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The conditions for the reproduction of the SAGUAPAC water cooperative in the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia: discourse analysis

Les conditions de la reproduction de la coopérative de l'eau SAGUAPAC dans la ville de Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivie: analyse du discours
Florence Bétrisey


The SAGUAPAC cooperative in the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra (Eastern Bolivia) is regularly presented as an example of cooperative successes regarding water supply and sanitation. Its efficiency, both economic and technical, is widely considered as the main reason for its reproduction. However, without denying its importance, we show, through a discourse analysis from and about SAGUAPAC in local media, that moral and non-instrumental factors are crucial in the reproduction of the cooperative. These factors create attachment and affection toward the cooperative, through a storytelling technique using a four-dimensional rhetoric (mythification, identification, emotionalisation and personification). This storytelling technique, internalized in the local media discourse and materializing the so-called new spirit of capitalism, exploits the affects and instrumentalises local myths and legends, as well as the ‘camba’ ethnic identity. In that, it tends to retain SAGUAPAC members and to canvass new ones, by providing them with recognition in their quality of local community members. However, the mobilisation of social norms and power hierarchies might end up reinforcing the social exclusion of Andean non-camba immigrants, inspite of an a priori inclusive and democratic organisation of the cooperative.

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The author acknowledges the work of her research assistants Mrs Luz Natalia Mercado Callau (2014) and Mr Christian Paul Nogales Funez (2013) and their commitment towards this investigation. The author is also thankful to Mr. Manuel Suarez Avilla for his precious help in obtaining interviews with municipal and departmental authorities. The author finally acknowledges the Institute of Geography and Sustainability of the University of Lausanne (Switzerland) for having financially supported the fieldwork phases in 2013 and 2014. However, the opinions and views outlined in this article are those of the author and do not represent those of her research assistants, of Mr. Manuel Suarez Avilla or of her sponsor.


1After the Cochabamba ‘Guerra del Agua’ in 2000—a popular revolt that followed a decision of the municipality of Cochabamba to privatize drinking water infrastructure and that contributed to the fall of the Hugo Banzer government—and another protest in 2008 in the city of La Paz-El Alto, urban water governance in Bolivia has been the subject of various investigations (Hoffmann 2005, Poupeau 2008, Hardy 2009, Hardy and Poupeau 2014). The management and governance of urban water supply of the three main cities of Bolivia (La Paz-El Alto, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz de la Sierra), has however known different trajectories, leading to distinct results. In Cochabamba, after the water war, a new system of joint management between the state and community was established in 2004, aiming to combine logics of profitability with principles of reciprocity and sharing (Hoffmann 2005). This system, however, has still not proven its efficiency: 40% of the city’s inhabitants do not have regular access to drinking water, especially in the southern barrios (slums), where informal small user cooperatives (grouped in a local federation) receive financial and technical help from national and international donors (Achtenberg 2013). In La Paz-El Alto, the water provision network was first managed by a public enterprise whose corruption problems were well known (Hardy 2009). To solve these problems, international institutions recommended the privatization, and made it one of their conditions for the granting of new credits to Bolivia. A concession was then granted to the Aguas del Illimani Consortium, whose main shareholder was the French Suez Group, in 1997. In 2004, associations of inhabitants from marginalized neighbourhoods started calling for the departure of this private company. In 2007, the Evo Morales government decided to end the private concession and created the public enterprise Empresa Pública Social del Agua y Saneamiento (EPSAS). The government invested 18.5 million UDS in indemnities to end the concession and to create the EPSAS (Hardy 2009: 6). Even if this company increased water connections by 40%, it is still today ‘highly dependent on international aid for investments in infrastructure’ (Buxton et al. 2013: 1) and does not reach every neighbourhood of the city (Hardy and Poupeau 2014).

2If both Cochabamba and La Paz-El Alto’s urban water governance have experienced several reforms, even revolutions, the urban water governance of the eastern metropolis of Santa Cruz de la Sierra has remained quite stable. For the past 35 years, SAGUAPAC, the world’s largest water-users cooperative within an urban area, has been reigning over the city and providing high-quality water services at an affordable price to its members. However, Santa Cruz urban water management and the SAGUAPAC cooperative have not been the subject of many investigations, compared to Cochabamba and La Paz cases. Working papers and grey literature have mostly described the SAGUAPAC cooperative, its internal organization, water-related technologies and infrastructure, as well as quality and efficiency of its production (Nickson 1998, Yavari 2005, Ruiz-Mier and van Ginneken 2006), but they have not questioned its emergence or the conditions of its reproduction along its 35 years of existence.

3Considering the cooperative as a socio-political construct that is produced and reproduced through the practice of its members and that depends on local context, representations and power structure, this paper aims to understand and question these conditions of reproduction. After a first analysis of SAGUAPAC communication documents (articles in newspaper, reports, blogs and its Facebook page) we proceed to an analysis of the perceptions of SAGUAPAC conveyed in El Deber, the major local newspaper, through a diachronic analysis of opinion articles (posted by local citizens) and local journalist articles (posted between 1979 and 2013), combined with interviews with local formal and informal authorities, journalists and members of SAGUAPAC staff, conducted in 2013 and 2014.

4As a result, we will highlight the importance of the storytelling technique used by SAGUAPAC to establish its success and survival. We also highlight how this discourse is based on local camba/cruceño socio-cultural representations and internalized within local media discourse. These socio-cultural and moral factors, combined with political factors (strong ties with local elite), have favoured the permanence of the cooperative by building a legitimacy positioning it as a major promoter of local identity and development.

Santa Cruz de la Sierra urban governance and water management

5In fewer than 50 years, the once-sleeping city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Eastern lowland Bolivia evolved from a small town—43,000 inhabitants in 1950 (Kirshner 2008-2010)—to ‘the economic driving force of the country’ (Waldmann 2008: 26, pers. trans.). The main center of the most productive Bolivian department—with the highest GDP of all departments (Kirshner 2010) and HDI scores higher than the national average (UNDP 2004)— is attracting a high number of immigrants, 494,148 immigrants in 2001 (INE 2001), that are mostly coming from rural areas and especially from the Altiplano rural region (due to national relocation policies and support encouraging a ‘March to the East’ aiming to convert Western miners into Eastern peasants after the collapse of mining industry in the Altiplano). As a result, the city became a metropolis, reaching 1,453,590 inhabitants in 2012 (INE 2012), nesting a very diverse population, forming a ‘social conglomerate of native and immigrants and at the same time represent[ing] a super-structure, an andino-amazonico creole culture’ (Mazoni 2005: 153, pers. trans.). Despite its image of prosperity and the attraction of headquarters of various international companies (Kirshner 2013), infrastructure, equipment and public spaces of the city, although improving, are still considered to be ‘precarious’ (Mazoni 2005), especially in the ‘outer urban areas’ (Kirshner 2008-2010: 163). The city is also the epicenter of dengue disease in Bolivia (Donnat et al. 2011). These low-quality infrastructures, the dengue prevalence, or the different population groups are heterogeneously distributed throughout the city (Donnat et al. 2011). Indeed, the city knows a pregnant socio-spatial segregation (Mazoni 2005), particularly between the neighbourhoods outside the 4th ring, considered as barrios where immigrants are located and informal activities take place, and the central neighbourhoods, location of well-established households and financial activities. This situation is the result of deficiencies in city planning from the 1960’s to modern days and of the adoption of neoliberal reforms at a national level that ‘marked a shift to a market-driven approach to urban development’ (Kirshner 2013: 547). Since the 1980’s, the municipal government gradually has pulled out of city planning, letting the ‘real estate capitalism fill the breach’ (ibid.). According to Prado et al. (2005: 165, pers. trans.), this led to the ‘depreciation […] not only of public spaces, but also of the public thing in general: green spaces are lost, many responsibilities and activities are privatised, and public action is devaluated, depreciated compared to private management’. This corresponds to a neoliberal city governance model, which implies a reduction of the weight of the public regulations administrative sector in urban management and translates into the rise of market-oriented projects, public-private partnerships and joint ventures, transforming existing institutional arrangements into market-based projects, which favour consumption. Neoliberal urbanism often comes along with a splintering urbanism (Botton and de Gouvello 2008), reinforcing socio-spatial fragmentation in urban areas ‘through process of unbundling urban services’ (op. cit.: 1869).

6Today, the city of Santa Cruz is more than ever linked to the global economy and promoted by local business elite, together with the municipal government, as ‘a harbinger of Bolivia’s future and points to a new paradigm in the country’s urbanism, one in which individualism, entrepreneurship and free markets prevail’ (Kirshner 2013: 552). These entrepreneurial urbanism and market logics also coexist with a powerful informal sector (Ruiz Zelada 2014) and with a very well-established cooperative sector that provides electricity, water and communication services to the city population. The first utility cooperative created was the Cooperativa Rural de Electrificacion (CRE) in the 1960’s. The CRE cooperative nowadays provides electricity to more than 250,000 members (CRE 2014), located in the whole Santa Cruz department, including remote rural areas. It was followed by the telecommunication cooperative Cooperativa de Telecomunicaciones Santa Cruz (COTAS), funded in 1965, that currently provides private and public phone, cable TV and internet services to more than 100,000 members and received the Medalla al Mérito Municipal in 2010 (COTAS 2010). Finally, the water and sanitation cooperative SAGUAPAC (Cooperativa de Servicios Públicos Santa Cruz Ltda) was founded in 1979. The cooperative model was then chosen mostly because the ‘tradition of small scale co-operative banking was already well-established in Santa Cruz’ (Nickson 1998: 2). This decision had also been facilitated by the low level of development of private sector and neglect from central government combined with low resources of local government.

The development of SAGUAPAC

7We can distinguish 3 phases in the development of the SAGUAPAC cooperative. The first one follows its creation in 1979 and can be considered as embryonic (low coverage, few members) but self-developed thanks to the obtaining of the redistribution of 11% of the national regalias from the oil industry (in 1959) and to members’ contributions. The second phase consists of a rapid development during the 1990’s, thanks to external funding making the cooperative able to follow and cope with the rapid growth of the city. Finally, since the 2000’s, SAGUAPAC has entered into what can be considered a stabilization phase: its water supply system is completely self-financed and loans are obtained to improve sanitation system, by means including innovative measures (new process of water treatments and biogas production from used water) that are rapidly and easily paid off. Like other water cooperatives, SAGUAPAC also benefits from the political support of Evo Morales’ government. Indeed, after the Cochabamba ‘Guerra del Agua’ of 2000 and another protest in 2008 in the city of La Paz-El Alto, the Morales government promulgated a new water law that promotes decentralized management of water through public or cooperative structures and recognizes access to drinking water as a human right. This law also aims to monitor (through the creation of a national authority for the audit of water cooperatives, the Autoridad de Fiscalizacion y Control Social de Agua Potable y Saneamiento Basico, AAPS) and to provide technical assistance to the 28,000 local water and sanitation providers existing in Bolivia (Achtenberg 2013). The Bolivian government remains the formal owner of all underground resources, including water, and is responsible for the provision of drinking water to every citizen. The government, however, is allowed to give concessions to non-profit enterprises for the provision of such services, especially in urban areas. The concession granted to SAGUAPAC covers two-thirds of the urban area, including the central (until 4th ring) and well-off Northern districts. It encompasses some of the neighbourhood with most Andean immigrants, that are also recognized as the poorest and marginalzed neighbourhood (Blanchard 2006, Traverso 2013) but not all of them. In areas located out of its concession (mostly poor and informal neighbourhoods, located after the 4th ring), small and pre-existent water cooperatives are in charge of providing water. They are contemporary, and sometimes predecessors, of SAGUAPAC, but the quality of the service they produce is generally inferior to SAGUAPAC’s service (anonymous, journalist, 29.07.14). Even if they rely on SAGUAPAC for the sewage system, these small cooperatives refuse to merge with SAGUAPAC. SAGUAPAC affirms that changing the existing water infrastructure in these barrios is more costly than creating a new one in new barrios and is therefore not especially interested in absorbing these small cooperatives (anonymous, SAGUAPAC, 22.10.2013).

The structure of SAGUAPAC

8The current structure of SAGUAPAC follows the cooperative model: the water-users, called socios, are members of SAGUAPAC and owners of the water supply and sanitation infrastructure developed by the cooperative. Due to its big size, SAGUAPAC has quite a complex representative structure. The concession accorded by the State is divided into 9 districts. In each district, 3 representatives of the members are elected to form the general assembly that is the main decision-making organ of the cooperative. This assembly elects an administration board (which is in charge of approving the budget, tariff increases and electing the General Manager) and a supervision council (comité de viligencia) in charge of controlling the boards’ work and conducting external audits. Participation in the elections and in assembly reporting meetings is quite low, which has been interpreted by SAGUAPAC as ‘a tacit approval of the performance of cooperative’ (Nickson 1998: 3). Regarding water pricing, SAGUAPAC has ‘a social tariff structure with different price levels for home consumption, commercial use, industrial use and specific issues (hospitals, public schools, government offices, etc.). Tariffs are also dependent on consumption levels and increase every 15 cubic meters’ (Yavari 2005: 39). SAGUAPAC also accepts staggered payments for monthly water bills and for the initial water connection payment. SAGUAPAC ‘does not contract out any of its operational and maintenance activitie’, nor did it ‘engaged in benchmarking or market testing in a systematic manner’ (Ruiz-Mier and van Ginneken 2006: 17). On this basis, World Bank specialists consider SAGUAPAC’s market orientation to be ‘very limited’ (ibid.). SAGUAPAC cooperative defines itself as a ‘private entity, non-profit, made up by the voluntary association of individuals that have common needs and bring capital to create an entity whose specific goal is to satisfy these common basic needs that can be economic, social or cultural’ (SAGUAPAC s.d., pers. trans.). This citation shows how SAGUAPAC considers itself as more than a water service provider, linked to local population needs and development. SAGUAPAC affirms to follow the cooperative doctrine in applying ‘principles of mutual help and support, focusing on promoting community development’ (SAGUAPAC s.d., pers. trans.) and conducting ‘corporate social responsibility’ programs, acting for the ‘common good’ (SAGUAPAC 2013a: 5, pers. trans.) of the whole regional community, beyond its socios. Concretely, it offers primary goods and water tanks to marginalized rural communities and organizes environmental education campaigns. A SAGUAPAC representative mentioned these activities as the responsibility of ‘every member of the Crucenian community’ but also as a good way of ‘transmitting the cooperative culture to children and their families’ (anonymous, SAGUAPAC, 22.10.2013, pers. trans.), as well as contributing to retain socios and canvassing new ones. Moreover, SAGUAPAC, as well as the other small water cooperatives operating in Santa Cruz, provides a wide range of co-benefits for the socios. The small water cooperatives, as well as the CRE and COTAS cooperatives provide free health insurance or free funeral services, which are provided to every member of the cooperative. On its hand, SAGUAPAC provides free workshops and classes on ‘micro-enterpreneurial activities’ (SAGUAPAC s.d.). These co-benefits are highly valued by the local population and contribute to the building of perception of the cooperative by the members and local community in general (anonymous, journalist, 29.07.14).

The technical and economic performance of SAGUAPAC

9World Bank experts considered SAGUAPAC’s general level of performance as ‘very good’ according to their standards (Yavari 2005). First, regarding efficacy, the quality of drinking water has been recognized as the best in Bolivia and one of the best in Latin American cities (The World Bank 2002). Water is available ‘99.92 percent of the time’ (Ruiz-Mier and van Ginneken 2006: 9) to 99.2% of people located in the SAGUAPAC concession area. Sewage is available to 62.3% of them (SAGUAPAC 2012). Regarding management efficiency, SAGUAPAC has obtained an ISO 9001 certification in 2008 that asserts the quality of the management system, based on principles like ‘strong customer focus, the motivation and implication of top management, the process approach and continual improvement’ (International Organisation of Standardization (ISO, s.d.). Its working ratio (one of main criteria to assess efficiency of management) is of 0.55, which is considered as ‘satisfactory’, according World Bank guidelines (Ruiz-Mier and van Ginneken 2006: 9). SAGUAPAC is also known for providing good working conditions, which translates into low absenteeism and staff turnover and allows SAGUAPAC to take ‘full advantage of personnel with years of training and experience’ (Ruiz-Mier and van Ginneken 2006: 10). SAGUAPAC has also proven its innovation capacity through the development of a system of biogas production out of sewage water, the development of which was mainly financed by a loan from the World Bank. Other loans from the International Bank of Development and the World Bank (that transited through the municipal government) have been used to improve sewage- and water-treatment infrastructures. All of the loans have always been paid back in time, sometimes even before the agreed-upon deadlines (anonymous, SAGUAPAC, 22.10.2013).

10However, even if it is an undeniable element and argument in the cooperative discourse, the rise and permanence of SAGUAPAC cannot be explained only by the quality of the service produced as well as high coverage and efficiency in the provision of services. Considering cooperatives as socio-political constructs, we assess that, besides its technical and economic performance, SAGUAPAC development and reproduction within a rapidly changing political and economic environment is also related to socio-cultural, moral and political factors.

11First of all, let us remind that cooperatives are subject to a high diversity of histories and governance structures, encompassing different modes of institutionalizing the economic process, like redistribution, reciprocity and market exchange. Some common features can nevertheless be identified. Cooperatives are private enterprises that are collectively owned, cannot be considered as capitalist (Bakker 2008) and are not ‘oriented towards accumulation of capital but rather towards the satisfaction of social needs’ (Lemaître et al. 2011: 165). Cooperatives can be considered either as an alternative to private and public governance of water services (third-sector approach) or as a hybrid mode of governance, combining and articulating at its heart different economic logics (institutionalist approach).

12The third-sector approach considers cooperatives as emerging out of a shared necessity, in a context where both public and capitalist management are not able to satisfy people’s needs. Ostrom (1990) has added some preconditions to the emergence of cooperatives (considered as a manifestation of collective action): the existence of shared social norms, trust and reciprocity between members. In presence of a ‘context in which the interests are made convergent thanks to a common identity, regional, cultural, religious, ideological’ (Huybrechts and Mertens 2014: 199), cooperatives are seen as able to reduce the costs of coordination and slow decision-making and may turn out to be even more efficient in the long term than public or private management, especially in the field of natural resource management.

13The institutionalist approach considers cooperatives (and other social enterprises) as a mixed system articulating at its core capitalist, redistribution and reciprocity logic (Laville 2007). By considering these different logics, this approach helps considering that cooperatives may have other finalities that satisfying basic needs among which the creation of social ties and cohesion as a result of the reciprocity logic. This way, motivations to enter collective action or become a member of a cooperative can differ from a utility maximization and include non-instrumental motivations like the satisfaction of a desire of recognition in the sense of Honneth (2000). A cooperative can be considered as a social construct, constantly reproduced through actions and adhesion of new members (Dardot and Laval 2014) whose decision to adhere and co-operate can differ from instrumental action and profit maximization. The emergence, and mostly the reproduction, of the cooperative are therefore influenced not only by the ability of the cooperative to provide quality service/product in a cost-effective way but also by non-instrumental, socio-cultural and moral factors depending on shared values and representations.

14Moreover, the social and solidarity economy considers cooperatives as producers of social ties, cohesion and trust (and not only as a product of them), constitutive of the very polysemic concept of social capital. In that conception, cooperatives would produce the conditions of social inclusion for new members. However, we will show here how SAGUAPAC as a cooperative contributes to the recreation and reproduction of local myths and value systems, which could end up being quite exclusive for those who do not share the same values. The distinction between bonding and bridging social capital, proposed by Putnam (2014) allows differentiating between the contradictory effects of social capital that can real pro- or anti-social. Bonding social capital consists of ‘exclusive social networks that are bounded within a given social category’ (Putnam 2014: 669) whereas bridging social capital appears as ‘inclusive social networks that cut across various lines of social cleavage, lining people across different races, ages, classes, and so on’ (ibid.).

15The political dimension of cooperatives might also not be external to their reproduction. Indeed, several have criticized cooperatives either for their parastatal character (Simmons and Birchall 2008) or for their ties with local elites and patronage systems, especially in the Latin American context where some cooperatives appeared to have favoured ‘interests external to the local supposedly beneficiaries’ (Coque 2002: 147, pers. trans.).

16SAGUAPAC is no exception and by deconstructing SAGUAPAC discourse as well as local media discourse on it, we will show how the instrumentalisation of these moral (local value systems and myths), social (local identities and ‘stories’) and psychosocial (emotions, affection and desire of recognition) factors within SAGUAPAC communication contribute to the reproduction of the cooperative (combined with strong ties with local elite). Conversely, SAGUAPAC also contributes to the reproduction of local identity discourse that tends to foster bonding rather than bridging social capital among the very diverse city population, potentially leading to feelings of exclusion and fostering anti-social discourse.

SAGUAPAC: The ties with the logias

17The interviews conducted with members of the Comité de Defensa de los Socios de Servicios Publicos—whose aim is to ‘mobilised many of the socios in order to save the cooperative system and maintain it as a belonging of the cruceños’ (anonymous, 24.07.14)—and the journalist Carlos Valverde (son of a local intellectual close to the camba movement and logias), as well as the literature review (Waldmann 2008, Ferreira 2010 [1994]) showed the link between SAGUAPAC and the local elite—among them were the logias.

18“It’s impossible to understand the development of cooperatives and the cruceño institutionalisation without the presence of the logias’ (anonymous, journalist, 29.07.14). Waldmann (2008) defines the logias institutions as the ‘most powerful societies of mutual benefit’ (op.cit.: 100, pers. trans.) operating in the city of Santa Cruz. Created in the 1980’s and stemming from a Freemasonry tradition, these groups are based on ‘mutual loyalty and tend to monopolize local market’ (op.cit.: 103, pers. trans.) and ‘conciliate requests of modern life in a specific way with the structures of the feudal habitus’ that Waldman calls feuderno (op.cit.: 259, pers. trans.).

19There are two logias active in the city of Santa Cruz: the Toborochi logia and the Caballeros del Oriente logia. Membership in logia is an important factor for obtaining public contracts for supplies, services and construction, with members of logia involved at the political executive level. For example, Oscar Ortiz Antelo, current Secretary of Institutional Coordination Department of the Autonomous Government of Santa Cruz, was a member of the Caballeros del Oriente logia. Regarding Germán Antelo Vaca, Senator of the Department of Santa Cruz and former president of the Cooperativa Rural de Electrificación (CRE), was a member of the Toborochi logia (, 21.07.2009). To enter the logias, one must come from an established family, have a logia member acting as proposer or have important economic capital. Logias’ members constitute a local elite, closely linked to the Comité Pro Santa Cruz (CPSC). The latter is an umbrella institution that federates 200 local associations and defines itself as the ‘watchman’ of local culture and value system. The vice president, Jimmy Saucedo, considers the role of the CPSC as a ‘moral government for the cruceños, a type of parallel government that looks for the interests of local population’ (anonymous, 23.07.14, pers. trans.).

20Ferreira (2010[1994]) has established the role and the place of several members of the logias within the three main cooperatives of Santa Cruz (either as managers or members of the administration board). According to him, the Caballeros del Oriente Logia was controlling the COTAS cooperative, and the Toborochi logia was controlling the CRE and SAGUAPAC cooperatives (as well as other local institutions). In 1994, the first publication of these relationships that were formerly hidden and of the names of people involved, led to a global revolt among the cooperatives members (socios) at the end of the 1990’s, leading to the creation of the Comité de Defensa de los Socios de Servicios Publicos. ‘We had very serious problems with the cooperatives during the famous ‘chompa roja’ episode, but no one exceeded the limit that would put the cooperatives in danger. We were all careful to defend them’ (anonymous, journalist, 29.07.14). After several demonstrations (called chompas rojas [i.e., red shirts] demonstrations) and a meeting in the Tahuichi Aguilera stadium with the leaders of cooperatives, the committee obtained a ‘change of attitude,’ which led to the ‘opening’ of the cooperative structures to people out of the logias (anonymous, 24.07.14).

21Today, the logias still control cooperatives, but in a more ‘open’ way, and the committee focuses now on the defense of the cooperatives against ‘external pressures’ (i.e., from central government and private companies) (anonymous, 24.07.14). The fact remains that the link between cooperatives and logias, as well as the relationship between them and the authorities, continues to play a vital role in their survival, including that of SAGUAPAC (anonymous, journalist, 29.07.14). However the image building—under the form of storytelling—through which SAGUAPAC presents itself as a cooperative embodying the camba/cruceño values also plays a role in its production and reproduction’s conditions, as we will see now.

SAGUAPAC: A camba storytelling

22According to Salmon (2007), marketing discipline went through a change of paradigm, in the mid-1990’s, with a turn from a brand- and logo-based marketing strategy to a story-based marketing strategy. Enterprises are not supposed to produce brand image anymore, but instead are supposed to produce stories. However, the stories must be able to create ‘a singular, emotional relationship between a brand and its affiliated clients’ (Salmon 2007: 34, pers. trans.), in order to make the brand become a myth. Therefore, these new brand stories need to echo local myths, legends, values and beliefs of the consumers. Personalize and contextualize become keywords of this new communication technique as well as historical and genealogical evocations. These stories are full of heroes and happy endings despite adversity, etc., like traditional myths, and they are told in the style of a classic tale. Salmon (2007) considers storytelling as more than a simple technique. It relates to a manifestation of the so-called ‘new spirit of capitalism’ (Boltanski and Chiapello 2005), recognizing the fundamental role of emotions, irrational beliefs, etc. and leaving a strictly rational approach toward an ‘emotional capitalism that appropriates affects to the point of transforming emotions into commodities’ (Salmon 2007: 85, pers. trans.). This new version of capitalism operates through a ‘tolstoïan approach’ (Denning 2004), a fictionalization, as observed by Sennett (2000) and through the use of an ‘authenticity grammar’ built on ‘spontaneous, friendly relations, trust, requests for help or advice, attentiveness to sickness or suffering, friendship, even love’ (Boltanski and Chiapello 2005: 459).

23Illouz (2006) talks about the transition of an industrial capitalism toward an emotional capitalism and highlights emotional conditions of current capitalism functioning but also conversely the commoditizing and capitalist logic incursion into the emotional world (Robertson 2007). Therefore, the storytelling discourse is considered here as more than a mere discursive style, but as a technique, proper to a new spirit of capitalism, to increase adhesion and fidelity of clients—or, in our case, cooperative members. In terms of style, this technique is based on emotions and a general ‘tale’ style. In terms of content, it usually draws on so-called noble and universal references (Boltanksi and Chiapello 2005) as well as very local identity myths, legends and supposedly shared values. The deconstruction of such storytelling discourse can therefore provide various useful information regarding local values, myths and power structure. This however requires a previous understanding of local myths, legends, trajectories and identity discourse.

24Yet, Bolivia’s Eastern region has a complex and mystified history that strongly impacted the development of the city. Even before colonization, Inca stories referred to the physically isolated Eastern region (blocked by the Cordillera on the East, Amazonia on the Northwest and Chaco desert on the South) as an ‘obscure and frightening world’ (Rolland and Chassin 2007: 124, pers. trans.). This region has impressed a ‘fascination as well as a repulsion’ on the Incas that will later be shared by Spanish colonists as well (op.cit.: 124, pers. trans.). This perception has led to a political marginalization (first by the Incas, then the Spanish colons and finally by central government after independence) of this region and its capital, the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Indeed, during colonization, Santa Cruz served as a ‘modest military post whose function was to protect the colonial capital of Sucre’ (Waldmann 2008: 20, pers. trans.). It was organized on the traditional colonial city principles, consolidating and spatialising the ‘stratified social order based on the differentiation between Spanish and indigenous people’ and materializing a ‘feudal urban society, stratified and dominated by barter economy’ (ibid.). The isolation of the city remained after independence, until the first oil and gas deposits of the region were discovered in the 1940’s and the Bohan plan was implemented (1940) following an import substitution industrialization (ISI) strategy that encouraged the development of agribusiness industry in the Eastern region and favoured the development of capitalist structures and the rapid growth of the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

25the ‘camba’ appellation, stemming from Guarani indigenous, is shared by all Eastern Bolivian inhabitants in opposition to the ‘colla’ appellation that refers to Western Altiplano inhabitants. Antelo (2003), one of the main ideologues of the Nacion Camba movement—a separatist movement claiming the independence of the Pando, Beni and Santa Cruz (esatern)departments on the basis of ethnic and cultural differentiations justification (Nacion Camba 2013)—summarizes the 'cultura camba' as ‘an intergenerational warehouse, a heritage, a combination of traditions and a soft catalogue of meanings and images, embedded in values, symbols and myths, that serve to maintain this group of people, that share experiences and memories, united’ (Antelo 2003: 216). The term cruceño refers to cambas of the Santa Cruz metropolitan region, in opposition to inhabitants of rural Eastern regions (Peña and Bazán 2006). As the Evo Morales government was promoting a multinational State—composed of various indigenous identities—local formal and informal authorities of Santa Cruz, especially the CPSC, started strongly advocating a regional culture, based on the so-called camba and cruceño regional identities (Waldmann 2008), giving longstanding regionalism a recent ethnic dimension (Schroeder 2007): ‘Cambas imagine themselves as racially, ethnically and culturally different from Andean people, whom they regard as invading their lands and usurping natural resource wealth in the region’ (Assies 2006, cited in Fabricant and Postero 2013: 192). Cruceño people also strongly affirm their Spanish roots, like in the green and white Santa Cruz departmental flag, where ‘green evokes natural abundance, the rural and frontier riches of the region [and] white symbolizes purity (la pureza del linaje) and nobility (hidalguía)’ (Gustafson 2006: 356). They build a whole narrative, considering Morales’ government as a ‘threat’ and themselves as ‘victims’ (Fabricant and Postero 2013). Part of this narrative is based on the myth of ‘lowland exceptionalism’ (Kirshner 2010: 110), that highlights how camba and especially cruceño people have ‘pull[ed] themselves up by the bootstraps’ (Fabricant and Postero 2013: 193) and should now ‘resist the redistributive state’ (ibid.). The CPSC initiated ‘civic’ and hunger strikes as well as mass rallies round the Christ Statue in the city center, which is a symbol of occidental roots of cruceño identity (Blanchard 2006). These events sometimes involved embodied dramatization (like young students stretched out in coffins covered with cruceño flag) aiming to channel emotions to reach political change (Fabricant and Postero 2013), which can be linked to Durkheim’s concept of ‘collective effervescence’ (Fabricant and Postero 2013). These events were also quite festive, with music and dancing (Kirshner 2010) making Gustafson (2006) talk about ‘regionalist spectacle’ with entertainment invading political demonstration as well as political reference to autonomy and cruceño culture invading socio-cultural events from carnivals to beauty queen shows and ferias.

26These manifestations have also known racist and xenophobic drifts, considering collas as criminals (Prado et al. 2005), unhealthy and dirty individuals (Arias Castro 2009) or even invaders (Kirshner 2010). This strategy proved effective as all of the Eastern departments voted against the 2009 constitution that promoted equal distribution of state revenues, including hydrocarbon taxes, between all departments—according to the Corte Nacional Electoral (Vicepresidencia de la República Plurinacional de Bolivia 2009), Eastern departments of Tarija, Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando voted against the constitution with respectively 56.66%, 65.25%, 67.33% and 59.04% votes, whereas Western departments of Chuquisaca, La Paz, Cochabamba, Oruro and Potosi approved it with respectively 51.54%, 78.12%, 64.91%, 73.68% and 80.07% of the vote. However, after this regional ‘revolution,’ the popularity of traditional elite and CPSC decreased. Rosnes (2010) affirms that ‘people of Santa Cruz started discovering that there was another reality than the one reflected by the CPSC and that CPSC’s defense of the ‘crucenian productive model’ didn’t take into account the real aspirations of Crucenian people’ (op.cit.: 102, pers. trans). Accordingly and despite regional government efforts at social inclusion of the unplanned outer zones (Kirshner 2010), Cecilia Dorado affirmed in the local newspaper El Deber that there is a ‘crisis of traditional political leadership’ and that the latter is now seen as ‘precluding’ and has to ‘face the challenge of re-inventing a more national discourse’ (Dorado 2013: s.p.). However, the cruceño/camba identity discourse and myths related to the development of Santa Cruz de la Sierra and its lowland exceptionalism find an interesting echo within the storytelling discourse constructed and used by SAGUAPAC in its communication strategy.

27Indeed, on its blog and Facebook page, as well as in the interview conducted with SAGUAPAC, the history and development of the cooperative were often recalled in a tale style and positioned SAGUAPAC as a local ‘hero’ of the regional development who struggled against adversity (anonymous, SAGUAPAC, 22.10.2013.). This history is often made in reference to the history of the city of Santa Cruz: ‘35 years ago we were a project, like Santa Cruz was a project of city. So we grew up together’ (SAGUAPAC 2014b, s.p., pers. trans.). It also takes a part of the cruceño/camba identity discourse back when considering SAGUAPAC as a ‘cruceño heritage’ (SAGUAPAC 2014b, s.p., pers. trans.) or when identifying with Santa Cruz flags or other cruceño symbols, as we can see in this citation from the SAGUAPAC blog: ‘Our departmental symbols represents our essence and tradition, that confer an intangible value of identification with Santa Cruz, that nothing and nobody will ever grab from us. To love Santa Cruz, it is necessary to know its history’ (SAGUAPAC 2014a, s.p., pers. trans.). To reaffirm SAGUAPAC’s close relationship with the ‘tierra cruceña’ (SAGUAPAC 2014c, s.p., pers. trans.) that they proclaim to love, they said: ‘The sole fact of walking on your soil makes us fall in love with your beauty, makes us love the nobleness of your people and grow with your strength’ (SAGUAPAC 2013b, s.p. pers. trans.). They also post images of SAGUAPAC with the departmental flag. Moreover, the emotion and affection register is also very often mobilized: ‘We grew together, learning to work with love to bring our people with the best drinking water service, giving life in every drop’ (SAGUAPAC 2014b, s.p., pers. trans.). By posting videos of traditional camba/cruceño songs (like the ‘Niña Camba’ song) or ‘poets’ recognized as camba ideologists like Antonio Anzoategui—whose poems talk about the ‘castellan Spanish blood heritage’ of a ‘once powerful race’ (SAGUAPAC 2014d, s.p., pers. trans.) on their Facebook page—or by organising contests like the ‘Que te enamora en Santa Cruz?’ (“What do you fall in love with in Santa Cruz?”) contest, SAGUAPAC also contributes to reproducing this local and regional identity discourse.

SAGUAPAC: newspaper’s discourse analysis

28We decided to trace this discourse on SAGUAPAC in the local media as a proxy of its internalization in the city population. We analysed articles of the El Deber local newspaper over a period ranging from 1979 to 2013. The El Deber newspaper is the main newspaper of the Santa Cruz region and one of the 15 ‘most influential and popular daily-edition newspapers’ (Galván 2011: 96) at the national level. Bolivia’s written medias are in general privately owned by persons ‘who have strong connections to specific political parties’ (op.cit.: 95), which implies a ‘political bias’ (ibid.). The El Deber newspaper is no exception and is commonly known for its ‘antagonist position against the capital cities of La Paz and Sucre’ (ibid.), close to the position of regionalist parties and movements. However, it has also been subject to several threats, intimidation campaigns and retaliatory actions from the city mayor and its government members after having published critical articles on municipal government and the mayor himself (Nalvarte 2014, Higuera 2012).

29Moreover, written media in general is not the most popular in Bolivia, especially among lower classes that prefer listening to the radio or watching television (Galván 2011). The articles may therefore reveal opinions of a non-representative part of the population—mostly middle and upper classes. The choice of using written media was guided by practical reasons, as the El Deber archives are well conserved and accessible in the public library. Being aware of this social and political bias, studying newspaper articles still allowed us to gain insight about how some of the local citizens, politicians, representatives or workers of this cooperative like to present it. However, we do not pretend to propose an exhaustive panorama of the diversity of perceptions of SAGUAPAC users and Santa Cruz citizens. We identified 58 articles (from 1979 to 2013) expressing points of view about SAGUAPAC. Overall, 22 dated from what we identified as SAGUAPAC embryonic phase from 1979 to 1989, 16 from the expansion phase (1990’s) and 20 from the stability phase (2000 to 2013). They were mostly ‘opinion’ articles from readers and citizens but also articles of local journalists and a few ‘tribune’ articles of SAGUAPAC representatives. We treated them through manual codification with atlas.ti software. We also decided to complement this discourse analysis with semi-structured interviews conducted with municipal authorities (water and sanitation unit), departmental authorities (environmental unit), members of local camba oligarchy (like representatives of the Comité Pro Santa Cruz), staff of SAGUAPAC (chief of the social responsibility unit), representatives of other small cooperatives active in the outer areas—like COOPAGUAS (Villa 1ro de Mayo neighborhood), COOPLAN (Plan Tres Mil neighborhood) and COSPHUL (Km. 4 al Norte neighborhood)—as well as with the vice president of the Santa Cruz Departmental Federation of Drinking Water and Sanitation Cooperatives (FEDECAAS), asking them about their perceptions of SAGUAPAC and its permanence in the city.

30Our first statement is that even if the efficiency of SAGUAPAC (measured in terms of quality of water and number of employees compared to the number of socios) or its technological abilities (e.g., project of biogas collection from sewage water that has been quite mediatized) were mentioned as factors contributing to the upholding of the cooperative, they were not the main elements quoted on SAGUAPAC in El Deber. Four thematics are more significant in the discourse on SAGUAPAC.

31First, the discourse relates to the identity of cruceño people. An identification or retroaction processes of identity creation between local identity discourse and the SAGUAPAC can be observed. SAGUAPAC is presented as a fruit of Crucenian mentality. Because cooperativism is seen as part of this culture, the character and personality of Crucenian people are described as being modelled by the rural and peasant cambas traditions of cooperation and solidarity. This was also present in an interview with a member of the Comité Pro Santa Cruz: ‘Moreover, I believe that the cooperative system is a model that goes well with our culture. With the Cruceño culture […] I really believe that the Cruceño culture is very adapted to this cooperative system’ (anonymous, 23.07.14, pers. trans). A member of the municipal government referred to the ‘nature’ of the camba people that ‘tends towards being in contact, getting together, not living isolated’ (anonymous, 23.07.14, pers. trans.). SAGUAPAC is also seen as contributing to the re-creation of Crucenian identity through providing recognition—mostly from international actors—and pride to the whole Crucenian community.

32Secondly, the media discourse around SAGUAPAC also systematically recalls history and genealogy of SAGUAPAC, even in articles dealing with recent topics. Every SAGUAPAC anniversary is an opportunity to recall SAGUAPAC’s hit list, as well as its history and genealogy. Its emergence as a small cooperative, trying to work for the common good in a hostile context, is often referred to. SAGUAPAC is presented as an organization ‘from the people to the people,’ arising from the initiative of some ‘visionary pioneers”. The history of the whole region is also mentioned, highlighting the notion of a neglected area ‘abandoned’ from central government, which has strengthened self-mobilization and self-development of infrastructure. This refers to the myth of the lowland exceptionalism, present in the CPSC discourse. SAGUAPAC is described as a cooperative solving local problems of low/bad development through the provision of high-quality services at an affordable price: ‘The cooperatives solved our life […] Why is there identification with the cooperatives? Because they saved our lives!’ (anonymous, journalist, 29.07.14, pers. trans.). Its impact on life quality (beyond primary need satisfaction) is mostly invoked in terms of progress and modernization of the city, reduction of poverty and dignity provided to Crucenian people. SAGUAPAC is mythicized as a developmental hero, as a crusader on its own, gaining ground despite adversity; in other words, it is portrayed as an alternative to the paternalist Bolivian State, which is considered as inefficient, inconsistent, corrupted and not trustworthy. Contrary to the state, SAGUAPAC is perceived as animated by a moral duty to satisfy basic needs of the community, conferring on SAGUAPAC the legitimacy to operate, especially in a delicate context such as water provision, as it gives trust to the socios, but also to local authorities. The loss of these values is mentioned as one of the main risks for the cooperative in the future. Indeed, in recent years, SAGUAPAC was often accused of treating members more as clients than as socios, which is perceived as contrary to the moral duty of satisfying needs. As the organization and status of the cooperative have not changed, this argument seems to refer not so much to the non-profit versus for-profit dimension, but more to the symbolic dimension of the status of the socios.

33An emotionalisation of SAGUAPAC can also be observed in the newspaper articles about SAGUAPAC. Indeed, the use of terms like ‘abandonment’ (from the Bolivian State), affection/care (cariño), even love towards SAGUAPAC or the sacrifice (of the founders) is recurrent in the media discourse. Like the other two cooperatives, SAGUAPAC is considered as a Crucenian legacy (patrimonio) and every contestation by the Bolivian State or private companies is considered an infringement toward the dignity of the Crucenian people. This emotional register recalls the emotionalisation of the demonstration and strikes for regional autonomy.

34Finally, another crucial element that arose from the analysis of the newspaper discourse is the personification of SAGUAPAC. Indeed, the cooperative becomes a real figure of the Crucenian landscape. It receives birthday cards, published in El Deber, from other institutional and private actors. Some of these actors even ask God to bless the cooperative. This personification and trust relationship does not only occur between SAGUAPAC and its socios but also between SAGUAPAC and its workers. SAGUAPAC is said to consider its workers as family members. As they leave or retire, their work is often publicly recognized in local newspapers. In return, workers identify themselves with the cooperative and SAGUAPAC, and the working conditions are described as the best in the country in terms of salary but also because of the recognition provided by the job.

35The mythification, identification, emotionalisation and personification of SAGUAPAC converge with the new spirit of capitalism (Boltanksi and Chiapello 2005) and trend toward its emotionalisation (Illouz 2006) with storytelling as an effective technique (Salmon 2007) that help create ties between this cooperative, the water users, the workers and the wider community of the Cruceños. This explains why the Cruceños (especially the older generations) tend to ‘worship the cooperative’ (anonymous, journalist, 29.07.14) and express the ‘love and this affection that we have for the cooperative’ (ibid).

36This way, SAGUAPAC becomes a key actor of local development as well as of local identity and criticizing SAGUAPAC means not only criticizing the cooperative but also the local identity. Indeed, we did not observe many critiques of SAGUAPAC within media discourse except the chompa roja episode (which did not actually put the institution into question but wanted to protect the cooperative system from the logias) and some recurrent local complaints on water tariffs or new water meters. We did not highlight any real civic movements or urban struggles. Paradoxically, every critical article started by recognizing SAGUAPAC’s merits. This power dimension has already been mentioned as consubstantial of this emotional capitalism: ‘Those who are caught up in these mechanisms cannot categorically refuse to participate in these exchanges. This would lead directly to their exclusion or dismissal’ (Boltanksi and Chiapello 2005: 459). This could be considered as a form of disciplinary governmentality that operates ‘through the internalisation of social norms and ethical standards to which individual conform due to fears of deviance and immorality and which they thus exercise over themselves and one another’ (Fletcher 2013: 173).

37Indeed, from the analysis of newspaper discourse, it seems that no one is allowed to criticize SAGUAPAC or at least, as written above, every critic has to begin with the recognition of the various merits of the cooperative. These critics are also not really putting SAGUAPAC and its values into question but rather want to improve or optimize the organization and reinforce its cooperative nature. They indeed reproached the cooperative to be less cooperative in practice than in discourse. The only actors trying to ‘demythologize’ SAGUAPAC are the small water cooperatives: they tend to present SAGUAPAC and its corporate responsibility activities as too paternalistic and almost humiliating: ‘They pretend to know what we need and to explain us how to do the things’ (anonymous, COOPAGUAS, 17.10.13). People felt ‘rejected by the big SAGUAPAC and identify better with this small cooperative’ (anonymous, COSPUHL, 16.10.13, pers. trans.).

38What comes out of our analysis is the astonishing place taken by moral or non-instrumental factors in the discourse about the urban cooperative system, even in the context of promotion of individual and private management of the city and efficiency of service provisions. This allows for nuance in the hypothesis that cooperatives emerge and survive only because of their utility and the highest efficiency compared to public and capitalist management. This is also in line with the observations of Boltanksi and Chiapello (2005) of the new spirit of capitalism. They state that the commodification processes have created ‘anxiety about authenticity […]: one no longer knows if they are ‘authentic’ or ‘inauthentic’, spontaneous or re-engineered for commercial ends’ (op. cit.: 447), leading to a demand for authenticity. New capitalism recognizes this request and tries to recuperate it through an authenticity grammar referring to emotions and to myths more than to utility. Green consumerism and green marketing have been the first trying to commodify the authenticity of nature and include it in marketing strategies. In this emotional turn of the spirit of capitalism, the cooperative has a great card to play because of its organizational nature that is better able to create attachment between the cooperative and its members, and even with the wider local community. In the case of SAGUAPAC, the reference to an idealized Crucenian identity commonly shared is used to engender these emotional ties. Reciprocally, SAGUAPAC and its discourse contribute to the reproduction of this Crucenian identity, as showed by Waldmann (2008).


39In this contribution, recognizing the importance of SAGUAPAC technical and economic efficiency for its permanence over time, we assess that political and socio-cultural dimensions play a crucial role in the resilience and reproduction of SAGUAPAC. As a cooperative relating on the emotional level with its members—as well as with the Crucenian community—by mobilizing a storytelling approach that uses a four-dimensional rhetoric (mythification, identification, emotionalisation and personification) and linked to local powerful elite groups, SAGUAPAC has been able to build its image as an actor that should be considered as essential, not only for the provision of water services, but also to protect the Crucenian identity. By symbolically linking its own survival to that of the Crucenian culture—while benefiting the support of local elites, including logias—SAGUAPAC has become a key promoter of local identity and myths, contributing to the preservation of conditions of its reproduction.

40However, exploiting the affiliation to a specific—and exclusionary—Crucenian identity risks being counterproductive in a context of high migration to Santa Cruz de la Sierra from areas with different cultures (indigenous people, Altiplano inhabitants). Fabricant and Postero (2013) have shown the danger of racist drifts that accompanied the CPSC discourse between the year 2006 and 2010. Similar drifts can then be expected out of SAGUAPAC discourse. Admittedly, some of the non-camba Andean neighbourhoods are formally part of SAGUAPAC’s concession area, which implies considering the non-camba inhabitants of those neighbourhoods as members of SAGUAPAC in their own rights. But at the same time, the use of a discourse based on the local identity and myths, including an ethnic dimension, can contribute to strengthen and legitimate the social norms excluding those members from the wider Santa Cruz community and lead to anti-social behaviour. A study of the perceptions of SAGUAPAC among Andean migrant neighbourhoods (especially those within the SAGUAPAC concession area) would be an interesting way to reveal those feelings of exclusion (generated by the SAGUAPAC discourse). At a time of recognition of the multi-nationality of the Bolivian State, SAGUAPAC should consider making a revised strategy to address the coming hybridity of the Crucenian culture.

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Electronic reference

Florence Bétrisey, The conditions for the reproduction of the SAGUAPAC water cooperative in the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia: discourse analysisArticulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], Special issue 7 | 2015, Online since 14 July 2015, connection on 29 July 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Florence Bétrisey

Institute of Geography and Sustainability, University of Lausanne, Switzerland. Contact:

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