Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 May 2016, 11:51 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009 - Bolivia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 16 July 2009
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009 - Bolivia, 16 July 2009, available at: [accessed 25 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.

Despite having 70 per cent of the world's iron and magnesium and the second largest natural gas reserves in South America, in 2008 Bolivia continued to be regarded as the poorest county in South America, with two-thirds of its population living in poverty or extreme poverty.

According to the 2001 census, the majority (approximately 62 per cent) of Bolivia's 9.25 million people self-identified as indigenous (Quechua and Aymara). Most were rural subsistence farmers living in remote areas where government services remain unavailable. In 2008, 70 per cent of Bolivia's IP continued to live with little access to basic services such as health, water, sanitation and education.

Discrimination and strong historical prejudices against Bolivia's indigenous groups remained extensive, and the country's human rights ombudsman reported that approximately 70 per cent of the national population considered racism a problem.

Societal and institutional discrimination was also directed against the African Bolivian minority (approx 35,0000), who continued to face severe disadvantages in life expectancy, income, literacy, employment, health and education.

Political representation

Bolivia's IP have continued to be under-represented in government and politics. In 2008 only an estimated 17 per cent of members of Congress were indigenous. One of the nine departmental prefects (governors), Sabina Cuellar, is an indigenous woman.

Since attaining the presidency in 2005, Evo Morales – who is of indigenous Aymara ancestry – has focused on instituting a number of key reforms aimed at addressing the historical exclusion of the indigenous population. Central to this was the introduction of a new constitution that recognizes indigenous cultural, political and ownership systems, and includes clauses aimed at achieving more equitable distribution of land and natural resources, and at opening opportunities for indigenous people to gain more power.

The plan has faced stiff resistance from opposing landowning interests in the eastern departments, at every step. This included strikes, walk-outs and armed conflicts that have led to scores of injuries, human rights abuses and loss of life.

Directly connected to this initiative was the government's April 2008 ratification of its recognition of indigenous autonomies, in accordance with a November 2007 ruling and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which demonstrated its commitment to enabling self-determination, and self-government for IP and ensuring the management of their own financial resources.


The non-indigenous landowning minority in the wealthy eastern departments of Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz and Tarija, who feared their farms would be broken up and handed over to the poor, have mostly opposed the government's efforts and, during 2008 increased their efforts to block reforms, including calling for departmental autonomy and fomenting civil strife.

In May 2008 opposition gangs, encouraged by civic leaders from Sucre, captured and humiliated a pro-government advance party of approximately two dozen indigenous workers and leaders, who had travelled to that city to ensure safe entry during a planned presidential visit.

After being taken prisoner by a hostile mob, several were beaten and subjected to significant abuse, forced to remove their shirts and march several miles to the central plaza, where they were then made to kneel and shout anti-government slogans.

Between May and June 2008, in defiance of legal injunctions, Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz and Tarija departments held autonomy referenda, which the international community declined to monitor and the federal government refused to recognize. Although all four referenda gained easy majorities they were marked by high voter abstention.

In August 2008 the government held a national recall referendum to determine whether President Morales, the Vice President and eight out of nine departmental Prefects should remain in power. This received a 67 per cent national vote of confidence, and six of the eight prefects were returned. Although four of the six were pro-opposition prefects, significant for government supporters was that the plebiscite produced an almost 40 per cent approval vote in the autonomy-seeking eastern states. This demonstrated that the vocal and well-orchestrated anti-government regional opposition did not represent unanimous opinion.

In the face of continuing violence in September in eastern departments such as Pando, Morales called for a week-long 200 km march from the western highland city of Caracollo to the capital La Paz in October 2008, to demand a referendum on the proposed constitution. This drew tens of thousands of mostly indigenous peasants, miners, coca-growers and other government supporters, who marched to demonstrate their resolve and pressure the Bolivian Congress to pass the law sanctioning the twice-postponed constitution referendum.

By the end of the march, the government and opposition had reached a compromise, allowing a final national vote on the proposed constitution. Among the concessions were that the president would not seek a third term in 2014, and that limits on the size of landholdings (5,000 hectares) would not be retroactive.

New constitution

The January 2009 constitution referendum received the required 50 per cent plus national majority but, as expected, was defeated in the eastern opposition strongholds.

Among other clauses, the new document enshrines state control over key economic sectors, and grants greater autonomy, not only to indigenous communities but also for the nine departments. The implementation of the new charter is far from certain, however. Several articles have to be approved in Congress, where President Morales does not have a Senate majority.

Nevertheless, for the indigenous majority who, just some 50 years ago, were not allowed to vote, or even walk in the central square of the capital La Paz, this represented a major turning point in their longstanding efforts to achieve their fundamental rights and freedoms.

There are enormous challenges: indigenous lands are not demarcated fully and traditional prejudices and social conditions remain obstacles in rural areas, including restrictions on land inheritance for women.

In the cooperative-operated mining sector that is responsible for some 32 of the overall 40 per cent of the country's exports that mining produces, mainly indigenous miners continue to work for less than $3.00 for a 12-hour day in dangerous and unhealthy conditions. The fall in global fossil fuel prices has diminished revenues from natural gas sales, which in turn limits the amounts available for social investment, such as the provision of quality health and education services.

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