Get access

The Politics of Disciplining Water Rights


  • Rutgerd Boelens

    1. is Senior Researcher at Wageningen University, The Netherlands and Co-ordinator of the international research networks Water Law and Indigenous Rights (WALIR), Concertación and La Justicia Hídrica. In books, articles and films, he has widely published on the linkages between water rights and justice, legal pluralism, water policy reforms, cultural politics and power relations. He can be contacted at
    Search for more papers by this author

  • I thank Margreet Zwarteveen, Hans Achterhuis, Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, Armando Guevara, Patricia Urteaga, Irit Eguavoen, Peter Mollinga, Francis Cleaver, Jan Hendriks, Flip Wester, Edwin Rap and the anonymous reviewers of this journal for their insightful contributions to earlier versions of this paper.


This article examines how the legal systems of Andean countries have dealt with the region's huge plurality of local water rights, and how official policies to ‘recognize’ local rights and identities harbour increasingly subtle politics of codification, confinement and disciplining. The autonomy and diversity of local water rights are a major hindrance for water companies, elites and formal rule-enforcers, since State and market institutions require a predictable, uniform playing field. Complex local rights orders are seen as irrational, ill-defined and disordered. Officialdom cannot simply ignore or oppress the ‘unruliness and disobedience’ of local rights systems: rather it ‘incorporates’ local normative orders that have the capacity to adequately respond to context-based needs. This article examines a number of evolving, overlapping legal domination strategies, such as the ‘marrying’ of local and official legal systems in ways that do not challenge the legal and power hierarchy; and reviews the ways in which official regulation and legal strategies deny or take into consideration local water rights repertoires, and the politics of recognition that these entail. Post-colonial recognition policies are not simply responses to demands by subjugated groups for greater autonomy. Rather, they facilitate the water bureaucracy's political control and help neoliberal sectors to incorporate local water users’ rights and organizations into the market system — even though many communities refuse to accept these policies of recognition and politics of containment.