This article examines the way that indigenous communities in rural areas of highland Ecuador have been able to contest and take advantage of changes in state policies on water resource management. Using archival material, it shows how elite views of indigenous peoples as backward and dirty, developed during the early twentieth century, influenced policies to improve health and sanitation in the Andean region. This review shows that in the effort to expand services to rural areas, the state, perhaps unintentionally, introduced a set of local and autonomous institutions, Drinking Water User Associations, to manage potable water systems at the communal level. Drawing on ethnographic research conducted in Otavalo, Ecuador, the article argues that today highland communities use these same institutional arrangements of water management to exert autonomy over their resources and territories.

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