Failed Network Activation in National Political Arenas

Amid the above conditions, international IWM advocates initially contested IWM principles and policies in national political arenas. The international organizations at the center of the transnational IWM networks described earlier already had ties to Ecuadorian policymakers, forged through previous contracts and international meetings. They naturally tried to leverage these ties to incorporate IWM principles and practices into Ecuadorian law and government policy. However, Ecuador’s national context made Ecuador’s national legislature and executive agencies ineffective arenas for implementing local IWM reform. To illustrate, this section examines failed efforts to implement IWM through new national water and decentralization laws and policies.

Pursuing IWM Through New Water Legislation

In the early 1990s, the World Bank and its allies used the resources at their disposal, particularly the financing of Ecuador’s debt, to pressure Ecuadorian policymakers to adopt their preferred IWM policies through a new water law. The World Bank made new loans to Ecuador conditional on its acceptance of a water law modeled on Chile’s 1981 Water Code, which effectively privatized water by creating a market for tradable water use rights (Donoso Harris 2003). The World Bank even hired Chilean technical experts to train Ecuadorian policymakers on how to design the system (Boelens et al. 2015).

In 1994, Ecuador’s government approved the Agrarian Development Law, which introduced several changes to the 1972 Water Law. The Agrarian Development Law and related executive decrees expanded the potential for private sector participation in water management and created a more decentralized structure. With World Bank support, the Ecuadorian government decentralized administrative responsibilities to 12 Regional Water Authorities and transferred management of some national irrigation systems to newly created water user associations. Most important, the Agrarian Development Law put into question the public nature of water guaranteed by the 1972 Water Law. It created a registry of water rights (concessions granted by the state) based on property titles and allowed water rights to be automatically transferred when land was sold or inherited. Furthermore, it provided water rights in perpetuity, making it like private property.[1]

The Agrarian Development Law and possible opening of a Chilean-style water market prompted widespread social protest. Ecuador’s three national indigenous movements led a national protest, which they labeled a “Mobilization for Life,” to block the law’s implementation. Hundreds of thousands of people from more than 3,500 indigenous, campesino, and other popular organizations blocked the country’s roads, paralyzing the country and bringing commerce virtually to a halt for two weeks. After enduring military repression, the protesters forced the government into negotiations and eventually achieved significant revisions to the law, including keeping water ownership public (Andolina 1999; 1994).[2]

The ferocity of social protest and criticism of the government kept the World Bank’s proposals for water privatization and related land reform from being implemented. The World Bank’s influence waned considerably over the following decade as Ecuador’s state weakened while its social movements grew in strength. The latter’s anger toward neoliberal economic policies, from water privatization to free trade to industrial oil exploitation in the Amazon, was fueled by the perception that these were enriching corrupt Ecuadorian elites and foreigners while Ecuadorian society paid a horrible price, both economically and environmentally. Three times between 1997 and 2005 social uprisings toppled Ecuadorian governments and demanded governance changes. The experience of Lucio Gutierrez, the third president to be ousted, is telling. Having risen to power via indigenous support, CONAIE soon broke with Gutierrez after he signed a Letter of Intent with the IMF pledging to, among other things, “privatize the petroleum sector, electricity, telecommunications, and natural resources like water"[3] Experiences like these kept Ecuador’s social movements vigilant against the pressures of international financial institutions and signaled a warning to aspiring Ecuadorian politicians.

In 2006, Rafael Correa was elected president after tapping in to this social anger. Leading a social movement called Alianza PAIS (Proud and Sovereign Fatherland Alliance), Correa initially gained the support of indigenous, environmental, and other social movements based on campaign promises to restore Ecuador’s political sovereignty, protect the environment, and provide economic relief to Ecuador’s poor, all by reversing the neoliberal agenda of the 1990s. Shortly after taking office in 2007, Correa demonstrated his popular credentials by expelling the World Bank’s representative and threatening to remove the World Bank and the IMF from the country. That same year, a constituent assembly wrote a new constitution (passed in 2008) that, among other things, specifically prohibits the privatization of water, declares water access a human right, and recognizes both public and community water management.

Despite its significant economic resources, the World Bank network was blocked by historically marginalized groups within Ecuadorian society. These groups effectively closed the national political/legal arena as a space through which the World Bank and its network members could project power locally. It is a powerful example of how national context filters the ability of transnational governance networks to govern domestically.

  • [1] By contrast, the 1972 Water Law had fixed time periods for water concessions, such as 10 yearsfor irrigation. For the history of water laws and reform in Ecuador, see Boelens et al. (2015); Vallejo(2008); Zapata (2005).
  • [2] Other key changes included: (1) allowing communitarian and cooperative forms of agrarianorganization to continue; (2) privileging food production for internal consumption; and (3) recognizing indigenous agricultural knowledge and respect for the cultural and social values of indigenousand campesino farmers.
  • [3] Letter from CONAIE, available online at (accessed February13, 2016).
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