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Water rights arenas in the Andes: Upscaling networks to strengthen local water control

Rutgerd Boelens
Irrigation and Water Engineering Group, Wageningen University, the Netherlands;

ABSTRACT: The threats that Andean water user collectives face are ever-growing in a globalizing society. Water is power and engenders social struggle. In the Andean region, water rights struggles involve not only disputes over the access to water, infrastructure and related resources, but also over the contents of water rules and rights, the recognition of legitimate authority, and the discourses that are mobilized to sustain water governance structures and rights orders. While open and large-scale water battles such as Bolivia'€™s 'Water Wars' or nationwide mobilizations in Ecuador get the most public attention, low-profile and more localized water rights encounters, ingrained in local territories, are far more widespread and have an enormous impact on the Andean waterscapes. This paper highlights both water arenas and the ways they operate between the legal and the extralegal. It shows how local collectives build on their own water rights foundations to manage internal water affairs but which simultaneously offer an important home-base for strategizing wider water defence manoeuvres. Hand-in-hand with inwardly reinforcing their rights bases, water user groups aim for horizontal and vertical linkages thereby creating strategic alliances. Sheltering an internal school for rights and identity development, reflection and organisation, these local community foundations, through open and subsurface linkages and fluxes, provide the groundwork for upscaling their water rights defence networks to national and transnational arenas.

KEYWORDS: Water rights, legal pluralism, cultural politics, social mobilization, peasant and indigenous communities, translocal network alliances, Andean countries