Ecuador's peasants' successful struggle for water rights

23 August 2013

Many peasant and indigenous communities in Ecuador have been successful in gaining and maintaining access to water, related rights and political voice since the late 1980s. This is mainly due to an effective cooperation between local water user organisations and NGOs, and the creation of regional and national federations, says WOTRO researcher Jaime Hoogesteger. Today, he obtained his PhD.

Peasants explain the funtioning of their water division structures. Picture taken by Jaime Hoogesteger.

Hoogesteger studied peasants’ struggles for water, water rights and political voice in the Ecuadorian Highlands. For that, he worked with a provincial water user federation for over a year and conducted numerous interviews with water users, government officials and NGOs. ‘My main question was how local water users have developed political agency at multiple levels to ensure their access to water. The research built on the conception that state, NGOs, leaders and user-based organisations and their networks play a decisive role in this process’, says Hoogesteger.

One of his main conclusions is that the formation of user based organisations at multiple scales plays a crucial role in linking water users with each other as well as to provincial, national and international NGOs, state institutions and funding agencies. These links enabled them to participate in the decisions that had to do with their access to water and broader water rights. From this, an important lesson follows for (Western) NGOs, says Hoogesteger. ‘In development cooperation, much attention is paid to creating multi-stakeholder platforms and formal spaces for civil society participation to ensure that the rights of socio-economically and politically marginalized groups are defended. My research shows that, although these platforms are important, they cannot function properly without first creating organisations that can truly represent local users in these platforms. In addition, I was able to show thatstrategic links between politicians, bureaucrats and the leaders of water user based organizations, or organizing street protests, are at least, and often more effective, mechanisms  for representing the intersts of water users than participating in for instance multi-stakeholder platforms.’

Hoogesteger’s research was part of a WOTRO Integrated Programme that also looked at the water rights of peasant and indigenous communities in Peru. Here, at regional and national level, water users have a much weaker say in decisions that affect them. By comparing the two countries, Hoogesteger and his fellow researchers were able to tease out key factors responsible for the degree in which peasants were able to succesfully fight for their rights.

As part of his research, Hoogesteger produced a documentary. Picture taken by Lucy Novillo

Hoogesteger explains that three factors could be identified. ‘First, Ecuador is a much smaller country. This makes linking water users and the creation of networks much easier, simply because distances between villages and cities are much shorter. Secondly, Ecuador has a strong tradition of social movements of which the best known is the indigenous peoples’ movement. In Peru, this is much less so. The war between the Peruvian government and the Shining Path and the regime of Fujimori made the creation of social movements virtually impossible. Finally, the degree to which the government and the water and irrigation sector are linked to each other is of great importance. In Peru, there are strong ties between the two, making it very difficult to enter for parties that are on the outside. In Ecuador, the rolling back of the government from the water sector under pressure from the World Bank and the IMF in the 1980s, created room for users and NGOs to organise themselves autonomously and link up with each other to defend their rights.’  

Hoogesteger has also made a documentary on his research project in Equador: Defending Water Rights: The Experience of Interjuntas-Chimborazo, Ecuador. It is available on The Water Channel.

Jaime Hoogesteger obtained his PhD from Wageningen University on 27 August 2013. His research was part of the WOTRO Integrated Programme Struggling for water security: Social mobilization for the defence of water rights in Peru and Ecuador.