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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Bolivia : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date November 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Bolivia : Overview, November 2008, available at: [accessed 10 October 2015]
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 is the highest in altitude of the Latin American republics. It is a landlocked country (having lost a large amount of coastal territory to Chile during the War of the Pacific, 1879-83), bordered by Brazil on the east and the north, by Paraguay and Argentina on the south, and Chile and Peru on the west. Its geographic zones range from snow-capped Andean peaks to vast, lowland savannas and rainforests.


Main languages: Spanish, Quechua, Aymara

Main religions: Christianity (majority Roman Catholic, although Protestantism is becoming increasingly popular), indigenous religions

Indigenous peoples constitute some 4.1 million or 62 per cent of the total population, and include Aymara, Quechua, Chiquitano, Ese Eja, Guaraní and Moxeño (Data: unless otherwise stated, 2001 Census). Other minority groups include Afro-Bolivians 30,000 (UN, 2003), and small communities of Japanese and Europeans including Germans (Mennonites).

Highland Quechua (2.5 million) and Aymara (2 million) make up more than 50 per cent of the population. Lowland peoples include the Chiquitano (180,000), Guaraní (125,000), Moxeño (43,000), Ese Eja and Ayoreo. There is also an Afro-Bolivian population, small communities of Japanese and people of European origin including Germans (Source for this paragraph, CIA World Factbook 2006).

Ayoreo people in the Chaco region have been harassed by the New Tribes Mission (see Paraguay). Many have been 'deported' to the town of Santa Cruz, where they are reduced to begging.

About 150 Uru still live around Lake Titicaca; they use traditional reed boats for their fishing, but in many other respects have adopted Aymara lifestyle. The Nación Originaria Uru was formed in Oruro in 2001. Between 1,500 and 2,000 Chipaya live in the salty marshes in south-west Bolivia, close to the Chilean frontier. Their weaving is distinctive, as are their round thatched houses, and they maintain a determined independence.

Japanese, who migrated from Peru and Brazil to the forests of eastern Bolivia during the rubber boom of 1900-15, live mainly in La Paz and the lowland departments of Beni and Santa Cruz. The majority are farmers well assimilated into Bolivian society. Those who received free land in the Santa Cruz area by the Migration Agreement of 1956 are mechanized farmers and assimilated to a lesser degree.

There are several Mennonite communities (see Paraguay) in the Santa Cruz area, where they are involved in agriculture and cattle ranching.


After the revolution of 1952, Aymara people began to migrate to La Paz in increasing numbers. Young girls found employment as live-in servants, older women became street vendors and have forged a special place for themselves in La Paz society.

Many Quechua worked in the mines of Oruro and Potosí. The fall in the price of agricultural products and the collapse of the world tin market from the 1980s meant that an increasing number of Quechua migrated to the cities, where men found work as cargo carriers. Women, who join the ranks of street vendors, were often subjected to discrimination by better established Quechua and Aymara colleagues. A more lucrative, but also more risky, alternative was to work as a pisador (treader) in one of the cocaine producing zones. Since 1952 tens of thousands of Quechua and Aymara have migrated to the lowlands where they work and live as small farmers under precarious conditions.

Following the 1952 revolution, the Movimiento Nacional Revolucionario (MNR) introduced a far-reaching agrarian reform programme, to appease the demands of Bolivia's peasant population. The state expropriated large tracts of land from hacienda owners and distributed these to indigenous peasant communities. The reforms also mobilized rural workers, incorporating them into trade union organizations and cooperatives. In addition, the MNR government gave indigenous peasants the vote (most had previously been excluded due to literacy requirements).

Aymara people have long been active in the peasant movement; the Kataristas, named after the leader of the eighteenth-century Indian uprising, Tupac Katari, started out in La Paz in the 1970s with the creation of a cultural centre and its own radio programme. This Aymara nationalist movement transformed class-based demands of indigenous peoples into ethnic-based demands; it embraced the goal of self-determination as a distinct 'indigenous nation' within the plurinational Bolivian state.


During the 1970s and 1980s Bolivia was governed by a series of harsh military dictatorships with little regard for human rights. The return to democracy was hampered by economic crises and the escalation in the production and traffic of cocaine. Since US intervention in the mid-1980s (US sponsored eradication campaigns and US trained rural patrol units), many people in the coca growing regions have been killed and injured.

Until the late 1980s land rights were governed by the 1953 agrarian reform law, which was mostly applicable to the highland regions. A resolution enacted in 1989 considered as indigenous territory the areas traditionally occupied by indigenous groups, and prohibited the allocation of this land for colonization, ranching or forestry. In 1990, in response to mass mobilization by indigenous organizations, the government agreed to review policies that could have a potentially adverse impact on the environment, and passed several decrees recognizing the ownership of specific areas of land by forest-dwelling groups.

Cattle ranching and colonization have been a major threat to the lowland groups of the department of Beni such as the Chiman and Moxeño. In September 1990, 800 members of the lowland groups walked to La Paz from the Amazonian town of Trinidad to demand recognition of land rights. As a result of that march more than 1.5 million hectares of land in northern Bolivia were recognized as indigenous territory. The relevant decrees were not, however, properly implemented, and lowland groups continued to be menaced by logging and mining concerns. During the 1990s the Confederación de los Pueblos Indígenas del Oriente, Chacó y Amazonia Boliviana played an important role in achieving bilingual education and preliminary recognition of indigenous territory.

In 1993 Victor Hugo Cárdenas – Aymara leader of one of the Katarista parties (MRTKL) – was made Vice-President of the republic. Many people criticized him for 'selling out' to the government. Overall, the Katarista movement has been an electoral failure, due to a lack of financial resources, weak organization at a national level, internal squabbles and an uncompromising Indianist position.

As a result of reforms in 1994, Bolivia's constitution recognizes the country's multi-ethnic and pluricultural character and includes clauses on collective land rights and bilingual education. (By 2000 almost 20 percent of rural schools were bilingual.) It also recognizes customary law. In addition, the reforms included the Popular Participation Law, which created 311 municipalities and immediately transferred funds to these municipalities. Such legislation led to an important shift of power at local level: in the 1995 municipal elections over 450 indigenous candidates won municipal office, making up 27 per cent of the national total.

By the municipal elections of 2004 the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), led by ex-coca grower Evo Morales, had become the most important political party. Evo Morales frequently refers to his indigenous descent, but – in contrast to the Kataristas – does not engage with a polarizing ethnic rhetoric. MAS has made common cause with diverse rural and urban popular sectors, protesting against successive governments' neoliberal policies.

The non-indigenous landowning minority in the wealthy Departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija, continued to largely oppose the indigenous-oriented Morales government, and remained adamant in their call for departmental autonomy during 2007.

This represented a continuation of the strong polarization that began in August 2006 with the formation of the Constituent Assembly to fundamentally rewrite the Constitution to provide greater empowerment to the impoverished and marginalized indigenous population.

Like the land reform programme of June 2006 that distributed state-owned and underused land to peasants and Indigenous people, constitution reform drafting in August 2007 continued to represent another major area of contention between the elite and the indigenous majority.

Besides fermenting strong political antagonisms, the proposal to create a pluri-national state that grants indigenous autonomy, also brought to the fore what some see as the historical racist and xenophobic underpinnings of the ethno-cultural and geographical divide between eastern and western Bolivia.

In December 2006, members of Indigenous NGOS, civilian groups, and pro-secessionist elements in the department of Santa Cruz clashed over local consultation for regional autonomy. Premises of the national governing party – Movement toward Socialism (MAS) – and offices of Indigenous community centres were set on fire, and members of Indigenous groups had houses ransacked.

This tension continued during 2007 fuelled by growing internal migration of the indigenous population from the poor western highlands to the relatively less populated richer eastern lowland regions. Indigenous groups continued to use the Popular Participation Law to form municipalities and to protest at the government's failure to obtain title to all claimed territories despite the Agrarian Reform.

The mid-2006 decision of the Morales government to nationalize all hydrocarbon resources in Bolivia appeared to come in response to calls by indigenous supporters to end outside exploitation of the country's natural resources. However in 2007 this continued to be a thorny issue among residents of gas-rich lowland areas like Santa Cruz and Beni.

Like other efforts at systemic reform it was viewed as more evidence of bad faith on the part of the more numerous indigenous population who are seen as wanting to deprive the non-indigenous elite of their economic rights, and long held privileges

At the end of 2007 vulnerable minorities were still awaiting signs of a meaningful long-term social change and more opportunities to improve the quality of their lives. However the August 2007 revival of the ultra nationalist right-wing Bolivian Socialist Falange party after five dormant decades did not raise hopes for any easy or tranquil final resolution.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

In recent years, the national and international press has tended to focus on the violent riots in highland Bolivia and subsequent presidential changes. Meanwhile, other actions have gone largely unnoticed. Among these are killings and other violent acts perpetrated against indigenous leaders in the lowland region around Santa Cruz. Thugs and others said to be recruited by large landowners have begun systematic attacks on local indigenous groups, principally the Guaraní peoples of the region.

Indigenous organizations have been key protagonists in mass protests demanding the revision of the neoliberal structure of Bolivia's economy. Inspired by events such the Cochabamba 'water war' of 2000, they have continued to concentrate on the need for Bolivia to recuperate control of its natural resources. There have also been ongoing mobilizations against US-sponsored coca-eradication campaigns.

In 2005 Evo Morales became the first indigenous president in the history of the country. He has made initial steps towards nationalizing Bolivia's gas fields. He has brought an end to the coca-eradication campaigns. His government's agrarian reform programme has started to redistribute fiscal lands to landless families, although disappointment with the extent of the reform led to mass protests by indigenous organizations in March and October 2006. (Following the October protests, new modifications were made to the reform law.) He has also implemented important reforms to parliament (creating a new Constituent Assembly), to encourage the increased participation of indigenous people at a national level. In July 2006 it was announced that an indigenous woman would preside over the Constituent Assembly.

A number of commissions have been established through which Evo Morales intends to implement his national reform programme, and of great significance is his commitment to the re-founding and redesign of the Bolivian state, which recognizes and reflects Bolivia's rich ethnic and cultural diversity and which commits to the 'harmonic development and self determination' of its peoples ('Vision of the Country' Commission, majority report, 5 June 2007). On 6 June 2007 through the 'Vision of the Country' Commission, the Constituent Assembly declared and approved the Bolivian Political Constitution of the Plurinational, Communitarian state. MAS has declared that conceding autonomy to Bolivia's indigenous communities acts as compensation for the 500 years of the 'exclusion, maltreatment and discrimination' they experienced within Bolivian territory.

The proposal being debated in the Constituent Assembly has encountered both support and opposition from many quarters, with all sides offering varying proposals for its practical implementation. Those in support of greater autonomy base their demands on the outcome of the July referendum of 2006, which called for departmental and regional autonomy within which indigenous autonomy would be realized. On the other hand right-wing opposition groups and political parties such as PODEMOS, MNR and Unidad Nacional remain committed to a system of departmental autonomy, but mainly in the rich eastern region of the country. Under the banner of autonomy they have tried to rally support among the more generally 'whiter' middle-class populations of the east.

While Morales' government has reaffirmed that the creation of the plurinational communitarian state is non-negotiable, there are those who worry that there is a possibility that Bolivia's right-wing and traditionally economically privileged classes who were pushed out of power with Morales' ascendancy to power, will try to usurp the autonomy agenda as a way of protecting their interests and control of Bolivia's natural resources. Meanwhile, from the right, Morales has been accused of waging a crusade of racial revenge and wanting to 'indigenize' or 'indianize' the Bolivian state, which they argue has traditionally been defined as a nation of mestizos.

In March 2007 Amnesty International issued a communiqué condemning threats to Bolivian human rights defenders working to protect the human rights of peasants, indigenous peoples and other members of the Santa Cruz community who face discrimination. In recent months such threats have worsened as different groups in the Santa Cruz department struggle for power in the context of calls for regional autonomy. On 21 January 2007, several members of the Pro Santa Cruz Civic Committee, an elected committee in favour of regional autonomy, entered the office of a Bolivian human rights organization threatening staff and claiming that they would come back with weapons and shoot at the building.

In December 2007 dissention in the eastern provinces continued to rise and Morales suggested a national referendum to determine the degree of nation-wide support for his government. This however was rejected by the eastern departments that sought to hold their own referendums on autonomy in defiance of the Court's interdiction on such votes.

In April 2008 the government ratified its recognition of indigenous autonomies, in accordance with a November 2007 ruling and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples . It explained that the country's new political Constitution guarantees Bolivian native people the right to free determination, self-government and management of their own financial resources.

In May 2008 the government of Santa Cruz Department countered with its own planned autonomy referendum and emerged with a winning majority, Also ignoring the Court's interdiction, other eastern Departments (Beni and Pando) followed suit on 1 June 2008

Confident after the Santa Cruz victory, the opposition revived Morales initial suggestion of a national vote of confidence and also pushed for early parliamentary elections, but later agreed on a more immediate recall referendum.

The vote to determine whether President Morales, the Vice President and eight out of nine departmental Prefects should stay in office was held in early August 2008. Morales received an encouraging 67 per cent plus vote of confidence, and six of the eight prefects were returned. Besides consolidating his support in rural Bolivia to near unanimity, an almost 40 per cent approval vote in the autonomist eastern states indicated that the very vocal orchestrated regional opposition to the Morales government did not represent unanimous opinion.

Bouyed by these results, and facing continuing unrest in other eastern departments like Pando, in October 2008 Morales called for a week-long 200 km march from the western city of Caracollo to La Paz, to demand a referendum on the proposed constitution.

Tens of thousands of mostly indigenous peasants, miners, coca-growers, and other government supporters from across Bolivia responded and marched in an effort to pressure the Bolivian Congress to pass the law sanctioning the (already twice postponed) referendum on the constitution. Farmers along the route provided food and accommodations for the marchers.

The massive cross-country march ended in celebration, as the Government and opposition reached a compromise, on 20 October 2008 and seemingly calmed national tensions after several volatile months.

The lawmakers agreed to hold the constitutional vote on 25 January 2009 and if approved, to call early elections in December 2009: Morales in turn promised not to run again in 2014 despite allowances for this under the new constitution.

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