Ismael Moreno SJ

Ismael Moreno SJ

O n the 23rd of August 2003 some thirty thousand
people from the north, south, east and west of
Honduras took over all parts of the capital to
demand the non-privatization of drinking water.
From five in the morning the protesters occupied the four
main entries and exits of Tegucigalpa, led by the National
Coordination of Popular Resistance (CNRP), a movement
which brings together trade unions, and social, popular,
indigenous and community organisations from all over the
The drop which made the cup overflow was the decision
of the majority of deputies in the National Congress to
approve a Draft Law on Drinking Water and Basic
Sanitation, following recommendations from technicians in
the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB). It was
approved on the 14th of August. The heads of political
parties in the National Congress had signed an agreement
on March 4th that year with the Honduranian social
organizations represented in the CNRP to approve no law
on drinking water not based on an agreement between the
various sectors of Honduranian society. At the same time,
the peoples’ organisations had committed themselves to
start a consultation process with the aim of presenting on
July 1st that same year a proposal for a law on water in
place of the proposal drawn up under the guidance of the
On July 1st the CNRP presented its proposal arguing that
the protection, administration and preservation of water was
linked to the principle of national sovereignty, and that
under no circumstances should the State abdicate its
responsibility for managing such a resource. Members of
Congress received the proposed law but then buried it in
The proposal for the privatization of water promoted by
the IADB with full support from the government of the
Republic contained a catch which fooled several leaders of
the popular movements. The proposed law was not
presented as a means to achieve the privatization of water.
It was presented as a proposal to “municipalize” water
services, thereby contributing to the decentralization of
public services, exactly the goal that many social and
popular sectors were fighting for.
An important argument in favour of the law proposed by
the IADB and the Government was the inefficiency of the
State institution responsible for administering the provision
of drinking water, caught as it was in a paralysing
bureaucracy, politically determined decisions and the
corruption of its officials. The IADB and the Government
saw here a great opportunity to break with an incompetent
administration and move towards empowering
municipalities in the matter of water as a strategic resource.
With this trick, the government and IADB officials won
the support of most of the 298 mayors in the country.
However, clauses in the new Law for Drinking Water and
Basic Sanitation envisaged “service providers”, which
meant that municipalities could hand over the
administration and maintenance of drinking water to
private institutions and organisations which, by charging a
fee, would guarantee both the efficiency of the system and
a profit for themselves.
The Law on Drinking Water and Basic Sanitation was
passed with the support of the majority of mayors and an
important group of NGOs who fell into the trap of the law
proposed by the IADB and Government, both interested in
decentralising and empowering municipalities in the
administration of natural resources. The central
Government, with the support of the IADB, warned
mayors that if they did not approve the Drinking Water
Law they would not qualify for loans destined for the
environment or the protection of natural resources.
For the first time in many decades, however,
r e p r e s e n t a t i v e s o f organisations from all over the
country met to plan a joint reaction. Copies of the
proposed law to be discussed in the National Congress were
distributed in all regions of the country and studied by many
grass-root organizations.
Many saw through the trick and highlighted the clear bias
towards privatisation favoured by the law in the 65 articles of
the official version. In the same manner, a consultation
process was launched on the peoples’ wishes with respect
to a law on water that would protect water basins, ensure
the preservation of water, and provide an efficient
administration shared by the central Government,
municipalities, water authorities, local associations and
other organisations.
The struggle against the privatisation of water had
achieved a miracle – calling on and uniting in a common
campaign regions and organisations hitherto engaged in
small localized campaigns. The popular mobilization of
the 26th of August 2003 was the expression of a greater
unity concentrated on one objective: to defend drinking
water. Preparations for the great mobilization are full of
anecdotes. In some cities in the north and interior of the
country collections were organised to raise money for
buses that would carry people to the capital. In others
communities radio stations cooperated in organising
marathons with the same aim of raising funds.
The Ministry of Security accused the demonstrators of
receiving money even from drug-traffickers to finance
their popular rally. Other government civil servants
accused international development organisations of
making funds available to agitate against and destabilize
the Government of the Republic. The Government
managed to stir people up through infiltrators, and when
the march reached the National Congress, a group of
demonstrators besieged the police guarding the building to
the point of provoking violence, which finally ended the
mobilization programme.
The Government accused the leaders of the mobilization
of making the Drinking Water Law an excuse to create a
situation of chaos and political destabilisation. Both the
IADB and the Government launched a strong publicity
campaign to discredit the movement that opposed to the
water law and to pressurise mayors and a sector of NGOs to
give their support to the official
Finally, the Law on Drinking Water was approved and ratified
by the President of the Republic. Two years after the struggle,
municipalities are busy seeking those “providers” best able to
buy the right of administering the service of drinking water.
The approval of this law was an anteroom for the approval of the
Free Trade Area with the United States with its corresponding
process of privatization of various public services.
Together with the struggle for the non-privatization of
water however, the country has taken on a direct struggle
for the defence of Honduranian forests, marching hundreds
of kilometres from communities far in the interior to the
capital in what has been called “The March for Life.”
The IADB and the Government may have achieved the
immediate objective of approving the Law of Drinking
Water and taken the necessary measures for its
implementation; in balance, the outcome of the campaign
was one of victory for the IADB and the Government and
of defeat for the social resistance movement. But what they
did not succeed in repressing is the growing conscience of
citizens in their struggle to defend natural resources and the
environment. At the present moment, several communities
in the interior of the country are preparing to resist
implementation of the Law on Drinking Water. And they are
also preparing themselves to resist the indiscriminate
cutting down of their forests, and the use of land and natural
resources in projects that almost exclusively benefit the
multinationals. These multinationals are keenly interested
in the region but not so much in its biodiversity. The
inference is inevitable: the protection and preservation of
this biodiversity, which the Central American region still
enjoys, depend on the immediate future of the resistance
struggle waged by the popular social classes. And
ultimately on this struggle depends the very future of life
itself in Central America.

Translation by Michael Campbell-Johnston SJ
Ismael Moreno SJ
Director, ERIC

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