Water control and autonomy peasant irrigation strategies in the Bolivian Andes

Callejo-Veracc, Ivan G. del


Irrigation research in Bolivia, and particularly in the Andean region, has focused mainly on watershed or irrigation system management. Few studies have scrutinized how peasant families develop and sustain the everyday management of water as a fundamental, integrated component of their individual productive strategies while simultaneously embedding these individual water control schemes and irrigation practices in the broader norms, rules and organizational forms of peasant communities’ collective work and subsistence endeavors.

This thesis fills this gap by posing the following central research question:

How do collective action and individual strategies entwine in peasant irrigation to foster diverse patterns of irrigation management and production organization in response to the quest for autonomous water control?

This research question has been responded through the study of three sub-questions. The first sub-question seeks to understand the institutional framework of the irrigation sector and the respective water use and control systems, which in the Bolivian case strongly grounds in collective action and customary norms and practices, even though in recent years the state has tried to formalize and regulate the sector. The second sub-question focuses on understanding collective action and its implications for water control in its different dimensions. Finally, the third sub-question focuses on family production strategies and scrutinizes the link between mercantile and non-mercantile spheres of production. The analysis shows how these interact with the collective domain of water control.

Chapter two presents the conceptual framework that was developed to analyze the interrelationships between the collective and the individual domains, as well as their link with the state, institutions and the market. The chapter identifies the object of study, which is defined as the peasant dynamics in irrigation systems. These are divided in two analytical categories. The first category constitutes collective action for irrigation management, which is analyzed based on the concept of socio-technical "water control". The second category corresponds to the concept of "peasant strategies" that, in the collective domain and especially in the individual (family) domain, serves as a lens to better understand the logic behind the decisions that peasant families make about what, when and how much to produce with the water they are able to access through individual and collective action.

Chapter three analyzes the institutional development of irrigation in Bolivia, highlighting the role of peasant organizations in this process. It starts with the description and discussion of the different expressions of the so-called "uses and customs" in the study cases, illustrating the form and dynamics of water management and governance in the sector. In turn, these uses and customs demonstrate the different dimensions in water control and show the need to analyze these dimensions simultaneously. The chapter explains the risks and difficulties that accompany state attempts to formalize these customary norms in official legal frameworks and shows the resilience and adaptation strategies of existing customary practices that shape the daily functioning of irrigation systems and peasant communities. “Usos y costumbres” include more than just rules, norms and agreements for the access to resources; they actively interrelate organizational practices, administrative arrangements and the mobilization of resources. In the irrigation systems’ water management and governance domains, these shape very specific operational aspects, such as water distribution rules and infrastructure’s operation and maintenance activities. I argue that the principles and practices that are framed as ‘uses and customs’ essentially constitute peasant strategies to achieve their autonomy from institutions and state norms, which seem to create greater uncertainty and lack of control in families and communities’ efforts to manage their resources and direct their livelihoods.

Chapter four, first, analyzes the history of collective action in the region, showing how, gradually, after the struggles for land water became the binding factor within and among communities in the region. Then water control arrangements in different irrigation systems are examined, focusing on the interrelatedness of modes of individual and collective action, and their links to formal organizations, politics, infrastructure and water flows. This chapter shows that the changes and interactions in, and between these elements, constantly redefine "water control systems" in their different components and levels. This chapter highlights the importance and dynamism of collective action to both make these systems function internally and ensure that the small-farmer sector is visible vis-à-vis the State, donors and non- governmental organizations. The latter have been important in financing the development of irrigation infrastructure and have commonly used this intervention to try to impose specific organizational forms and related norms. However, this chapter shows that “peasant principles” for managing their resources are deeply entrenched and resilient as they form the basis for the quest for autonomy in managing key resources and livelihoods.

Chapter five focuses on peasant households and their production systems. It starts with a discussion of the different strategies that peasant households implement for materializing water access, and how this is done through diverse interactions with their own community or third organizations in the collective domain. These take place through locally institutionalized practices and social networks; by means of monetary transactions; or through a very creative combination of commodity and non-commodity strategies. A second important element discussed in this chapter is how peasant families organize labor as the basis for controlling the production process. Family labor, analyzed here as the working force but also as the knowledge and skills involved and deployed in the labor process, constitutes a key factor for resource control, and for the production and reproduction of the family farm. The chapter also demonstrates how peasant families strategically interact in and entwine very diverse spheres of operation: that of the market through commoditized interactions and with their own non- monetarized rural activities and organizations – this takes place at different levels in both community based organizations and water-use based organizations. The chapter shows how families sustain their livelihoods through this interplay of market and non-market based exchanges that enable families to obtain sufficient control over their own production and thereby over the reproduction of their livelihoods.

The thesis findings question the ‘participatory water management’ literature that finds much resonance in Bolivia and around the world and they challenge many of the popular ‘empowerment approaches’. The cases show that local water users are the most important actors in shaping local irrigation development, water governance and local production practices. Users, since long, have actively involved themselves as ‘participants’ in struggles for irrigation, long before external ‘participatory’ intervention projects have come to ‘develop’ irrigation systems. These peasant strategies and practices show that the common claim that is made by intervening external actors -- that their intervention projects aim to incorporate ‘the locals’ through participatory projects – is to be considered as the world upside down. From a local perspective, it is the external intervention projects that ‘participate’ for a short specific phase in the transformation of local water control realities and (re)production practices.

The results highlight the dynamism and adaptive capacity of the peasantry in Bolivia. They show that, despite changing socio-economic pressures, increased and sometimes problematic state and third party external involvement, this sector actively shapes and deploys strategies to sustain itself. This is done through the interplay between creative adaptation at individual and family level as well as through collective action at community and supra-community level. These adaptations go hand in hand with the transformation of peasant family strategies regarding their agricultural (re)production. In this process, external interventions and relations with state and none state actors are not only inevitable but often also keenly strategized, especially when it concerns the construction of large hydraulic works. But also in cases where external interventions and support are mobilized, peasant water users commonly are the ones who make such interventions work for themselves, shaping their own projects whereby their organizations, principles and practices are tactically adapted, inserted and mobilized. Despite deeply adverse contexts, these strategic and rooted modes of operation and practice-based governance seek to guarantee the sustainability of the peasantry’s mode of life in the region, with families in charge of their own irrigation systems dynamically shaping their livelihood strategies.