four sisters when they were just girls, they grew up on the southern side of the city. At that point, Cochabamba’s water problem was being further meddled with, although this time, United States’ neoliberalist economists took the place of colonial Spanish bureaucrats.
Bolivia reeled when the worldwide price of tin plummeted in the mid-80s. For President Victor Paz Estensorro, who kicked off the country’s highly destructive thirty-year affair with neoliberal economics, this was splendid timing. Pointing to the high cost and low returns of tin mining, he privatized the Bolivian Mining Corporation. Almost twenty thousand miners lost their jobs. Many of them ended up in Cochabamba, setting up shop on the dusty southern slopes in neighborhoods of red brick and corrugated tin almost overnight.
Even if the folks at the city’s municipal water center had wanted to, they couldn’t have kept up with the growth of the Zona Sud. The poor folks to the south had to take care of themselves, so they dug wells (second nature for displaced miners) and poured huge concrete tanks to store the groundwater. The families that used to make their living within the mountains now struggled to survive on top of them.
From the bridge above the river Khora, the Zona Sud is just barely visible across the valley. The heat of the sun and the brown band of smog that hangs over the city make the neighborhoods on the distant hills bend and shimmer, almost, strangely, like water. “If you live over there,” Violeta says, gesturing, “you tell the taxi driver your address relative to the neighborhood water tank.” The house where she grew up in Jaihuayco, one of the better established neighborhoods in the Zona Sud, was allotted water for ten hours a week. During that time, her family would fill up a cistern beneath the house, which they would depend upon until their next turn. And if the cistern ran dry? Violeta shrugs. “Then you went to the store.”
For a country whose latest constitution declares water to be a universal right, the practice of buying bottled water seems perverse. Water fountains are nonexistent in Bolivia, and the only people who carry reusable bottles are schoolchildren and foreigners. Outside of the home, the most reliable sources of clean water are the racks of disposable bottles in every corner store. Without proper infrastructure, the city’s poorest are most vulnerable to the pricing models of the corporations that bottle their “universal right.” Yet the Zona Sud remains untouched by municipal pipelines. The people who make these decisions live on the other side of town.
The path alongside River Khora is littered with such bottles. The most common brand is Vital, which bears the phrase Pura Vida, or “Pure Life,” on its cap. Vital is bottled in La Paz by a franchise of the Coca Cola company, whose headquarters are in Atlanta, Georgia, to be drunk by Cochabambinos as they sit with their feet in their neighborhood river. It’s a head-scratching arrangement.
This head-scratching arrangement, however, is characteristic of Coca Cola. The company takes its name from the coca plant, whose leaf is sacred in Andean tradition. Thanks to the United States’ clumsily destructive War on Drugs in the 1980s, the importation of coca to the U.S. is a federal crime for everyone besides—you guessed it. Coca Cola buys the coca leaf from Bolivia, processes it into sweet, syrupy concentrate at a plant in New Jersey, and then ships it to Bolivia, where it is bottled and consumed with incomparable gusto. Violeta smiles when she calls it the “black water of imperialism,” but she’s only half joking.
Coca Cola has moved into the non-black-and-bubbly water market as well, and seems to be doing swimmingly. The need for bottled water is one thing in the Zona Sud, but it seems doubly unjust that the people of Tiquipaya, many of whom live just a few blocks away from the river, should buy water from a corporation based thousands of miles away. The flow of history is cyclical; perhaps not much has changed since the reign of Carlos V.
On August 8, the recently-elected directors of Tiquipaya’s water council held a k’oa at the mouth of Laguna Mayu to celebrate their new five-year term. They met by the empty fountain in Tiquipaya’s central plaza, from which a pair of buses that rattled and filled with dust carried them high into the mountains, hairpin turn after hairpin turn.
Laguna Mayu was dark and flanked by high, rocky slopes. The directors arranged the k’oa in a hollow protected from the wind, observed all the while by a flock of sheep in a stone corral uphill. A few locals with dark eyes and rubber sandals came to meet them and share coca leaves. Juan Carlos Mendez, the newest council president, delivered an address in an unbroken stream of Quechua and Spanish, followed by a toast. Everyone knocked back a plastic cup of Coke and Singani liquor. Some valiantly poured themselves a second.
With the Mother Earth diplomacy taken care of, a few directors left the festivities to “open the lagoon.” They stepped across missing slats in a bridge that led to a concrete pylon, then descended by ladder to open a valve within. The water streamed through a tunnel and into a swampy field below the k’oa, destined for Tiquipaya. The surface of Laguna Mayu, however, seemed unperturbed.
Mendez observed the previous water mark on the pylon, nearly eight feet above the lagoon’s current level. “When I came up here years ago, it was always raining. There would be dark clouds between the mountains, and the Laguna would be filling up, always. Look at this,” he said. It was a clear day. “Los tiempos están cambiando.” Mendez meant to say that the weather was changing. But he could just as well have meant, “the times are changing,” and he wouldn’t have been far off, either.
By the turn of the twenty-first century, Cochabamba had nearly half a million people. Its population had grown by a factor of more than six in the previous fifty years, and the public water system couldn’t support the city. In the late 90s, the World Bank was requiring poor nations to privatize their water systems in exchange for loans. Bolivia had little choice. In 1999, the “universal right” of water in Cochabamba was up for auction.
Only one bidder materialized. Although its name, Aguas de Tunari, was a nod to the mountain overlooking Cochabamba, the company was really a subsidiary of Bechtel, a San Francisco-based engineering firm. Aguas de Tunari bought the rights to Cochabamba’s water and immediately claimed sovereignty over the pipes, the irrigation canals (the same canals that deliver water from the River Khora to the fields and homes of Tiquipaya), and even the rainwater collected by families.
Bechtel and the government should have known that, in the absence of water, fires ignite. In January of 2000, the people of Cochabamba rose up against the privatization as the miners of Potosí used to do: in, they blocked the roads for three days straight. The city was shut down. In the central plaza, protesters unfurled a banner reading, “The water is ours, damn it!”
Three months and many protests later, the city was shut down again, and this time the government had to listen. Supporters marched to Cochabamba from towns nearly forty miles away, where they were greeted with cheers. Protesters with vinegar-soaked bandanas over their mouths and slingshots faced off against police wielding riot gear and tear gas. Movement leaders met with the local archbishop in an office above the Plaza Principal, which was packed tight with protesters. As messages relayed between the protestors and the government in La Paz, a miscommunication occurred. It was like the schoolyard game of telephone, albeit with higher stakes. Journalist Jim Shultz described what followed:
“…wearing a vinegar-soaked red bandana around his neck and with white smudges of baking soda under his eyes, [movement leader Oscar] Olivera stepped out onto the third-floor balcony where the giant red banner still hung over the plaza. ‘We have arrived at the moment of an important economic victory over neoliberalism,’ he yelled with a hoarse voice to the crowd, which erupted in a cheer that rivaled thunder.”
However, the government refused to confirm Bechtel’s exit, and the mayor of Cochabamba publicly resigned amidst tears, eschewing any responsibility for what he feared might be a “bloodbath.” Many of the movement’s leaders took the grisly hint and went into hiding. Four days later, as tension mounted, a seventeen-year-old named Victor Hugo Daza was murdered by a police officer, who fired live rounds into a crowd near the Plaza Principal.
At that point, the Cochabambinos’ resolve was unshakeable. As human rights representative Ana Durán said, “once you have already paid a certain price, you don’t back down; you don’t back down for anything.”
On Monday, April 10, Bechtel’s contract was rescinded, and the city danced in celebration. The Cochabambinos had fought the first successful grassroots battle against a multinational corporation. Although few were probably thinking in such broad terms, it was a victory that echoed nearly five hundred years into the past. For the first time since the arrival of the Spanish, the waters of Cochabamba truly belonged to the people that lived there. David defeated Goliath.
Still, all is not well. In the late afternoon of August 8, the directors kicked the embers of the k’oa into charcoal and boarded the buses to head home. As the dirt road carried them over a crest and back onto the valley-facing mountainside, some began to point and talk in low voices. A plume of smoke rose over Cochabamba, dark against the valley’s normal polluted haze. At a certain altitude the smoke stopped rising and spread out over the city, casting a shadow. Ashes fell in the Plaza Principal.
Parque Tunari, a reserve to the north of Cochabamba, was burning. The evening news could not yet identify the arsonists responsible, so it looped thirty-second clips of the community’s response. In the absence of fire hydrants, the Cochabambinos filled truck beds with the next best thing: hundreds and hundreds of plastic water bottles. Pura Vida.
Instead of being stolen by foreign kings or corporations, the water is simply disappearing. In the past two years, Cochabamba has suffered a drought that has threatened 177,000 families. As president of his community’s water council, Mendez has inherited a position that few envy. Everyone here seems to recognize that the city’s thirst will only grow.
On a recent Sunday, Violeta stands with her daughter on the suspension bridge over the dry banks of the River Khora. In the valley, the outlines of the city waver in the dust and heat. A grizzled foreigner with a bowler hat and dreadlocks—probably one of the Argentines who juggles at stoplights down in the city—wheels his unicycle over the bridge and wishes them buenas tardes. One of his eyebrows has been replaced with a series of tattooed dots.
She recalls coming to the river with her family when she was younger, to picnic by the water and wash clothes in the clear stream. Here, below the metal grille that diverts the water into the concrete canals, the river is barely a trickle. Somewhere, up in the mountains, a lagoon is drying. What will happen when the water in these mountains disappears is hard to predict and painful to imagine.
“What they say about the planet warming—it’s true. We feel it here. We’re drying up. The only one who doesn’t seem to realize it is your president,” she says, squinting against the noonday sun. It’s hard to read her expression. “Poor river.” She takes her daughter’s hand and heads downhill.
Directly below, in the shade of the eucalyptus trees, twenty or so people dressed all in black are washing clothes. It’s the custom, Violeta explains: when a loved one dies, their family must rinse their clothes in the water from the river. It’s a way to free the deceased of their unresolved grief. “River water moves,” she says. “Water from a tap can’t run on its own.” The family is quiet, but a few look up from the bundles between their legs to tip their beer bottles in greeting.
The River Khora has been partitioned and siphoned and sold all the way to San Francisco. Yet the history of its abuse is mirrored in the struggle of those who live along its banks. These people may often forget the river, and even abuse it in turn, but the calls of tradition, renewal, and death are often clear enough to bring them back to the story they share. The implication of their common history is clear: if the river disappears, the Cochabambinos will soon follow.
Although the river and its people share the past, on this afternoon, the burden seems unevenly placed. The man whose socks are drying on the concrete can rest in peace knowing that his story has ended. The River Khora doesn’t have that privilege.