Custom and contradiction: Rural water governance and the politics of usos y costumbres in Bolivia's irrigators' movement

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In recent years, water governance has emerged as a conflictive political issue in Bolivia, leading to major protests and the rise of influential social movements. Although conflicts over urban water services have received more attention, rural water issues have been an important if underexamined contributor to processes by which water governance is being reinstitutionalized in Bolivia. Rural water conflicts have given rise to a well-organized and influential peasant irrigators' movement, rooted in the department of Cochabamba but with national membership. The irrigators' movement has successfully promoted a vision of water governance based on traditional customary practices of water management, or usos y costumbres. In addition to being material practices associated with agricultural production, usos y costumbres are symbolic of livelihood strategies specific to Quechua- and Aymara-speaking peoples in the Bolivian Andes. This article examines the material and symbolic importance of these usos y costumbres for the livelihoods and political claims of Bolivia's peasant irrigators. Irrigators have successfully mobilized a politicized and symbolic discourse of usos y costumbres, as well as dense associational networks that have together allowed them to renegotiate the institutionalization of rural water governance in Bolivia: who makes resource decisions, for the benefit of whom, at whose expense, at what sociospatial scales, and through what institutional arrangements. The reinstitutionalization of Bolivian water governance is reflective of historically rooted cultural systems that seek to reconfigure long-standing power asymmetries.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)834-854
Number of pages21
JournalAnnals of the Association of American Geographers
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2008


  • Bolivia
  • Customary practice
  • Irrigation
  • Resource governance
  • Water

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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