Traditional development or vivir bien? An analysis of the Bolivian ‘Gas War’ in 2003



Since Evo Morales’ arrival to the Palacio Quemado and the nomination of David Choquehuanca as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bolivian international policy has been marked by a rhetoric of environmentalism, defence of indigenous rights and cosmovisions, and the promotion of vivir bien (good living) as a new paradigm of development.[1]

                During the last nine years, however, many internal policies of the government were harshly criticised precisely for their lack of commitment to this ‘new paradigm’. The dispute over the construction of a highway in the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS), in which the government insisted on carrying out the project despite local indigenous resistance, was illustrative of the Morales leanings towards a more traditional sort of development. “There is no government in dispute between developmentalism and ‘vivir bien’, but an administration that has already defined its path: state capitalism, even though it keeps the eco-indigenist discourse – with some strength in the foreign affairs – as coverage and source of legitimacy and construction of the anti-capitalist mystique”, claims Pablo Stefanoni (2010, p. 171).

                Nevertheless, to say that the government does not comply with its own agenda of vivir bien does not mean necessarily that the concept is only an intellectualism, devoid of empirical relation to Bolivian society. In fact, scholars have highlighted the importance of the intense periods of mobilisations against neoliberalism that have shaken Bolivia from 2000 on and created the conditions for Morales to win the presidential elections in 2005. According to them, the main actors of this process were indigenous movements and their core dissatisfaction was against Bolivian “internal colonialism”, a long-standing feature of the local society translated into neoliberalism in the recent period.[2] Consequently, the new paradigms that follow a decolonising agenda, such as plurinationality[3] and vivir bien, would be originally found in the actions of the social movements of this period.

                Álvaro García Linera states that the popular struggle against the privatisation of water in Cochabamba in 2000 (the “Water War”) and the intense mobilisation for the nationalisation of natural gas in the department of La Paz in 2003 (the “Gas War”) demonstrated a defence of natural resources typical of indigenous and communitarian perceptions of life. The natural resources were seen as vital for the reproduction of the community and the official neoliberal policies were threatening an “agreed and negotiated relationship between the community and the forces of nature” (García Linera, 2004, p. 49).

This piece investigates the narratives that the actors of the mobilisations in 2003 both in the urban context, in the city of El Alto, and in the countryside, in the province of Omasuyos — have enacted to explain their struggle. What sort of perspective(s) on development do they express in their accounts? How much of them can actually be related to a vivir bien formulation, which emphasises the importance of living in harmony with nature and with the community? By investigating these issues in people’s actual perception of their struggle, this piece attempts to cast light on processes that mediate between the empirical and the normative dimensions of development.

 The ‘Gas War’ in 2003

The mobilisation started in September 2003, when Aymara peasant sectors of the highlands of the department of La Paz promoted two marches towards the seat of the government to demand the government’s compliance with a an agreement of more than 70 topics negotiated a couple of years before, but mostly ignored by the government. The peasants organised blockades in the main roads that connected La Paz to the rest of the country and, in an attempt to clear one of them, the army killed five people, including an eight-year-old girl, in Warisata on September 20.

Parallel to the peasant petition, many sectors of Bolivian society were already organising against a government’s plan to sell natural gas to the United States through a Chilean port. They denounced the low prices that the international consortium would pay for the gas, and the fact that Bolivia would not benefit from the business, since the processing plants were going to be installed in Chile.[4] Besides, Chile is considered an enemy nation because Bolivia lost its seacoast from it in the War of the Pacific, in 1879.

When the Warisata events happened, many were already mobilising on a national scale to stop this business and to demand the nationalisation of the gas industry.[5] With migrants from the highland countryside, alteños (inhabitants of El Alto) reacted forcefully against the killings and announced an open-ended and mobilised (with street blockades) civil strike for October 8, supporting the peasants, demanding the nationalisation of gas and the resignation of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. El Alto is part of the metropolitan area of La Paz and very soon its civil strike started to affect the seat of government’s provision of food and fuel. The government again reacted violently against the blockades. By 17 October 2003, when Sánchez de Lozada finally resigned, almost 60 people had been killed by the army.

Industrialisation and progress

Even though the demands and reasons for the mobilisation varied considerably according to the actors involved, it is reasonable to identify the nationalisation and the industrialisation of the gas as the main demands held by the mobilised population in El Alto. “The October agenda is not written, it’s present in people’s memory of the struggle. In this moment, there was no sense of ‘we’re fighting for that’. There was a clamour saying the gas is not going through Chile nor Peru: gas for Bolivians first. Nationalisation, industrialisation”, remembers Carlos Rojas, an activist who participated in the protests.[6]

The testimonies of the leadership of the Federation of Neighbourhood Councils (Fejuve) stress the lack of industrialisation and the exportation of products without added value as the main problems of Bolivia. Vicente Fernández, who was part of the executive committee of Fejuve during 2003, considers gas a key resource to revert this situation: 

We were analysing [those issues] in the political commission [of Fejuve], and we believed that gas could generate big transformations in the country, it could create a lot of jobs, it could contribute to the gross domestic product. It could generate a series of added values, if it were industrialised in the country, if it were not only sold as raw material. So, we had this analysis that this was a strategic product in Bolivia, and, therefore, the struggle was concentrated around the hydrocarbons.[7]

 These expectations are projected over Bolivia as whole, which could be a “developed” and “rich” country if the state acted in favour of the people, using the resources coming from gas: “We had a seminar with gas experts, and there they told us that many materials could be extracted from natural gas and oil, and that could make us rich in Bolivia (…). So, it’s very unfair that we Bolivians have all the resources (…), and our rulers are selling it all”, states Luis Flores, also a former member of Fejuve’s executive committee.[8] Along with the expectations of development comes also the comparison with other countries, particularly Bolivia’s neighbours. Felipa Catacora, a vice-president of Fejuve in 2013, remembers the motivations of the struggle in 2003 in these terms: 

[We wanted] the state to apply some policies that would help the population to move forward, as they do in the neighbouring countries, such as Peru, Chile, Brazil. Our compatriots go to these countries to work, there are better living conditions. Here, they don’t offer you anything. We had all the resources, we had analysed (…), but there was no capacity to properly manage the state. (…) We asked the government to establish industries in Bolivia, to improve living conditions, that there be more professionals, and that they have work in their own country, that they would not need to migrate from country to country.[9]

These testimonies indicate an idea of development which is very close to dependency theory: industrialisation, the idea of “catching-up” with more developed countries, and the state as a main actor to promote these tasks.[10] They are evidence of a deeply rooted left-wing and anti-imperialist tradition of thought, which have been promoted among alteños not only by intellectuals who were conducting workshops and seminars, but also by many of the local leaders, who were themselves affiliated with left-wing organisations.

Basic human needs

 On the other hand, the activists were able to translate the possible impact of industrialisation on their daily lives. According to their perspective, the industrialisation of natural resources would provide the state with enough capital to promote basic policies of welfare, translated into the idea of “needs” (necesidades). Vicente Fernández sees these needs as the main motivation for alteños to participate in the struggle in 2003:

 This was because of need. (…) Need of better living conditions, need of decent employment, need of a better future for your sons, need of so many basic issues. There were areas where there was no water, no energy, we used oil lamps, some streets were impassable. It was a difficult situation and people were in great need. So I think that this had motivated people to go out to the streets.[11]

Through such a lens, gas also symbolises a sort of development related to domestic facilities, since many households did not have access to it in 2003, and, when they did, they used bottled gas. “We had no piped gas. We had to queue [to buy it] (…). But there was [enough gas] to give to another country. This was a bigger problem than just giving our resources, because we did not have it ourselves”, explains Cipriana Apaza Mamani, who was also part of the Fejuve in 2003.[12]

The perception of these basic needs is related to the experience of the neighbourhood organisations, the juntas vecinales. When moving to a new area, the vecinos (neighbours) had to take the initiative to obtain funding and to contribute with their own work in order to have their basic needs covered, as Luis Flores recalls:

 When I was 27 years old I was a neighbourhood leader, when I bought a piece of land with my family here in Río Seco, District 4. We built our house to live, there was no light, no water, no basic services. (…) So, because I was in the junta I had to go and look for services, funding. We founded a school, because we needed one for the children to study. We started to apply for energy first, then drinking water in public taps at every corner. So, these were our first basic services to live as human beings.[13]

 This experience of self-construction (auto-construcción) helped to give alteños a different perception of citizenship and the way they perceive their rights regarding the state (Lazar, 2008, p. 70). Even though they believe the state is responsible for offering these services, they have an active stance in guaranteeing them through the neighbourhood organisation. Therefore, they are – and feel like – agents of the improvement of their lives.

This perception of development, related to the satisfaction of basic needs and the ‘empowerment’ of local organisations to carry out tasks that would otherwise be carried out by the state, is rooted in the recent history of El Alto and its development as a big city during neoliberal administrations. According to Sian Lazar, this reflects a “current development orthodoxy, neoliberal in focus, which seeks to minimize the state as far as possible, privatizing public service functions so that they are taken over by NGOs”. However, she emphasises, instead of promoting “individual citizens responsible for their own welfare”, the application of this policy in El Alto actually resulted in promoting an active citizenship based on collective groupings (Lazar, 2008, p. 70). The rhetoric of basic human needs can also be traced to a trend in development thinking from the 1970s on that would “expand the focus on economic growth with more social considerations” (Carballo, 2014).

Rural development and dignity

 Alteños, however, were not the only actors in the mobilisation in October, as seen earlier. Their peasant “brothers” were essential to ignite the “Gas War” and now we turn to their specific perspectives on development. As mentioned before, the Aymara peasant sector demanded the compliance by the government of an agreement of 70 topics, signed two years before, in August 2001. The agreement contained a strong element of local development, welfare and agrarian reform: donation of a thousand tractors; rural credit for small producers; a programme of rural development that would fund irrigation, road construction and technical support; social security policies to indigenous and peasant populations; new health centres; the expansion of the electricity and telecommunication networks in rural areas; and the donation of 3.8 million of hectares of fiscal lands to peasant and indigenous communities.[14] Felipe Quispe, the head of the national peasant confederation which was promoting the mobilisation, stated in his diary that the peasants and indigenous people were only asking for a “life of dignity”:

Our struggle is in order to have a life of dignity [vida digna] in our communities. In our homes, we do not have electricity, internet, telephone, health centres or hospitals; we keep healing ourselves with natural herbs and human urine. There are no roads and, because of that, we cannot take the agricultural products to the big cities. We do not have drinking water; we keep drinking it from the rivers, which are the same or even worse than the dirty waters from Rio Abajo, in Murillo province. We do not have irrigation in the communities; the people who live from the cultivation of the land have to look to the sky, day and night, waiting for the rain to come and freshen the pachamama (or the crops). People do not know the mechanization of the agriculture; we want agricultural machines in the ayllus and communities. (…) Some people even use human traction for ploughing, they do not even have animals, which were lost because of the difficult and miserable circumstances we are living. Our way of life in the countryside is sad. (Quispe Huanca, 2013, pp. 39–40)

Many peasant leaders would relate their difficult lives to the inequality between the city and the countryside, particularly regarding the prices of peasant products during the last period of neoliberal administration. Felipa Huanca, the head of the La Paz departmental federation of peasant women in 2013, who was already an important leader from Omasuyos during 2003, describes this tension:

What did the neoliberal governments do? They separated the countryside from the city. The city had more opportunities, better universities, private schools where people could study. In the countryside, [we had] nothing. As if we were not able to think, to do anything, this is how they wanted us to be. And this is why the struggle was so strong in 2003, 2004. In 2005, we had elections, we elected an indigenous president. At this stage, the Aymara, Quechua and Guarani peoples were already a majority, they could govern, we could govern ourselves. Because then we had two Bolivias, one Bolivia with good life conditions, with electricity, water, education, universities, everything, paved roads up to the doorstep. But the other was abandoned, it had no roads, its products were not valued. When they were deputies, when they were presidents, in one month they earned twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, eighty thousand. In one month. But what we produced in the countryside, an animal we raised in five, six years, how much would we sell it for? 300, 500 bolivianos. Now we sell it for five, six thousand. Before we sold it like that. A sheep, we have to raise it for three years, we would sell it for fifty bolivianos. Do you see the difference? Do you think it’s easy to produce, to be in the countryside? It isn’t. It’s cold, it rains, it’s windy. You have to bear everything. But if people don’t value your work, where do we stand? [15]

 Huanca accuses neoliberal governments of undermining the peasant population by allowing a devaluation of their production, a claim upheld by some studies. According to Mamerto Pérez, in 1998, the gross value of highland peasant production was cut by almost half compared to 1985, when neoliberal policies started to be applied (Pérez Luna 2003: 59, 2005: 73). It is possible to identify in Omasuyos the same trends seen in El Alto: a more traditional development perspective, centred on modernisation and industrialisation (construction of roads, mechanisation of agriculture), and another centred the coverage of basic needs, such as health, education and public services. They also expressed their frustration over an economic order that systematically undermined their work and central contribution to Bolivian society.

Living well or living better?

From these accounts, one could easily conclude that the idea of vivir bien was perhaps a more recent creation of Bolivian politics or that, even though it might be rooted in Bolivian social movements and indigenous groups, the ones that acted during October 2003 were not among them.[16] It is hard to identify an environment agenda in this mobilisation: there was no discussion on the impact of gas on global warming, indigenous movements were not complaining about the impact of deforestation, agrotoxins or genetically-modified organisms. Compared to the activists’ version of their struggle, García Linera’s characterisation of the “Gas War” as an event marked by resistance against a neoliberal attack on a “negotiated relationship between the community and the forces of nature” seems rather misplaced. The activists presented their petition based on current and traditional views of development and human needs.

                There is, however, one issue that is part of the elements of the concept of vivir bien that was clearly present for the actors of October 2003: the idea that they were being exploited, that someone was stealing their resources to live a better life and was condemning them to misery. This imbalance is not deemed to be natural or characteristic of human socialisation in Andean cultures. Xavier Albó, explaining the meaning of suma qamaña, the equivalent of vivir bien in Aymara, clarifies that suma already includes in itself the “greatest possible degree”. The Aymaras are “resistant to say ‘better’”, he explains, “because it is often understood as a group or individual that lives and is better the others, at their expense” (Albó, 2011, p. 135).

                Both alteños and Aymara peasants from Omasuyos organised their struggles around the image of some other collectivity that was taking advantage of them. In the case of the alteños, the image of the Chileans played a very important role:

They said they wanted to sell the gas to another country, to Chile. But we didn’t want that, because the Chileans have taken the sea, Antofagasta, from us with a war. Now we have a problem with the waters of River Silala, because the Chilean has free access to this water [gratis está viviendo con esta agua], uses it for irrigation, produces apples, grapes, kiwi, all these things. Because of that we started to struggle. How is it possible that Goni [Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada] wants to sell something that is ours to the Chileans? This is how it started.  Otherwise, there would be no Gas War.[17]

The testimony above, from Isabel Álvarez, an activist who participated in the mobilisations of October, depicts this popular idea that the Chileans are constantly taking advantage of the Bolivians. Moreover, Chile’s development is seen as something that was actually stolen from Bolivia, since the rich copper mines that were key to the country’s development during the whole twentieth century were in former Bolivian territory.[18]

Aymara peasants from Omasuyos identify a different collectivity that relates to this “taking advantage characteristic”: the q’ara people. Q’ara means naked, but is commonly used to depict white and mestizo people in the cities. Albó defines it as “equivalent to ‘uncivilised’, for not following the fundamental rule and objective of living together”, and this rule of socialisation is related to the idea of production, since the q’ara is seen as someone that “has nothing that is the fruit of her or his labour” (Albó, 2011, p. 136). When talking about the discrimination suffered while going to the sell her products in the city, Zenobia Chura clearly depicts this image of the q’ara:

People did not respect us, the indigenous people, in the city. “Oh, this indian, this dirty woman”, they cleaned themselves when they approached us. This was how things were in the city. (…) They showed disgust when they were close to us, it was always very extreme. (…) And I perceived it quite well, because I take the best sheep meat to sell [in the cities], to make money out of it. Potatoes, the best ones are for selling. I eat only the meat I cannot sell. Then I do it and they despise me, they discriminate against me. This is not right, you see? (…) It’s because the city people are like this, discriminatory. We didn’t like this. I take [my products] to the city to them, they don’t work, I take only the best things to sell. And they don’t respect me (…). There must be respect, I’ll respect him, he must respect me. I’m also a worker, I don’t depend on them. They don’t feed me. (…) We always had to greet them taking off our hats (…). I don’t know exactly why, but it left my heart in anger.[19]

Her testimony depicts a deep feeling of injustice, that it is not fair that peasant and indigenous people are treated with prejudice when they are the ones that guarantee that food is provided to the urban population. Even though there are many differences between this position and the anti-Chilean sentiment presented by some of the alteño activists, both of them depict this idea of having some type of resource being unfairly seized, and an expectation that a certain balance between the parts should be restored in order to obtain justice. The demands raised during October appeal to balance: that peasant production should be more valued, that the gas reserves should benefit Bolivian society instead of only benefiting other countries or transnational companies. A main idea that structures the concept of vivir bien, a socialising principle based on the harmony of the parts, was also structuring the struggles in October.

                This understanding of vivir bien, as an idea of balance opposed to the idea of vivir mejor (living better), is probably the way in which popular sectors in Bolivia make sense of the new development paradigm. As we have seen, these sectors have a comprehension of development that reflects many of the traditional and Eurocentric views of it, which also means that they have an understanding of their problems – “poverty”, “inequality between countries”, “lack of basic public services in rural and poor urban areas” – that also reflects the traditional problems that “development” would deal with. These understandings are rooted among social movements and it is unlikely that they would abandon them in the short or medium term. However, and this is the point to be emphasised in this conclusion, there is room for a popularisation of the concept of vivir bien precisely because of this normativity of fairness and balance also rooted and present amongst both urban and rural populations. Thus, we can and do expect that the new vivir bien normativity contributes significantly to the debates related to environmental problems and indigenous rights in Bolivia and might be used as a tool by the groups that are struggling on this front. This is particularly important if we consider that, despite all the official vivir bien rhetoric, these issues are not being treated with the seriousness they deserve both by state authorities and social sectors in Bolivia today.

Sue Iamamoto is a PhD Candidate at Queen Mary, University of London.


Albó, X. (2011). Suma qamaña = convivir bien. ¿Cómo medirlo? In I. Farah H. & L. Vasapollo (Eds.), Vivir bien: ¿Paradigma no capitalista? (pp. 133–144). La Paz: CIDES-UMSA; Sapienza Università di Roma; Oxfam.

Beling, A. E., & Vanhulst, J. (2014). Buen Vivir: New Wine in Old Wineskins? Alternautas, 1, 29–40. Retrieved from

Carballo, A. E. (2014). The Opportunity of Latin American Critical Development Thinking. Alternautas, 1, 6–16. Retrieved from

Farah H., I., & Vasapollo, L. (2011). Vivir bien: ¿Paradigma no capitalista? La Paz: CIDES-UMSA; Sapienza Università di Roma; Oxfam.

García Linera, Á. (2004). La crisis del Estado y las sublevaciones indígeno­plebeyas. In Á. García Linera, L. Tapia, & R. Prada Alcoreza (Eds.), Memorias de octubre (pp. 27–86). La Paz: Muela del Diablo.

Iamamoto, S. A. S. (2013). El nacionalismo boliviano en tiempos de plurinacionalidad. La Paz: Servicio Intercultural de Fortalecimiento Democrático, Tribunal Supremo Electoral.

Lazar, S. (2008). El Alto, Rebel City. Self and Citizenship in Andean Bolivia. Durham: Duke University Press.

Mamani Ramirez, P. (2004). El rugir de las multitudes. La fuerza de los levantamientos indígenas en Bolivia/Qullasuyo. La Paz: Aruwiyiri; Yachaywasi.

Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, B. (2010). Vivir bien. Mensajes y documentos sobre el Vivir Bien 1995-2010. La Paz.

Orgáz García, M. (2002). La guerra del gas. Nación versus Estado Transnacional en Bolivia. La Paz: Ofavin.

Pérez Luna, M. (2003). Apertura comercial y sector agrícola campesino. La otra cara de la pobreza del campesino andino. La Paz: Cedla.

Pérez Luna, M. (2005). ¿El último capítulo? Posibles impactos del ALCA en las comunidades campesinas e indígenas de Bolivia. La Paz: Cedla.

Presidency of the Republic Bolivia. (2004). The Blue Book: The Maritime Claim of Bolivia. La Paz: Presidency of the Republic; Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Puente, R. (2011). “Vivir bien” y descolonización. In I. Farah H. & L. Vasapollo (Eds.), Vivir bien: ¿Paradigma no capitalista? (pp. 345–364). La Paz.

Quispe Huanca, F. (2013). La caída de Goni. Diario de la “huelga de hambre.” Qullasuyo: Pachakuti.

Stefanoni, P. (2010). “Qué hacer con los indios...” Y otros traumas irresueltos de la colonialidad. La Paz: Plural.

Waldmüller, J. M. (2014). Buen Vivir, Sumak Kawsay, “Good Living”: An Introduction and Overview. Alternautas, 1, 17–28. Retrieved from

Webber, J. R. (2011). Red October. Left-Indigenous Struggles in Modern Bolivia. Leiden: Brill.


[1] The Ministry of Foreign Affairs edited an illustrative volume on the many documents and official speeches of Morales or Choquehuanca related to vivir bien (See Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, 2010). On the concept of vivir bien, see this blog’s last contributions from Johannes M. Waldmüller (2014), Adrien E. Beling and Julien Vanhulst (2014), and the volume edited by Ivonne Farah H. and Luciano Vasapollo (2011).

[2] See Rafael Puente (2011), Pablo Mamani Ramírez (2004) and Álvaro García Linera (2004).

[3] In a previous work, I have discussed at length the different concepts surrounding plurinationality in the context of the Constituent Assembly in Bolivia (Iamamoto, 2013).

[4] See Mirko Orgáz García (2002).

[5] On 19 September 2003, a national day of protest in defence of natural gas was called by Bolivia’s main social organisations (workers and peasants’ organisations at national levels, coca growers’ federations, sectors related to the struggle for water in Cochabamba), with demonstrations occurring in La Paz, Cochabamba, Oruro, Sucre and Potosí. The majority of the protesters were concentrated in La Paz and Cochabamba, where more than 50 and 20 thousand people gathered respectively (Webber, 2011, p. 207).

[6] Interview on 13 June 2013.

[7] Interview on 23 May 2013.

[8] Luis Flores, interview on 24 May 2013.

[9] Felipa Catacora, interview on 25 March 2013.

[10] See Ana E. Carballo’s article (2014) in this blog.

[11] Interview on 23 May 2013.

[12] Interview on 23 November 2012.

[13] Interview on 24 May 2013.

[14] Quispe includes the agreement as an annex in his diary (2013).

[15] Interview on 17 July 2013.

[16] There were a couple of movements before the election of Evo Morales that emphasised the need of a re-foundation of the country based on indigenous values, which would be closer to the vivir bien paradigm, particularly the march for the constitutional assembly in 2002, promoted by indigenous organisations from the lowlands (CIDOB) and from the highlands (CONAMAQ). Besides the constitutional assembly, one of the main demands of this march was the regulation of the right of prior consultation defined in the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention No. 169 (Iamamoto, 2013, p. 97). The right of prior consultation was one of the key elements of conflict in the TIPNIS dispute, from 2010 on.

[17] Isabel Álvarez, interview on 6 December 2012. Silala River is a source of dispute between Chile and Bolivia, since canalisations were built to carry water from its headwater to Chilean territory. In 2009, the Chilean government agreed to pay Bolivia for 50% of the waters .

[18] Consider Walter Montenegro’s statement in 1987: “Until now, Chile has exported more than 20 million tons of copper (…). With much justification, Salvador Allende qualified Chuquicamata as the ‘salary of Chile’. A salary that Bolivia has been paying for a century with the resources provided by mines situated in the territory that was once hers” (Montenegro in Presidency of the Republic Bolivia, 2004).

[19] Zenobia Chura, interview on 15 July 2013.