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Assessment for Lowland Indigenous Peoples in Bolivia

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Lowland Indigenous Peoples in Bolivia, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 30 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Bolivia Facts
Area:    1,098,580 sq. km.
Capital:    La Paz
Total Population:    7,828,000 (source: unknown, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

While demands for land rights, economic development and access to health care and education persist, these grievances are not unique to the lowland areas, and therefore lowland indigenous people can be expected to continue coordinating mobilization with highland groups. It is very likely that the indigenous of Bolivia will continue to increase their role in the central and local governments through conventional politics as well as by more confrontational tactics. Although highland leaders usually lead with the more confrontational strategies, both the highland and the lowland indigenous groups support each other in becoming a stronger political force in Bolivia. In 2002, indigenous parties won a quarter of the seats in the legislature. In that same election, opposition leader Evo Morales (leader of the violent demonstrations against the unpopular but successful eradication of coca crops) became the first indigenous person to reach the final round of a Bolivian presidential election, losing by just a point to former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada from the centrist Nationalist Revolutionary Movement. After just fifteen months in office, however, indigenous groups led an uprising on October 17, 2003, forcing Lozada to resign from office for not making good on his promises to the indigenous with regard to land and resource issues. Vice President Carlos Mesa Gisbert then assumed the presidency and appointed a non-political cabinet. While there is a chance that the indigenous may back down from continuing to flex their political muscle (they comprise 62% of the total Bolivian population; most are from the highlands region), it is more likely that when conventional politics fail to bring about desired or promised changes, they will resort to more confrontational tactics, including rebellion.

Analytic Summary

Lowland indigenous people reside in three departments of the country's eastern lowlands: Santa Cruz, El Beni, and Pando (GROUPCON = 3). The ethnic diversity of lowland indigenous peoples is far greater than in the highlands. Many Indians in this region intermarried with Spaniards

and thus, there is a great mestizaje (mixture) of ethnicities (RACE = 2). The two largest groups are the Guarani and the Arawaks. The Guarani group includes the Chiriguanos, forest Indians who are also present in Tarija and Santa Cruz, as well as Paraguay. Within the Arawak group are the Moxos Indians, who reside in the department of El Beni. There is also a group called the Chiquitanos, which in Santa Cruz. Among the many linguistic groups still inhabiting the lowlands, four are predominant (LANG = 2): the Panoan, Tacanan, Moxoan, and Guaranian (this is the largest lowland group). Each was converted to Roman Catholicism when Jesuit missionaries entered the region in the mid-1700s.

The division between Indian and non-Indian in Bolivia is quite significant – more than half the population has indigenous heritage, but this is sometimes confused by the way ethnicity is practiced in Bolivia. More than skin color, social identity is tied to a way of life. Hence, adopting western dress and customs can change a person's social class. Indians of mixed blood or those who have adopted the way of life of the dominant class are called "cholos," a rough parallel to the

"mestizo" identity of other Latin American societies. This group is upwardly mobile, yet still face discrimination by the dominant class. The lowest in social status are indios, also called campesinos (persons of the countryside) (CUSTOM = 1). This group is highly discriminated against because they are not assimilated into the dominant lifestyle and are the poorest class (ETHDIFXX = 8).

The distinction between Indian and non-Indian in Bolivian society is reinforced through language, education, and positions in public office and the military. Although Guarani is an officially recognized language, it is rarely taught in the school systems. Public offices, such as the

courts, jails, and government institutions have been reported to discriminate against indigenous people and force them to wait in long lines or to keep them in jail for longer time periods. Though all Bolivian males are obliged to serve military time, many indigenous males are offered Military Academy scholarships, provided they change their names and do not speak their indigenous language. The lower ranks of the police force also contain many Indians. This form of employment is perceived as a means of social mobility by many indigenous males. Indigenous women are often employed as domestic aids; there are occasional reports of abuse by their non-indigenous employers.

During the first half of the 20th century, there were scattered cases of uprisings against estate owners which held lands claimed by Indians as traditional communal land (in 1950 the hacendados owned more than 92 percent of all land). Indians were forced to work the land, were not allowed to

vote, and lacked many political rights. Their culture, language, and traditions were socially unaccepted by the European-descended social class. In 1953, the Agrarian Reform Laws were implemented by the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR), which had come to power in a revolution the previous year. The goal of the MNR was to assimilate the Indians through the elimination of their autonomous culture and living patterns; the reforms focused on integrating lowland Indians with particular focus on decreasing their agricultural land. While Indians were given

citizenship and the right to vote (which they were previously denied), they were still discriminated against and denied the political rights that were given to non-indigenous people.

The lowland Indians were not as organized as the highland Indians, with the exception of the Chiriguano Indians, who had strong social organizations. In 1982, groups in eastern Bolivia combined to form the CIDOB (Indigenous Confederation of the East, Chaco, and Amazon of

Bolivia). Two years later, the Chiquitano Indians of Santa Cruz formed the CICOL (Intercommunity Organization of Eastern Lomerio) and implemented a forestation project that was intended to produce marketable goods. By 1985, the Bolivian government had donated more than

320,000 acres of land to the indigenous for the project. The CPIB (Coordinator of the Indigenous Peoples of the Beni), formed during the late 1980s, led the "March for Territory and Dignity" in La Paz in 1992. In 1987, the Assembly of the Guarani People (APG) formed and mobilized their 50,000 members to contribute to political action in the eastern region. They now hold the third largest position in the CSUTCB (United Confederation of Peasant Workers of Bolivia) – one of the leading national indigenous organizations (GOJPA00 = 2).

Although lowland and highland Indians coordinate their mobilization and

organizations, the lowland Indians perceive the highland movement as threatening because they do not want to be represented by highland people or dependent upon their organizations. For instance, the lowland indigenous organizations refused to participate in the 1984 agrarian reform bill which the CSUTCB presented to the government, because their central demands are for territory and autonomy for the 200,000 lowland Indians. They also felt the Assembly of Nationalities, presented by the highland groups of the CSUTCB, was dominated by highland groups and cultures. There are disagreements between the groups, mainly due to the perception of lowland indigenous people that highland indigenous people are ethnocentric and have received the bulk of gains from reform. However, the groups do coordinate efforts nationally for indigenous people and do not directly conflict with each other.

Under the MNR reform government of the late 1980s, economic policies were adopted that dissolved agreements about much of the communal land upon which Indians lived and worked. Many social programs were cut, including those that had supported indigenous people. Lowland indigenous groups then began to mobilize (COHESX9 = 5), demanding new social and economic programs suited to their needs (ECOSTR99 = 4). Since the early 1990s, there has been increased violence in the Chapare (a transition zone between the departments of Cochabamba and Santa Cruz) due to its rising importance to illicit cocaine production. However, the majority of coca growers are economically displaced highland Indians and mestizos, rather than lowland indigenous peoples.

In the last decade or so, the Bolivian government (supported by foreign aid programs) has actively pursued repatriation of Indian territories in the lowlands (POLSTAT = 2). There have also been government efforts to identify and eliminate debt peonage and other forms of servitude. These and other remedial policies along with the increasing indigenous participation in the government present the possibility of significant change for the future of the indigenous (POLDIS03 = 1), although it might be many years before that change is perceptible.


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