Reviewing Revolt: The Price of Fire, New Book on Latin America Protest Movements

Through personal observations and interviews with social activists, Dangl tells the story of these social movements which have led to the election of Evo Morales in January 2006.  Will Morales be able to bring about the reforms for which he was elected?  This is the question that hangs over much of the book.

Dangl devotes a chapter to each of the crucial social struggles in Bolivia, at times making comparisons with similar movements in neighboring South American states.  He looks first at the “war against drugs” quoting one of the cocaleros (small farmers of coca) “This is not a war against narco-traffickers; it is a war against those who are working to survive.”  Evo Morales first came to national attention as one of the cocaleros who are grouped into a powerful federation of unions of local growers.  These unions control the sale of coca leaves in the legal market and work against the militarization of the countryside with its increasing violence.  From the coca unions grew the Movement toward Socialism which became the political vehicle of Evo Morales.

Another social movement, more localized than the struggle to continue growing coca for legal use, was the struggle against the control of water by the Bechtel Corporation in the city of Cochabanba.  The control of water supplies is becoming an issue worldwide as pure water becomes increasingly rare.  The supply, purification and treatment of water has become increasingly under the control of a small number of transnational corporations such as the US firm Bechtel.  National governments and municipalities are giving over water supplies to private companies with the idea that private companies are more highly specialized or effective.  However, there is often a monopoly in the distribution of water; prices go up, and springs or streams which had been providing water for free are taken over by the water companies. 

People in Cochabamba organized to protect their access to water at low cost.  The people organized outside the existing political parties and the traditional labor unions. The capacity of “self-organization” of people to meet their basic needs is one of the major themes of The Price of Fire.  Out of such struggles new leadership is found, and new skills are sharpened.

If water is essential for peoples’ lives, so is land.  There is in Bolivia as in Brazil and Paraguay, a movement of landless farmers to occupy land and often to farm it in a cooperative way.  In Bolivia, a country largely dependent on agriculture, conflicts over land have arisen in numerous ways.  Cattle ranching, the expansion of the soy industry and mineral exploration have put strains on land use and distribution.  Ben Dangl quotes a landless farm leader: ” Land is a center of power.  He who has land has power.  We are proposing that this land be redistributed.”  But the redistribution of land and thus power is usually met by resistance of those who currently have power.  Bolivia has proved no exception, and some of the sharpest struggles have concerned land use and possible land reforms. 

It was, however, the conflict over gas with the cry “The Gas is Not For Sale” that had the most internal and external political impact.  As Dangl writes: “The conflict that manifested itself in Bolivia was part of a larger global resource crisis.  Whether over water, land, or food, resource wars have grown in recent years, the bloodiest focusing on access to oil in the Middle East.” Demands for gas nationalization unified diverse social and labor groups into a nationwide mobilization for change. He writes,”Gas War protesters demanded a state-run gas and oil industry that could industrialize gas within Bolivian borders to benefit the population.  This meant not only better access to gas, but more revenue for social programs.”  The movement for the nationalization of Bolivia’s gas expressed the need to regain access to basic resources and services.  The compromise agreement on the ‘Gas War’ was not an all-out expropriation of the industry, but greater state power over the gas and oil business.

Nevertheless, Ben Dangl sees in such social movements for control over resources the key to the future. In his conclusions he states “Neoliberalism has dug its own grave in Latin America, and new alternatives, both in the street and the state, are evolving over access to basic resources, such as land, coca, water, and gas, have opened new windows of possibility for change.  The recent elections of left of center leaders throughout Latin America is a sign that regional economic integration is an attainable goal.  However, if these new leaders and economic alliances fail to reverse destructive policies, social movements know what they want and how to make themselves heard…Instead of marching for change, their march is the change.”  

The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia By Benjamin Dangl

(Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2007, 226pp.)

Order The Price of Fire from AK Press or Amazon

To see the schedule for the author’s current book tour visit 

Rene Wadlow is the editor of and an NGO representative to the United Nations, Geneva.