• Indigenous peoples in Bolivia

    Indigenous peoples in Bolivia

    There are 36 recognized peoples in Bolivia. With the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples and a new Constitution, Bolivia took the name of plurinational state.
  • Data

    36 indigenous peoples in Bolivia are recognized. 34 indigenous peoples live in the lowlands of Bolivia’s Eastern region.
  • Rights

    2007: Bolivia adopts the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • Challenges

    A major challenge for the indigenous peoples of Bolivia relates to the seismic work in search of new oil and gas reserves, as well as hydroelectric projects.

Indigenous World 2019: Bolivia

According to the 2012 National Census, 41% of the Bolivian population aged 15 and over is of indigenous origin, although the 2017 projections from the National Statistics Institute (INE) indicate that this may now have increased to 48%.1 Of the 36 peoples recognised in the country, most Quechua (49.5%) and Aymara (40.6%) speakers live in the Andean area where they self-identify into 16 nationalities.

The Chiquitano (3.6%), Guaraní (2.5%) and Moxeño (14%) peoples live in the Lowlands where, together with the remaining 2.4%, they make up the remaining 20 recognised indigenous peoples. The indigenous peoples have thus far consolidated 23 million hectares of collectively-owned land as Native Community Lands (Tierras Comunitarias de Origen/TCO), representing 21% of the country’s total area. With the approval of Decree No. 727/10, the TCOs gained the constitutional name of Peasant Native Indigenous Territory  (Territorio  Indígena  Originario Campesino/TIOC). Bolivia has ratified the main international human rights conventions, has been a signatory to ILO 169 since 1991, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) has been in full force since the approval of Law No. 3760 of 7 November 2007. With the new 2009 Political State Constitution, Bolivia adopted the status of plurinational state.

Evo Morales running for a further term

Decision No. 0084/2017 of the Constitutional Court, which established the right to run for president an indefinite number of times, was an event that marked virtually the whole year in Bolivia, and which also had an impact on indigenous organisations’ (both pro-government and opposition) relationships with the national government. Over the course of the year, the presence of public officials in communities and areas with a high indigenous population intensified. Their presence aimed at negotiating development projects conditional upon indigenous peoples’ continuing political support for the re-election of the presidential ticket. We will have to wait until October 2019 to see if this policy has borne the expected fruits, although there is already a significant sector of indigenous organisations that have publicly withdrawn their support from the government because of its rejection not only of the Constitution but also of the indigenous principle of “shared power”.2

On 1 September, the bicameral Plurinational Legislative Assembly approved the new Law on Political Organisations No. 1096/18,3 which requires primaries to be held in February 2019. It was the Electoral Court, however, that decided on the candidates to be accepted for these preliminary elections, resulting in a new political conflict that ended with the resignation of the Court’s president and one of its most notable members.4 This altered the Court’s internal balance of power, leaving the body more susceptible to pressures from the governing party.5 This can be seen in the Court’s decision to validate the government party candidate at the start of December, which legitimised the possibility of a fourth presidential term.6

Sea ruling at International Court of Justice

One of the most important and eagerly anticipated events for the whole of Bolivia in 2018 was the ruling that would give the country access to the Pacific Ocean via an agreement with Chile, which had annexed Bolivia’s coastline in the 1879-1883 war. The case was lodged with the International Court of Justice in 2013 and a statement was made by the court on preliminary issues in 2014 that was broadly favourable to Bolivia. However, against all expectations and despite the overwhelming arguments demonstrating Chile’s commitment to granting a sovereign route through to the sea for its neighbour, the Court widely rejected Bolivian aspirations. This event had negative political repercussions for the government, which had hoped to legitimise its re-election with a victory The Hague.

Rejection of class action against “Rositas” dam

The Coordinating Body for the Defence of Indigenous Territories (Coordinadora de Defensa de los Territorios Indígenas)7 brings together a number of indigenous peoples’ organisations, activists and human and environmental rights defence bodies to coordinate efforts aimed at halting government decisions authorising the construction of large infrastructure works on indigenous territories and communities without any consultation. As part of this strategy, the Guaraní communities of Tatarenda and Yimao have lodged a class action through their native authorities denouncing the violation of their right to free, prior and informed consultation as enshrined in the Constitution and the UNDRIP, in force in Bolivia since 2007. The action was submitted on 28 March and found admissible, with the administrative suspension of the project thus being ordered.8 However, faced with pressure from the government, the Guaraní and their lawyer9 state that the case was referred to the Lagunillas courts for lack of jurisdiction, which then ruled against the petitioners. In any case, President Evo Morales stated that the project would be halted and the funding channelled to other works. Towards the end of December, however, he noted the possibility of a referendum to decide on the dam’s construction.10

Visit of the International Rights of Nature Tribunal (TIDN)

Between 14 and 23 August, a TIDN commission11 visited the country specifically to investigate the complaints of a lack of consultation in the construction of the Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos highway through the Isiboro Sécure (TIPNIS) National Park and Indigenous Territory. Previously, on 7 and 8 November 2017 in Bonn, Germany,12 this same commission had heard Marqueza Teco and Fabián Gil, chairs of the TIPNIS women’s local chapter and TIPNIS local chapter respectively, talk of the effects that implementing this project would have on them.13 The commission visited the cities of Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, Trinidad and La Paz, meeting with human and environmental rights defenders, government officials and indigenous experts. In Tridinacito community, in TIPNIS, they were met by a large assembly of people and gathered testimonies from dozens of communities on the consequences of the planned highway and on the approval of Law No. 180/11. These testimonies declared TIPNIS intangible in order to protect their natural habitat.14 After the visit, the commission sent the plurinational state a questionnaire noting its concern on the basis of the complaints received and requesting information on the contracting process for the construction companies involved. It also sought to investigate provision of continuity in the project, environmental mitigation measures in the areas of the civil works and questioned the causes of deforestation in “Polígono 7”.15

Indigenous autonomy in Chimanes Forest

Self-government within their territories and municipalities has, for some time, been the main demand of Bolivia’s indigenous organisations. Rather hesitantly, the state has been supporting this demand, although there was no major progress in 2018 compared to previous years.16

Where significant progress has been noted is in the process of autonomy for the Multi-ethnic Indigenous Territory (Territorio Indígena Multiétnico/TIM) in the south Amazonian department of Beni. Multiple meetings took place throughout the year between the state and the local offices of the multi-ethnic, Movima and T’simane territories to consolidate a significant part of the Chimanes Forest17 in favour of the TIM, incorporating the territorial jurisdiction of the nascent indigenous autonomy. Finally, the government agreed to sign a Titling Agreement,18 thus guaranteeing collective title to the area claimed through the agrarian procedure, along with a continuation of the process of autonomy with this area in the TIM territory.

Notes and references

  1. INE 2017, consultation via the Indigenous Navigator –Bolivia.

  2. See The New York Times, “En Bolivia, la base indígena le retira su apoyo a Evo Morales” https://nyti.ms/2T59ygK

  3. Contrary to the Constitution and betraying the agreements on consultation in its drafting, Law 1096 deprives indigenous organisations and peoples of their right to participate in national elections through their representative organisations and authorises participation solely through political

  4. The activist, Katia Uriona, and the sociologist, José Luis Exeni, former President of the National Electoral Court from 2006 to 2009

  5. See Correo del sur, “Más sobre las renuncias de Uriona y Exeni” at http://bit.ly/2T7Hvxa

  6. The day following the TSE decision, opposition members had a hearing in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) at which they requested that the matter be referred to the Inter-American Court for interpretation of Article 23 of the American Convention, in particular whether this considers indefinite re-election to be a human right, as ruled by Decision 0084/2017 of the Plurinational Constitutional Court. A decision is expected in 2019.

  7. The Coordinating Body comprises organisations and communities opposed to construction of the Rositas Dam (Santa Cruz) and dams on the Bala River, the construction of the Villa Tunari-San Ignaxio de Moxos highway through TIPNIS, hydrocarbon activity in the Tariquía National Park and other

  8. See Pagina Siete, “Juez admite acción popular y dispone paralización del proyecto hidroeléctrico Rositas” at http://bit.ly/2Tb1JGB

  9. See Oxigeno, “Juez rechaza acción popular de comunidades guaraníes contra hidroeléctrica Rositas” at http://bit.ly/2T76fWn

  10. See La Razon, “Evo habla de hacer un referéndum para la construcción de proyecto hidroeléctrico Rosita” at http://bit.ly/2T76H71

  11. The International Rights of Nature Tribunal is an ethical body aimed at investigating and ruling on violations of the rights of nature due to offences by international organisations, states, private or corporate bodies or individuals, in application of the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth approved in 2010 during the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth held in Tiquipaya, Cochabamba, See http://bit.ly/2T5SG9A

  12. The TIDN sat in parallel to the COP 23 Climate Change

  13. The Indigenous World (2018) p.

  14. On 19 August, the TIDN’s Commission was delayed for more than five hours at the point known as “Polígono 7” while on its way to Santísima Trinidad community, at the invitation of the organisation Indigenous Council of the South (Consejo Indígena del Sur/CONISUR), comprising settlers from the southern area of TIPNIS who are advocating for the highway’s construction. See Monga bay at http://bit.ly/2SX4ivN

  15. See CEJIS at http://bit.ly/2SZYOjO

  16. The Chimanes Forest is an area of more than 500,000 ha of forest and the scene of Messianic mobilisations in the search for so-called “sacred land” or “land without evil”, which have been organised by groups of indigenous Mojeño, Yuracaré and Movima at different moments in history. In the 1970s, the area was handed over to companies for logging purposes. The decrees recognising the indigenous territories following the 1st Indigenous March “For Territory and Dignity” in 1990 provided that, at the end of the companies’ contracts, the area should return to the ownership of the peoples inhabiting it. The 1996 Forest Law extended said contracts until 2011, since which date the state has not returned the forests to the

  17.  Over an area of approx. 283,000

  18. See APCBolivia, “Corregidores y autoridades acuerdan titular tierras de indígenas del TIM” at http://bit.ly/2T3ZzIA

Leonardo Tamburini is a lawyer specialising in indigenous rights and an associate researcher with the Centre for Social Research and Legal Studies (CEJIS).



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

For media inquiries click here

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Contact IWGIA

Prinsessegade 29 B, 3rd floor
DK 1422 Copenhagen
Phone: (+45) 53 73 28 30
E-mail: iwgia@iwgia.org
CVR: 81294410

Report possible misconduct, fraud, or corruption

NOTE! This site uses cookies and similar technologies.

If you do not change browser settings, you agree to it. Learn more

I understand