Why is Bechtel Suing the Dirt-poor People of Cochamba, Bolivia?
Several years ago, Bechtel led a conglomerate purchase and take-over of the public water utility of Cochabamba - Bolivia's third-largest city. In January, 1999, before the new water company had even begun operation, it announced the doubling of water prices.
For most Bolivians, this meant that water would now cost more than food; for a majority of the citizens who are on minimum wage or unemployed, water bills suddenly accounted for close to half their monthly budgets.
To add insult to the injury, the new private water concessionaires had orchestrated absolute monopolies. All water, even from community wells, required permits to access. Peasants and small farmers suddenly had to buy permits to gather rainwater on their own property!
The Bolivia story has a happy ending (for now). By the hundreds of thousands, Bolivians marched to Cochabamba in a showdown with the government. On April 10, they won. The Bolivian government kicked Bechtel out of the country and revoked its water-privatization legislation.
In response, Bechtel is suing the government of Bolivia through a Bilateral Investment Treaty to reclaim its lost investment dollars and to receive payment for potential lost future profits.
Oscar Olivera, the humble Bolivian shoemaker who led the fight against the water monopolies, brought his message to a Washington rally during the 2002 International Monitary Fund/World Bank meetings. Olivera said that if water is privatized and commodified for profit, it will never reach the people who desperately need it, and will only make a handful of water corporations very rich.
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