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Blue Communities in Latin America: Solidarity and Self Determination

Blue Communities are those that are committed to other ways of relating to nature. They protect water as a common good, are against its privatization and in favor of public community partnerships.

Written by Penca de Sábila, Colombia

The Blue Communities Project is an initiative that was born in Canada in 2009, created by the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Union of Public Employees. Together with other groups, they decided on three principles for municipalities that would be recognized as Blue Communities: They must: (1) Respect the human rights to water and sanitation; 2) Denounce privatization, promote and defend public water management; and 3) Prohibit the sale of bottled water in municipal buildings or public events.

In this way, the project began to provide tools to local governments that would allow them to resist privatization. In 2011, the first Blue Community was created; now there are more than 20. Little by little, as it gained attention among social movements and in the media, the project spread to countries like Switzerland, Germany, France and Spain.

In 2019, the Platform of Public Community Agreements of the Americas (PAPC) took on the project with the challenge of adapting to the realities of rural territories and peri urban areas of the cities, where communities are building alternatives to privatization based on self-management and solidarity relationship throughout Latin America.

The PAPC has developed its own version of the Blue Communities, which includes the following principles:

  • The recognition of water as a common good and a fundamental human right
  • The right of communities to self-manage water
  • The rejection of all forms of privatization, commercialization and commodification of water
  • The promotion of solidarity-based cooperation agreements between community systems
  • The defense of the territory and care of the environment
  • Environmental and administrative management that is transparent like water
  • The commitment to return wastewater to the watershed in its pure and original state
  • Proper management of sewage

We have launched three pilot projects in Colombia and Chile and aim to build on successes and lessons learned as we develop new initiatives in the region.

Cascajo Association, Colombia

Located in the municipality of Marinilla, department of Antioquia, Colombia, the organization has 880 families and provides water to a total of 3520 inhabitants. Cascajo has been recognized as one of the first community water systems in Colombia.

Cascajo has been fighting a series of problems related to pollution in the streams that provide drinking water, such as overgrazing, floriculture agribusiness, livestock and deforestation. In addition to this, pollution is generated by domestic solid and liquid waste, from pesticides and by deforestation of the areas that surround streams and springs and open land dumps.

For more than a decade the Association has sought strategies to strengthen its capacity to defend and protect community water management. The Board of Directors is made up of 12 people elected in a general assembly who represent the four villages served by the water system.

One of the organization’s objectives is to promote the importance of protecting water and community management among the younger generations. In order to achieve this objective, it has built alliances with universities and environmental groups in the region. The Association is also planning to build an ecological headquarters that will include a training center and serve as a regional hub on environmental knowledge-building, training and exchanges of experiences.

The association is a part of various networks and organizations including the Municipal Association of Community Water Systems of Marinilla (AMACOMA), the Departmental Association of Community Aqueducts of Antioquia (ADACA) and the National Network of Community Aqueducts of Colombia. The participation in these spaces has made it possible to join efforts for training and political advocacy with the aim of learning to care for and defend the social, environmental and cultural heritage that community water systems represent.

In 2020, as part of their involvement in the Blue Communities initiative, the Board of Directors held a series of workshops on the management of household solid and liquid waste in each of the villages serviced by the water system.

Association of Community Water Systems of Tasco (ASOACCTASCO), Colombia

Located in the municipality of Tasco, department of Boyaca, Colombia, this water community-based water system is confronted with numerous threats. Colombia has 50 per cent of the world’s moorlands, 18.3 per cent being located in the Boyacá territory. Communities living around Laguna del Oro Lake and in mountainous areas of the region have a strong historical and cultural relationship with water in this unique landscape known as the paramos (moorlands), where the frailejones (native plants of Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador) reach up to nine meters in height. The frailejones have adapted to the drastic climate conditions of the Andean highlands. They grow one centimeter a year and play a great role in the moors as they absorb water from the mist and preserve it. Today, this unique plant species is threatened by coal mining.

For more than 40 years, the association of community water systems has not only guaranteed the right to water but safeguarded the water sources of the area which guarantee the water supply for more than 10,000 people in Boyacá and the eastern plains region.

The Association implemented community monitoring of water to make sure it did not contain heavy metals. They began this process walking the territory to visualize the damage that mining was causing, and they made calls for citizen environmental hearings inviting organizations and institutions of the municipality and the department to bring the problem to the national level. The association has carried out legal actions and mobilizations in which social actors from the territory including schools, environmental groups and youth groups have participated. Also, popular pedagogical action through Itinerant Schools of Education and Training has strengthened local political organizing and the social fabric.

Finally, their advocacy actions have had a national impact. Among their many groundbreaking actions, in 2018, they managed to revoke the mandate of a mayor for the first time in Colombia. The revocation of politicians has been attempted 286 times elsewhere in the country, but only Tasco was successful, through citizen engagement, in revoking the mandate of a mayor who failed to comply with community agreements to care for and protect of water sources.

The ASOACCTASCO community association continues to fight extractive projects that threaten local including a recent struggle against fracking. In solidarity and in recognition of their inspiring work ASOACCTASCO was recognized as a Blue Community in 2019.

Communal Union of Rural Water Committees of Petorca River basin, La Union, Chile

This community water association is located in the Petorca river basin, in the Valparaíso region, Chile and it is made up of 25 Rural Drinking Water organizations (APR), divided into committees, cooperatives, neighborhood councils and communities in the most remote areas. The community of Petorca is the largest in the region, with the highest poverty rates. For 10 years, it has been experiencing a drought due to the climate crisis and the extraction of large amounts of water for the avocado agribusiness.

Communities in Petorca are surrounded by monoculture plantations and water grabbing that have been subsidized by the state in favor of large businesses while communities are supplied with water trucks in a country where water has been privatized since the Pinochet era.

As a result, La Union and the Office of Water Affairs of the municipality have enabled people in the region to organize against the systemic violations of the human right to water. Solidarity mingas are organized to enable community action and promote organizational strengthening for the defense of water as a common good.

Through the Blue Communities partnership, the PAPC has provided the association with resources to organize activities in the region to strengthen community water systems and promote territorial solidarity through environmental education. In addition, the association is working to strengthen their members by providing tools and promoting public agreements around water management.

Why is the Blue Communities Project important for Latin America?

In Latin America, the Blue Communities Project is an opportunity to build a new narrative. It makes visible the community-based alternatives to privatization that go beyond the public-state and recognizes the important role played by organized communities including peasants and Indigenous communities in guaranteeing the rights to water and sanitation through self-management.

The Blue Community certificate gives legitimacy and international recognition to the practices developed collectively in our communities. It is a distinction that links communities to social organizations and public institutions elsewhere who have made similar commitments. International recognition of our work for the defense of water strengthens experiences and enables the documentation and dissemination of the histories of our communities, as well as reciprocal exchanges with sister organizations from other parts of the continent and the world.