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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Lowland Indigenous Peoples in Bolivia

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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 lowland indigenous have several factors that make rebellion more likely, such as territorial concentration and recent regime instability, factors such as low levels of group cohesion and the absence of government repression make rebellion unlikely in the near future. Furthermore, factors such as efforts at reform -- in particular land reform -- and international support for nonviolent settlement of grievances make rebellion less likely. Protest, however, is more likely to continue in the future at low to moderate levels. Lowland indigenous face significant societal discrimination, especially at the hands of whites and mestizo landowners. Furthermore, the Bolivian government is a relatively new and somewhat unstable democracy. One can expect continued coordination of lowland indigenous groups with the more numerous and politically more powerful highland indigenous. However, when conventional politics fail, lowland indigenous can be expected to use protest to make their voices heard.


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, with multiple groups and a large number of mestizos. 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, who live in Santa Cruz. Among the many linguistic groups still inhabiting the lowlands, four are predominant (LANG = 1): 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, although many continue to incorporate elements of indigenous belief into the Catholic religion (BELIEF = 0).

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 haciendados 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. Furthermore, a significant number of lowland indigenous live in remote communities and lack the basic documentation necessary in order to claim the benefits of citizenship.

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 (GOJPA06 = 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, demanding new social and economic programs suited to their needs. 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.

Lowland indigenous, despite the rise to power by highland indigenous leaders, still face widespread societal discrimination (POLDIS04-06 = 3). They live in some of the poorest and least developed regions of the country. While some remedial policies have been put in place, they are yet to have significantly improved the situation of lowland indigenous groups (ECDIS04-06 = 2).

The primary grievances of lowland indigenous regard demarcation of indigenous lands. While the government has promised return of indigenous lands, implementation has been stymied by powerful international and local interests (ECGR04-06 = 2). A significant number of lowland indigenous, in particular members of the Guarani, face virtual enslavement by large landowners. While previously, lowland indigenous primarily advocated remedial political policies, such as guaranteed representation in the central government, in 2006, Guaranis, frustrated by lack of governmental progress on the land issue, launched a bid for autonomy (POLGR04-05 = 2; POLGR06 = 3).

In the last decade or so, the Bolivian government (supported by foreign aid programs) has actively pursued repatriation of Indian territories in the lowlands. 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, although it might be many years before that change is perceptible. The lowland indigenous, in part because of their presence in the Amazonian region and the “greening” of the transnational indigenous solidarity movement, have received consistent international support from external actors in the areas of support for land reform, education for advocates, support for bilingual education and support for their exercise of political rights (NSASUP04-06 = 1).



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Information current as of December 31, 2006