• 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.

The Indigenous World 2022: Bolivia

According to the 2012 National Census, 41% of the Bolivian population aged 15 or over is of Indigenous origin. Projections from the National Institute of Statistics (INE) in 2017 indicated that this percentage is now likely to have increased to 48%.[i] Of the 36 recognised peoples in the country, the largest groups live in the Andes and are either Quechua-speaking (49.5%) or Aymara-speaking (40.6%); they self-identify as 16 different nationalities. The peoples living in the lowlands are largely Chiquitano (3.6%), Guaraní (2.5%) or Moxeño (1.4%) and these groups, together with the remaining 2.4%, make up the 36 recognised Indigenous Peoples.

To date, Indigenous Peoples have consolidated their collective ownership of 23 million hectares in the form of Tierras Comunitarias de Origen (Community Lands of Origin / TCO), covering 21 percent of the country's total area. With the approval of Decree Nº 727/10, these TCOs acquired the constitutional status of Territorio Indígena Originario Campesino (Native Indigenous Peasant Territory / TIOC). Bolivia has ratified the main international human rights conventions and has been a signatory to ILO Convention No. 169 since 1991. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has been in force since the enactment of Law No. 3760 on 7 November 2007. With the new State Political Constitution in 2009, Bolivia adopted the name of Plurinational State.

Sub-national and Indigenous representative elections

Elections were held on 7 March for all sub-national authorities in the country —governors, mayors, assembly members and councillors— including Indigenous representatives to these deliberative bodies, where they have reserved spaces under the Electoral Law, departmental statutes and municipal organic charters. Fifty-one (51) Indigenous representatives —including full and alternate members— were elected to eight of the nine departmental assemblies and to three municipal councils.

There is a very significant Indigenous presence in each of Bolivia's organs of power but, to date, there has been no comprehensive evaluation of their role. The vast majority of these representatives are decided by the regional or village organisations. Although some of them become useful tools for achieving demands, many end up demonstrating that the political system simply suffocates the reserved quota through well-known tactics of pressure and blackmail, which are difficult for an individual to avoid. What’s more, in more than a few cases, these representatives have actually become dangerous agents of foreign interests within the organisations and territories that originally elected them.

This broad Indigenous presence likely has little real impact on the decisions adopted by the bodies on which they sit. These are issues that are rarely debated within the organisations, which have gradually turned into spaces focused on legitimising candidates for public or party office. The same argument can be applied to the Indigenous presence on other bodies such as the judiciary or the electoral commission where, when they have been called upon to act, they have played a seriously questionable role.[ii]

In these elections, the regional opposition to the governing party (the Movement Towards Socialism or MAS) once again made important gains. These gains were seen most clearly in the departmental capitals along the La Paz-El Alto[iii]-Cochabamba-Santa Cruz axis, which is home to some 75% of the nation’s population. The results were largely the result of the government’s increasingly aggressive stance towards the political opposition. Its initial rhetoric of conciliation and unity, particularly that of the Indigenous vice-president David Choquehuanca, was soon forgotten. This aggression became expressed in the pursuit of a “terrorism” case against former president Jeanine Añez and several of her staff, as well as against the leaders of the protest that resulted in Evo Morales’ resignation in 2019, which the current government believes was a “coup” due to the decisive intervention of the police and military forces.[iv]

The conflict over land in the east

Since 2014-2015 (shortly after the end of the major period of titling of Indigenous territories under Evo Morales’ government), the territories have once more become a focal point of concern, no longer in relation to demanding legal recognition and establishment but now defending them from State decisions to dispose of their natural resources, or from the implementation of “development” plans and projects on their land without any consultation. Over the period, this defence has been expressed in Indigenous opposition to the development of operations headed up by the national oil company, the State mining corporation and transnational companies.

During the transitional government of Jeanine Añez, however, and with greater force since the inauguration of President Luis Arce, another actor has begun to loom in this developmentalist onslaught: the Andean migrant peasantry from the lowlands, a former ally of the Indigenous Peoples through the so-called Unity Pact.[v] The regulatory context has favoured them with agreements adopted between the government and the Santa Cruz agribusiness sector over the 2014-2019 period, and with an administrative process of distributing State lands to the peasantry as a priority, the only other potential beneficiaries being Indigenous Peoples, in line with the prerogative established in the National Constitution.

At the time, environmentalists denounced the large package of “incendiary” regulations that resulted in fires in the region following the relaxation of restrictions on forest clearing, a relaxation that favoured both medium and large sectors disguised as peasant communities. And yet the supervisory authorities have done little if anything to prevent the region’s forests from again being affected by fires this year.[vi]

The MAS’s main political adversary in the Santa Cruz governorship, Luis Fernando Camacho, was successfully elected and he immediately embarked on a widespread media campaign aimed at fostering regional support that could prevent the MAS’s judicial onslaught aganst opposition leaders from affecting him. The campaign focused on the tried and tested resource of unresolved land issues and highlighted real problems such as the settlements authorised to peasants by previous administrations of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA)[vii] in State areas with environmental restrictions on the development of production activities. A kind of “defence of the Indigenous ancestral territories of Santa Cruz” was thus activated, even going as far as to organise a Land Congress, which attracted great media support and amplified the conflict albeit not among the peoples it was claiming to represent..

Against this backdrop, and immersed in their own crises, the Indigenous organisations remained, at best, spectators to these conflicts.

In addition, INRA’s new management was having troubles of its own due to many of its officials coming down with COVID-19, not to mention the difficulties in running a shambolic institution in need of reorganisation and which was furthermore underfunded and accused of validating a strategy that was suppressing the Andean peasantry. Its actions showed little correlation with what was being observed on the ground: an empowered peasantry taking control of national protected area and environmental authorities and exerting pressure on multiple fronts to force decisions in support of a land distribution policy that would favour them in areas of high social and environmental sensitivity.

INRA's strategy of sectoral dialogue aimed at depoliticising the agrarian issue did not deliver the intended results[viii] given that the State’s endorsement of settlements in forested areas and the subsequent forest fires left little room for belief that the conflict was purely a defensive tactic on the part of the opposition. On top of which, flagrant cases of corruption were emerging, such as that of the Minister for Rural Development and Lands who was arrested in public for receiving a USD 20,000 bribe.[ix] In October, one land grab took a dramatic turn with the kidnapping of journalists and INRA officials by peasants who were seizing the Las Londras property. The court case has made little progress since due to the dubious position of the kidnapped officials and the land trafficking in which both the kidnapped businessmen and the kidnapping peasants were mired.[x]

Indigenous mobilisation in the lowlands

Indigenous organisations and autonomous governments are fighting their own battles on their territories. They are suffering similar problems but seeking solutions which, while in some cases are de facto, also include legal proposals and actions. Such is the case of the Northern and Southern Amazon, where a regional event resulted in a platform of demands being drawn up that is now forming a basis on which to challenge the State, demanding the reconstitution of the historical Indigenous agenda.[xi] The direct action that accompanied this agenda saw a road block set up by groups of the Mojeño people on the road between San Ignacio de Moxos and San Borja (Beni) in the last week of August 2021. As a result, several agreements were signed relating to the Constitutional Court’s final pronouncement on the autonomy statute of the Multiethnic Indigenous Territory, the conclusion of the land titling processes, amendments to the Autonomy Law and other local issues.[xii]

At the same time, the Guaraní people of the Charagua Iyambae autonomy in Santa Cruz were suffering an onslaught from multiple peasant settlements in the Ñembi Guasu protected area, under the protection of INRA administrative resolutions. The Indigenous government called for dialogue with the relevant authorities, achieving a number of undertakings to review these resolutions. In anticipation of the authorities’ possible failure to comply with these agreements, the Indigenous government obtained a precautionary measure to halt all activity across the entire protected area where it could endanger Indigenous rights or the environmental stability of the zone, which is also inhabited by families of the Ayoreo people living in voluntary isolation.

On 24 August, four days after agreements had been reached in San Ignacio de Moxos between various State agencies and the area’s organisations, a hundred Indigenous people left Trinidad-Beni for the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra demanding an end to the encroachment of peasants and settlers onto their territories, plus respect for their dignity as Indigenous Peoples and for their culture, since they are being subjugated not only territorially but also culturally in the country. The march attracted more media attention than ever before, gaining the support and solidarity of a majority of the urban population. On its arrival in Santa Cruz, the march was used to support the demands being made of the central government by the city governor. While urban support was a constant, however, the rest of the country's Indigenous organisations remained silent.

During the march, its leaders —which also included the former president of CIDOB and current secretary of international relations for COICA, Adolfo Chávez, who has distanced himself from the MAS government for some years— proposed creating an “Indigenous Parliament” as a space for dialogue, construction of proposals and questioning of the State. The national government poured scorn on the mobilisation, its representatives and even the “Parliament”, however, accusing it of being unrelated to any part of the Indigenous movement. The “Parliament” sat in the René Moreno University sports hall, where the march spent almost three months. It drew up a general document of 15 demands, which included several from the organised Indigenous movement such as the abolition of all legislation permitting new settlers, a decree allocating them a percentage of the dividends from oil and gas operations, and the cancellation of all hydroelectric projects on their lands.[xiii] The current leadership of the lowland organisation, CIDOB, invited the Parliament to coordinate these demands with those of the organisations but these initiatives were rejected on the grounds that the current leadership of CIDOB is very close to MAS.

Leonardo Tamburini is the Executive Director of ORÉ (Organisation for Legal and Social Support), a lawyer from the Università degli Studi di Macerata (Italy), former Director of the Centre for Legal Studies and Social Research (CEJIS) in Bolivia, and legal adviser to the Guaraní Autonomy of Charagua Iyambae.


This article is part of the 36th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2022 in full here


Notes and references

[i] INE 2017, following consultation by the Indigenous Navigator-Bolivia.

[ii] One particular case was that of member María Choque, one of the architects behind the authorisation of Evo Morales’ candidacy for President, despite the referendum of 21 February 2016 having denied him such possibility.

[iii] The specific case of El Alto should perhaps be interpreted in a particular way since the mayoralty was won by Eva Copa, former president of the Senate during the transitional government of Jeanine Añez and who presented herself as a dissident from the MAS although far from standing with those in opposition to the government.

[iv] “Detienen a Janine Añez en Bolivia por el ‘caso golpe de Estado contra Evo Morales’” [Janine Añez arrested in Bolivia for the ‘coup d'état against Evo Morales’]. BBC, 12 March 2021. https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-56381792

[v] Coordination of national organisations of peasants, peasant women, settlers and Indigenous Peoples from the highlands and lowlands.

[vi] As of September, more than three million hectares had been affected by fire in eastern Bolivia. https://es.mongabay.com/2021/10/bolivia-incendios-forestales-bosques/

[vii] Technical administrative body of the State with authority to grant land rights in the country, with national jurisdiction.

[viii] The national director of INRA decided not to respond to numerous invitations to meet with Governor Camacho’s Departmental Agrarian Commission, opting for a strategy of intersectoral dialogues to address the problems of each sector separately, preventing the collective spaces from being transformed into courts of inquisition against his administration.

[ix] Gonzalo Colque, “Caso Las Londras, ¿por qué debemos exponer a los traficantes de tierras al escrutinio público?” [The Las Londras case, why should we expose land traffickers to public scrutiny?]. Fundación Tierra, 24 November 2021. https://ftierra.org/index.php/opinion-y-analisis/1012-caso-las-londras-por-que-debemos-exponer-a-los-traficantes-de-tierras-al-escrutinio-publico

[x] “Aprehenden al ministro de Desarrollo Rural, Edwin Characayo, por recibir soborno” [Rural Development Minister Edwin Characayo arrested for receiving bribe]. El Deber, 14 April 2021.https://eldeber.com.bo/pais/aprehenden-al-ministro-de-desarrollo-rural-edwin-characayo-por-recibir-soborno_227994

[xi] The agenda items they set out were: 1) Indigenous autonomies and self-government, 2) Recognition of the existence of Indigenous Peoples in the Plurinational State, 3) Rights and political representation, 4) Land and territory, 5) Abolition of the Beni Land Use Plan (PLUS), 6) Defence of the Indigenous Territory and Isiboro Sécure National Park (TIPNIS), 7) Public works and access to basic services, and 8) Health and education. See:


[xii] “Indígenas del Beni levantan el bloqueo tras firma de acuerdos con el gobierno municipal de San Ignacio de Moxos” [Indigenous people of Beni lift the blockade after signing agreements with the municipal government of San Ignacio de Moxos]. Agencia de Noticias Fides, 20 August 2021. https://www.noticiasfides.com/nacional/sociedad/indigenas-del-beni-levantan-el-bloqueo-tras-firma-de-acuerdos-con-el-gobierno-municipal-de-san-ignacio-de-mojos--411239

[xiii] Indígenas bolivianos caminan 550 kilómetros en defensa de territorios [Indigenous Bolivians walk 550 kilometres in defence of their territories]. DW, 1 October 2021 https://www.dw.com/es/ind%C3%ADgenas-bolivianos-caminan-550-kilómetros-en-defensa-de-territorios/a-59372308



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting 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

 instagram social icon facebook_social_icon.png   youtuble_logo_icon.png  linkedin_social_icon.png twitter-x-icon.png 

NOTE! This site uses cookies and similar technologies.

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

I understand