Access to water, and its de-privatisation are the two daily objectives of the Modatima spokesman, who has, in the last year, become famous for the awards he has won internationally. He is quick to connect this daily struggle with the demands of the protests that started in Chile on the 18th October, 2019. Whether he’s talking about the misuse of water or about the demands for justice that motivate thousands of protestors, for Rodrigo Mundaca the responsibility lies with inequality and politicians who are simply not good enough at the job they’re meant to be doing.
By Jennifer Abate C.
Rodrigo Mundaca has always lived a simple life in his house in La Ligua neighbourhood of Santiago. He washes, he irons, he goes out for an occasional ice-cream, he enjoys sitting in the public square. A quiet life. But his life of the last few months has been quite another matter. As Secretary and Spokesperson for Modatima (the Movement in Defence of the Protection of Water, the Earth and the Environment), he has placed the theme of the exploitation of common natural assets (he avoids calling them “natural resources” because of the extractivist character of this concept) at the centre of international discussion, which recently saw him being awarded the Nuremberg International Human Rights Award for his fight for equal access to water for all communities.
It has come at a personal cost not only of the unwanted fame of taking part in TV debates and interviews, but also of the disruption to his daily life. Mundaca has been attacked by prominent politicians for calumny and slander, and he recently had to put up with the online circulation of a picture of his face photo-shopped with a shot to the head. He also had to take out a writ of protection against the General Director de Carabineros (Chilean police force) after finding out that he had, along with other political and academic leaders, been identified as “a person of interest” by police intelligence. As a direct result of his environmental activism one of his children was threatened with kidnap.
Rodrigo Mundaca is secretary and spokesperson for Modatima (the Movement in Defence of the Protection of Water, the Earth and the Environment). Credited by: Alejandra Fuenzalida.
So why does he persevere, as he has done for 25 years, since he first worked as an agricultural engineer with the rural workers of Petorca (an agricultural region north of Santiago)? “Because there is an ethical and moral imperative, and because it’s common sense. I did what I had to do, it was my ethical duty, I couldn’t do anything else; I couldn’t do consulting for the wealthy to help them deprive others of water. I think that there comes a moment in ones life when people have to take decisions. Sometimes those decisions are right, sometimes they’re wrong, but one has to be at peace with oneself. I absolutely don’t regret the decisions I took.”
The current demonstrations in Chile are attributed to the people being unhappy with the privatisation of their basic rights. What is your analysis of why this unrest began?
One week before the famous 18th October, secondary school students, particularly those who had been harshly repressed –I’m talking about the students from the Instituto Nacional and the criminal way in which the Mayor of Santiago, Felipe Alessandri treated them–, came up with a slogan “Fare-dodging, don’t pay; another way of fighting”. I think that action was the final straw and inspired thousands of people throughout the country to go out and protest in the streets, because the political and economic elite have for over 30 years been enriching themselves through the privatisation of workers, health, education, and at the cost of decent housing and common assets, in particular water and land rights. I think that we’re experiencing a national uprising and since the 18th October we have realised the level of profound unhappiness with the basic model of this society.
What is your analysis of the agreement among politicians to undertake a constitutional process?
It’s an agreement undertaken by political parties who have parliamentary representation, a agreement taken with the support of the social movement, and an agreement which, in practical terms, is a lifejacket for the government that is, right now completely de-legitimised, with a 9% approval rating and an extraordinarily bad record on human rights violations. The government contains a percentage of that caste of society that is directly responsible for the model of despoilment of our lands, a caste that has administered the state occupying important ministerial and sub-secretarial posts, who have also, upon leaving public office, moved into administering pension funds, Isapres (Chilean health insurance funds), hydroelectric companies, or logging companies. This is a caste that is characterised by a sort of musical chairs, and which has been unable to give any answers to the real demands made by the people.
What path should the political establishment have taken to lead the country out of the crisis?
It’s important to realise that it’s the social movement that has moved the goalposts. What are we hoping for? Definitely to continue moving the goalposts, and it’s essential that the social movement takes a lead role. Because in this social movement there is no difference between the social and the political: the social movement is profoundly political. We are fighting for water rights, and that’s a profoundly political demand that is intimately linked to changing the political Constitution of the 1980s.
Are you hopeful that the agreements that have been reached will force the logic of politics to change?
It’s true that it’s incredibly important to recover the pension funds of the workers, and to re-establish healthcare and education as rights, but there are some issues that aren’t being addressed with enough energy, such as how the origin of the inequalities in the country are linked to the appropriation of common natural assets. I believe that there’s an absolute separation from the ruling caste, and that a part of this ruling caste has to step aside. And they will, because the social movement will force them to. They can’t demonstrate today, they can’t manifest in the street. I’d be deeply ashamed to be part of the political elite, or a parliamentarian and not be able to protest on the street. It’s an absolute contradiction because it’s assumed that people go into politics for the common good, but these people can’t even go out onto the streets because they get hit, or spat at, because politicians and politics have sunk so low in the public esteem. Let me put it another way, in a way that everyone on the street would understand: they can fuck off; there’s a part of the political elite who are worth nothing, who are useless, and who are responsible for what’s happening in our land.
Talking about the problems affecting the land, tell us about what you’re involved with: water. Why do you argue that what’s happening in Petorca has to do with exploitation and not drought?
The province of Petorca is the national epicentre of the violation of the human right to water. Everyone knows what’s happening there, from Nuremberg, Paris, Madrid, everyone knows that in Petorca the production of avocadoes is more important than human life. 140km from the capital more than 70% of the local population has to drink water imported on a truck because the rivers have dried up and there’s been no surface run-off from the rivers for over 15 years. A handful of well-known politicians and businessmen arrived in the region in the 1990s; they destroyed the local flora and fauna and established avocado plantations. Can you do that in Chile? Of course you can, because there’s no law about agricultural use of land so a well-connected businessman or a politician could, if they wanted to, destroy the flora and fauna of the Santa Lucia or San Cristóbal hills in the middle of Santiago and plant avocadoes.
Do you think that some of the current crisis in access to water is linked to the impact of drought?
If the drought were real and not a result of climate change or human intervention it’d be evenly spread and we’d all be affected. But when you travel around certain regions you see huge avocado plantations, or grape plantations, that are overflowing with water, while other areas of land, other regions, primarily land belonging to rural small-scale landowners, have lost water and land in recent years.
What’s the way out of this? In Valparaíso you participate in the Work Group dedicated to water that includes people from both the social and political spheres, which is quite unusual.
In the 5th Region we’ve had quite an unprecedented experience. We set up this regional working group and we’ve travelled around the entire region to canvas for initiatives from the people for the democratisation of water. We have a detailed document that diagnoses what happens throughout the region and that makes several logical demands such as the elimination of Article 19, point 24 of the national Constitution (which consecrates the private property right of water), the establishment of a public agreement on water, the restitution of water rights on the land, establishing a new water institutionality, establishing priorities of use etc. But I’ve come to the conclusion –and maybe I’ll have to change the goalposts of the declarations– that if there isn’t a real revolution in the country with concrete and radical change in the pattern of plundering that wracks the country, if there isn’t a concrete and radical change lead by the working class, by the poor and the lower-income sectors of society, then we’ll simply fall into the “same-old, same-old” politics that has always plagued Latin America: everything changes and everything stays the same.