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

State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Bolivia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 11 March 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Bolivia, 11 March 2008, available at: [accessed 24 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.

In Bolivia, indigenous issues and politics continued to intersect very strongly during 2007.

Besides being the first Bolivian president of indigenous descent, Evo Morales is the still-sitting long-time leader of the Six Federations coca growers' union. Morales is a declared opponent of the violent militarized eradication of the coca crop as advocated by the United States.

The coca leaf remains an integral part of traditional indigenous culture across the Andean region, with practical medicinal and religious uses dating back several thousand years. Besides being an excellent source of vitamins, it is widely brewed as a popular tea and traditionally chewed by Bolivian miners and farmers as a coffee-like stimulant and antidote to altitude sickness.

Natural coca leaf is still listed as an illegal drug in UN documents dating back to 1952. However, one of Morales' stated aims in taking office is the decriminalizing of natural coca production as a key step towards legalizing the traditional coca leaf and officially differentiating it from processed cocaine.

The year 2007 saw increased efforts to strengthen this policy, with continued restriction of individual cultivations to a legal limit of 1 cato (40 square metres). Nevertheless the US government maintains that liberalizing coca leaf production among indigenous peasants will only fuel the illicit market.

In 2007 Bolivian critics, including the president, continued to argue that both illegal cocaine consumption and the manufacture and export of the necessary precursor processing chemicals are centred in the United States and do not involve the indigenous population's rights to produce the leaf in peace.

Approximately 62 per cent of the Bolivian population self-identifies as indigenous, primarily from the Quechua and Aymara groups, with Guarani constituting 1 per cent. Around 70 per cent of Bolivia's indigenous population live in poverty or extreme poverty. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported in November 2006 that this majority continues to exist with minimal basic services, little access to education and to be under-represented in government and politics.

Likewise, despite legal prohibitions against social and systemic discrimination, the small Afro-Bolivian minority in 2007 generally remained low on the socio-economic scale and faced severe social and economic disadvantages. The majority of the estimated 35,000 self-identified Afro-Bolivian population lives in the Yungas region of the Department of La Paz.

In parts of the La Paz Yungas where coca-leaf cultivation was previously illegal, communities have accepted the cato programme and agreed to eliminate non-sanctioned coca cultivation. However, in other sections of Yungas, where coca growing has long been traditional and legal, farmers have resisted reductions but agreed to establish 'coca free zones' where new planting is prohibited.

A conflict that erupted between Bolivian forces and coca growers during late September 2006 in the Department of Cochabamba caused critics in 2007 to strongly advocate the need for more dialogue and negotiated solutions between officials and coca growers.

A joint police-army coca eradication task force was reportedly attacked by nearly 200 armed coca growers (cocaleros) in Cochabamba's very remote Carrasco national park, resulting in the deaths of two young cocaleros, hostage-taking, and police and civilian injuries.

As a result, monitoring groups like the Andean Information Network during 2007 increasingly called for coca-control methods that would respect growers' human rights, instead of harsh military intervention designed essentially to meet US eradication targets.

Debt bondage

There were also special issues involving indigenous workers from the Altiplano region who remained at risk of being trafficked for agricultural work and other reasons.

Besides being a major producer of sugar, according to World Bank data since 2003 Bolivia has also been a major exporter of Brazil nuts, providing 73 per cent of the world supply. In 2007 the seasonal harvesting of sugar cane and Brazil nuts continued to be the main cause of debt bondage style forced labour for over 20,000 indigenous people in the eastern lowland departments of Beni, Santa Cruz, Tarija and Pando.

According to ILO researchers, sugar producers hire sub-contractors who travel to the heavily populated western Bolivian highlands and lure potential indigenous agricultural workers by offering cash advances prior to Christmas, New Year and Carnival celebrations. The debt, which is linked to future salaries, is then used to obtain and retain labour.

The mostly Quechua workers bring along their families and are obligated to the labour contractor throughout the sugar and Brazil nut harvest season. They are denied the option of returning the cash, or switching to better-paying employers. Contractors maintain indebtedness by charging hugely inflated prices for basic goods at shops on the often-isolated harvesting sites.

According to Anti-Slavery International, up to 7,000 indigenous children, some as young as 9 years old, share the debt bondage along with their parents. In instances such as parental demise the debt is sometimes transferred to the next generation.

Besides sugarcane and Brazil nut plantation work, indigenous children are also trafficked for criado service. This involves 10–12-year-old male and female children who are indentured to middle- and upper-class families in areas like Santa Cruz and Pando. They perform domestic work supposedly in exchange for education, room and board. However, according to UNICEF studies, in most cases the child's labour input is considered inadequate for education costs so many do not attend school. As of 2007 there was still no official oversight of these practices.

Constitution debates

Indigenous issues have continued to surface strongly in the political arena. During 2007 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. This represented a continuation of the deep polarization that began in August 2006 with the formation of the Constituent Assembly aimed at fundamentally rewriting the Bolivian Constitution to provide greater empowerment to the indigenous population.

However, constitution reform drafting, which began in August 2007, seemed to represent another major area of contention between the elite and the impoverished and marginalized indigenous majority – especially as it came on the heels of the earlier land reform programme of June 2006, which began to distribute state-owned and under-used land to peasants and indigenous people. By its own admission the government considers constitution reform and indigenous land ownership as key measures to address chronic social imbalance and to counter exploitative practices like debt bondage.

Besides fermenting strong political antagonisms, the proposal to reform the constitution to grant special indigenous autonomy, brought to the fore what some see as the historical racist and xenophobic underpinnings of the ethnic, cultural and geographical divide between eastern and western Bolivia.

In December 2006, members of indigenous NGOs, civilian groups and pro-secessionist elements in the eastern department of Santa Cruz clashed over local consultation for regional autonomy. The 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 their houses ransacked.

This tension continued throughout 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 provide 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 indigenous groups 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, and the disruptive November 2007 Constitution Assembly clashes between government supporters and opposition demonstrators in the city of Sucre, did not offer much hope for an easy or tranquil resolution of these issues.

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