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  • Transforming Rural Water Governance: The Road from Resource Management to Political Activism in Nicaragua by Sarah T. Romano
  • Michael A. Petriello
Sarah T. Romano
Transforming Rural Water Governance: The Road from Resource Management to Political Activism in Nicaragua.
The University of Arizona Press, 2019. xxv + 196 pp. Figures, maps, boxes, tables, notes, references, index. $60.00 cloth (ISBN 978-0-8165-3807-2); $60.00 electronic (ISBN 978-0-8165-4060-0).

Decades of scholarship in geography, anthropology, political science, and conservation science, among other disciplines, have shown that effective natural resource management regimes often emerge from bottom-up, community-based approaches. However, locally situated management programs, especially those that aim to empower and mobilize resource users for political change, must contend with social and environmental complexities and challenges at multiple scales. These dynamics in Latin America run the gamut from revolutionary upheaval to legal misrepresentation and disenfranchisement to shifting resource management and sustainability regimes amidst rapid and often unpredictable ecological change. In this way, Romano’s Transforming Rural Water Governance is a must-read for scholars, policy makers, conservation practitioners, and broader audiences who are interested in the theory and practice of collective action for political mobilization and grassroots natural resource management, particularly within the contexts of ongoing social and environmental change. It is an easily digestible and effectively organized book for novices and experts alike.

The book emerges from ethnographic accounts of the daily struggles of Nicaraguan communities (in particular, their Potable Water and Sanitation Committees, or CAPS) with water access, rights, sanitation, and anti-privatization at different scales. This work brings together twelve years (2004-2016) of insights and findings, including one-and-half years of intensive fieldwork, collected through a multiscalar process tracing approach using semistructured interviews with individuals and groups (e.g., CAPS and NGO staff), participant observation (e.g., observing CAPS meetings), and synthesizing organizational and government documents (e.g., websites and NGO reports) focused on rural water governance in Nicaragua and Latin America. Through her detailed analyses across multiple sectors of society, Romano explores the roles of nearly fifty key local, state, and international players in supporting, creating, and being excluded from, a handful of laws and decrees that mediate Nicaraguan water policies, with an emphasis on the National Water Law (Law 620) and the Special Law of Potable Water and Sanitation Committees (CAPS) (Law 722). These roles and dynamics are used to outline how and why CAPS were “invisible” actors who had little influence on the formulation and implementation of Nicaraguan water laws (such as Law 620). The reader is walked through these problems with detailed descriptions of a milieu of political decisions, state and nonstate alliances, legal frameworks, and political narratives that adversely affected, yet also benefitted, local water management institutions in Nicaragua. [End Page 288] Three factors are laid out to sequentially and iteratively explain “CAPS’ transcendence from community-based resource management into the realm of political activism” (p. xiv), namely 1) “organic” empowerment; 2) multi-sectoral alliances; and 3) collective discourses. Each factor, and its relationship to the other factors, is meticulously described in its own chapter (chapters 2, 3, and 4), and introduced through a one-page ethnographic vignette or quote depicting a real-world example of their dynamics.

I found these vignettes especially useful for rooting her analysis and findings in residents’ lived experiences as citizens in one of the most environmentally, economically, and more recently, politically, fraught countries in the Western Hemisphere. In turn, Romano expertly positions her work within the rapidly evolving political and environmental history of Nicaragua, both past and present. For example, after outlining the book’s theoretical and conceptual contributions to an interrelated body of literature on collective action, social movements, and social capital, the introduction (chapter 1) makes note of recent protests against the current administration’s – that of José Daniel Ortega Saavedra – social security reforms and the ways in which it has sought to integrate itself into community-level decision making through partisan Citizen Power Councils (CPCs). While CPCs are not featured as a central institution in this book, this work highlights CAPS’ desires to remain nonpartisan in a country that is mired by past and...