Case studies

Water Solutions

Case 8: Indigenous Peoples’ Struggles for Water in Ecuador: The Case of Licto


Entrenched inequality and marginalization impacts indigenous peoples across the world. In Ecuador, as elsewhere, this inequality is racialized. Local indigenous peoples have struggled to define and take control of water resources for irrigation in this context. ********* Rutgerd Boelens raises the case of Licto, a zone in the Andean Chimborazo province in Ecuador, to illustrate the power that indigenous communities can have when working in solidarity to develop their own priorities and systems for management of water for irrigation. Licto has a population of approximately 13,000, of whom 90 per cent are indigenous, represented in 28 rural communities, with more privileged white and mestizo (mixed race) groups heavily represented in the actual town of Licto. Boelens characterizes the history of social and power relations between white and mestizo power groupings and the surrounding indigenous communities as based on exploitive trade relationships, expropriation of land and discrimination (Boelens, 2002). Women do most of the work of irrigation in ecologically challenging contexts of steep, eroding slopes in the “minifundio” or smaller plots, to live through subsistence and local trade. Ecuadoran drinking water from hoseIn 1989 the Corporation of Peasant Organisations of Licto (CODOCAL) was invited to participate in an “integrated rural development” plan for irrigation in the area overseen by the Ecuadorian Institute of Water Resources (INERHI). In response, the poorest elements of society in the rural indigenous communities decided to decline the invitation and to construct their own futures in terms of water management. On the government side, INERHI offered a technocratic and top-down plan for irrigation works in the region that split responsibility for implementation of the plan between CODOCAL and an NGO, the Ecuadorian Agricultural Services Agency (CESA). The initial technical plan offered by the government reinforced the unequal rights enjoyed by the wealthy in Licto, however. It also ignored the valid concerns of women – the principal workers in irrigation – by setting out plans for irrigation work to be done at night, when indigenous women are more vulnerable to persistent sexual violence. Continuing an already unequal system, INERHI’s plan would result in those owning more land benefitting disproportionately from a share of greater investment and more water rights. The plan also included a single fee for water service that did not respect existing indigenous systems of users’ rules for water access, based on the labour of users and their participation in organizations dedicated to irrigation and water management. As a response, CODOCAL pushed for creating an irrigation governing body (the Irrigation Directorate) that would represent the interests of rural indigenous communities, and that eventually attracted solidarity from the poorer residents of the town of Licto itself. Despite resistance from the government to CODOCAL’s counter-proposal, the Irrigation Directorate forged legitimacy for itself as a body representing the poor and marginalized in their efforts to secure the right to manage their own water for irrigation. CODOCAL has worked effectively to dictate the terms of indigenous participation in irrigation management, including structures for participatory management and defined responsibilities for users’ labour and maintenance contributions, as well as sustainable water use for the indigenous and poor. Boelens comments that “in Licto . . . [the indigenous irrigation management strategy] constitutes a basic instrument for communities to challenge State power and management in the system, and also constitutes the keystone of the peasant and indigenous organisation in its drive to break free from their historical domination by the town’s white and mestizo families.”


  • How can we build into public water projects attentiveness to inequalities and injustice stemming from gender, economic position and race/ethnicity?
  • How can collective water management projects work to foster inter-cultural, gender and class solidarity?
  • Are notions of the Commons inherently culture-specific or geography-specific? How might notions of the Commons stemming from contexts like rural, indigenous communities in the Andes be applied in urban contexts in advanced industrialized countries?

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