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Book Reviews ...

Reviewed: The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia by Benjamin Dangl
Review by: James Generic (Posted: 6.14.2007)

Things across Latin America look like they've heating up in the last five years to the breaking point. After decades of military rule, right-wing forces, banana republics, and domination by foreign companies, governments in Latin America crushing left-wing movements and people fighting the old orders of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, it really looks like those days are through. Social movements are no longer an isolated thing. From the autonomous movements in Argentina, to the Landless People's Movement in Brazil, to even (to some extent) charismatic left-wing rulers like Hugo Chavez, to the Zapatistas and their supporters in southern Mexico, it looks like from this vantage point in the mid-atlantic region of the United States, that Latin America has some really big things going on right now. Bolivia is no different.

"The Price of Fire" explores struggles and movements in Bolivia, focusing on the last five years. The book's title refers to what many of the struggles there are tied around: the simple price of fire, or gas for heating. Dangl talks about many different issues going on there, and especially issues like the coca trade, access to water after the government privatizes the water and begins billing people for it, and the community mobilization across the country in response. These uprisings are called "wars", like the Water War and the Gas War, for very good reasons.

One interesting aspect is that the coca leaf is used as a symbol of resistance. Coca can be processed into cocaine, but it's also a main ingredient in coca-cola and is used locally as medicine. Because of the US insistence as a part of the "War on Drugs", the government and sometimes US Forces, regularly bomb, destroy, and prosecute coca farmers. Indeed, sometimes the soldiers themselves sent to destroy the crops are chewing coca leaves as they burn coca plants. The military also murders farmers who refuse to plead guilty to drug trafficking. In response, at the city of Chipiriri, the cocaleros formed a coca farmers union, and set up a tightly controlled market to sell their goods, while forbidding any drug dealing or usage at the market.

Two major uprisings, the Water War in Cochabamba of 1999 and the Gas War of 2003, are vividly described in the book. After three years of pressure by the World Bank to either privatize its water or face losses of billions of dollars in loans, the Bolivian government relented and pushed for the water of the nation to be places into corporate hands in 1999. This totally enraged the population of Cochabamba, which has around half a million people and is growing rapidly, after costs skyrocketed, distribution failed, and the poorest were completely cut off from water at all. Road blockades, huge street demonstrations, and occupation of the water company offices forced the government to act, and they made the company public.

On September 19th 2003, the Gas War starts in Cochabamba, and quickly escalates as cocaleros join in huge road blockades, made even more popular by events in Argentina as a form of protest. The issue is on whether to export natural gas to foreign countries when there is a shortage for the very poor in Bolivia. Large popular assemblies gather, and unions, community groups, and other organizations unite around this issue, which eventually brought down the President. An anarcha-feminist group, Mujeres Creando, agitates for the end of patriarchy and women's submission in their center "The Virgin". Neighbors in the neighborhood El Alto also emerge at the head of the mobilization. At the end, a left-wing President, former coca-grower and indigenous Evo Morales is elected, with the understanding that if he does not stand up against International Companies and the World Bank, that he can be forced out of office as well.

This book takes a wide view of the situation in Bolivia, as the author worked as an independent journalist throughout Latin America, writing for a variety of left-wing magazines like Z Magazine, The Nation, and the Progressive. I recommend that if you have read Marina Sitrin's Horizontalism, you read this one right afterwards. The two fit together like a hand in a glove, one focusing on Argentina and one focusing on Bolivia, but seemingly talking about the very same thing: poor people, indigenous people, and women rising up againstcorporations and the rulers of their lands. A lot of theory andanalysis makes you want to jump off a cliff with how depressing it is; books like this and Sitrin's fills you with hope and examples of how
people are organizing and fighting back.

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