New book publication on the cultural politics of water in the Andes

Published on
June 18, 2015

Rutgerd Boelens (Wageningen University, University of Amsterdam) has published a new book entitled ‘Water, Power and Identity. The cultural politics of water in the Andes’. It addresses two major issues in natural resource management and political ecology: the complex conflicting relationship between communities managing water on the ground and national and global policy-making institutions and elites; and how grassroots defend against encroachment, question the self-evidence of State or market-based water governance, and confront coercive and participatory boundary policing (‘normal’ vs. ‘abnormal’).

The book examines grassroots building of multilayered water-rights territories, and State, market and expert networks’ vigorous efforts to reshape these water societies in their own image – seizing resources and/or aligning users, identities and rights systems within dominant frameworks. Distributive and cultural politics entwine. It is shown that attempts to modernize and normalize users through universalized water culture, ‘rational water use’ and depoliticized interventions deepen water security problems rather than alleviating them. However, social struggles negotiate and enforce water rights. User collectives challenge imposed water rights and identities, constructing new ones to strategically acquire water control autonomy and remoralize their waterscapes.

Rutgerd Boelens shows that battles for material control include the right to culturally define and politically organize water rights and territories. Andean illustrations from Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile, from peasant-indigenous life stories to international policy-making, highlight open and subsurface hydrosocial networks. They reveal how water justice struggles are political projects against indifference, and that engaging in re-distributive policies and defying ‘truth politics,’ extends context-particular water rights definitions and governance forms.

The first comments on the book were very positive. According to Tom Perreault, Professor of Geography of the Syracuse University this book is “A true masterwork… It is among the most authoritative volumes ever produced on Latin American water politics.” Anthony Bebbington, Professor of Environment and Society and Director of the Graduate School of Geography, Clark University, says: “A challenging and thought-provoking contribution to debates on law and nature, environmental governance, and political ecologies of state-making and resistance. Very important reading.” This is in line with Erik Swyngedouw, Professor of Geography, University of Manchester, who commented: “Rarely before has the intimate relationship between power and water been so incisively dissected. A must-read for those concerned with how power shapes life and how communities struggle for their right to water.”

‘Water, Power and Identity. The cultural politics of water in the Andes’ by Rutgerd Boelens. Published with Routledge/ Earthscan. For more reactions and the book’s contents, see: