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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Bolivia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date November 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Bolivia, November 2008, available at: [accessed 1 December 2015]
Comments In October 2015, MRG revised its World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. For the most part, overview texts were not themselves updated, but the previous 'Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples' rubric was replaced throughout with links to the relevant minority-specific reports, and a 'Resources' section was added. Refworld entries have been updated accordingly.
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.


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.


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.


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.

Bolivia has very concentrated land ownership patterns, with around two thirds of the country's land being owned by less than one percent of landowners. The non-indigenous landowning minority in the wealthy Departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija, continue to largely oppose the indigenous-oriented Morales government, and during 2008 remained adamant in their call for departmental autonomy.

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.

In addition to land ownership, the control of hydrocarbon resources is also a contentious factor. After Venezuela, Bolivia has the second largest gas reserves in South America. 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 2008 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

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.



Minority based and advocacy organisations


Movimiento Cultural Saya Afroboliviano

Highland Aymara and Quechua


Confederación de los Pueblos Indígenas de Bolivia (CIDOB)

Parlamento del Pueblo Aymara

Lowland indigenous peoples

Asamblea Permanente de los Derechos Humanos de Bolivia (APDHB)

Confederación Indígena del Oriente, Chaco y Amazonia de Bolivia
Tel: +591 3 349 8494

Sources and further reading


Santos Roland, E.M., 'The conditions of Afro-Americans: marginalization on the base of race and poverty, attitudes towards cultural identity', World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, Regional Seminar, Santiago, 27- 29 October 2000.

Spedding, A., 'Bolivia', in MRG (ed.), No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today, London, MRG, 1995.

United Nations, Commission on Human Rights, 'People of African Descent in South America', May 2003.

Highland Aymara and Quechua and lowland indigenous peoples

Albó, X., 'Making the leap from local mobilisation to national politics', NACLA Report on the Americas, vol. 29, no. 5, 1996.

Albó, X., Bolivia plurilingue: guía para planificadores y educadores, La Paz, CIPCA/UNICEF, 1994.

Albro, R., 'The indigenous in the plural in Bolivian oppositional politics', Bulletin of Latin American Research, vol. 24, no. 4, 2005.

Canessa, A., 'Todos somos indígenas: towards a new language of national political identity', Bulletin of Latin American Research, vol. 25, no. 2, 2006.

Capítulo Boliviano de Derechos Humanos, Democracia y Desarrollo [informs readers about various organizations, events and new legislation which impacts upon human rights; it also has reports on torture, domestic violence and other incidences of human rights violations]

Confederación de Pueblos Indígenas de Bolivia [provides updated information on the current situation, and events organized by Bolivia's distinct indigenous movements]

Farthing, L. and Ledebur, K., 'The beat goes on: the US war on coca', NACLA Report on the Americas, vol. 38, no. 3, 2004.

Healy, K., 'Political ascent of Bolivia's coca leaf producers', Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, vol. 30, nos 2-3, 2004.

Latin America Bureau, Bolivia in Focus, London, LAB, 1994.

Laurie, N., Andolina R. and Radcliffe, S., 'The excluded "indigenous"? The implications of multi-ethnic politics for water reform in Bolivia', in R. Sieder (ed.), Multiculturalism in Latin America: Indigenous Rights, Diversity and Democracy, New York, Palgrave, 2002.

Lee Van Cott, D., 'Implementing the 1994 Bolivian constitutional reforms', in D. Lee Van Cott, The Friendly Liquidation of the Past: The Politics of Diversity in Latin America, Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.

Rivera Cusicanqui, S., 'Oppressed but not defeated: peasant struggles among the Aymara and Quechua in Bolivia, 1900-1980', Geneva, UN Research Institute for Social Development, 1987.

Stern, S. (ed.), Resistance, Rebellion and Consciousness in the Andean Peasant World: 18th to 20th Centuries, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.

United Nations, 'Observaciones finales del Comité para la Eliminación de la Discriminación Racial: Bolivia', 4-24 August 2003 (published 10 December 2003).

US Department of State (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor), 'Country reports on human rights practices 2005: Bolivia'.

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