• 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.

The Indigenous World 2021: Bolivia

According to the 2012 National Census, 41% of Bolivians over the age of 15 are 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 region where they self-identify as one of 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 other 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. Following the approval of Decree No. 727/10, the TCOs changed their official name to Peasant Native Indigenous Territories (Territorio Indígena Originario Campesino/TIOC). Bolivia has ratified the main international human rights conventions and has been a signatory to ILO Convention 169 since 1991, with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in full effect 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.


Transitional government of Jeanine Añez

Senator Jeanine Añez became President of Bolivia on 10 November 2019 following Evo Morales’ resignation earlier that day. This was in the wake of a 21-day national strike and multiple conflicts arising due to complaints of electoral fraud reported by the election observation mission of the Organization of American States’ (OAS), which recommended that the October elections be re-run. To this day, people are divided as to what actually caused the departure of the former president: whether it was a “coup d'état” that removed him from office or a “popular insurrection” that rejected his candidacy as illegal in view of the results of the 2016 referendum, which denied him the possibility of a further term in office. The mobilisations were, in fact, triggered by irregularities in the “quick counting” electoral system identified by the OAS mission in an independent technical audit requested by Evo Morales himself. Following the successive resignations of Alvaro García Linera, Vice-President, and then the presidents of the legislative chambers and other different positions in the constitutional line of succession, the role fell to Añez, second vice-president of the Senate.[2] The legislative chambers retained their majorities for the Movement for Socialism (MAS), and the party continued to control seven of the nine governorships and more than 200 of the 330 Bolivian municipalities.[3]

The new government tried to quell protests by Evo’s supporters with violent repression and by prosecuting former officials and media activists critical of the situation. They accompanied this with a media and social network campaign that criminalised the MAS and anyone referring to that “dictator”, a strategy very similar to those practised by military governments of the past. More than 1,500 people were arrested on charges of “terrorism”, in some cases solely for being in contact with those previously in charge. The grimmest case was that of Evo Morales’ legal representative, Dr. Patricia Hermosa, who, despite being heavily pregnant, was detained for several months for trying to get her client authorised as candidate for senator in Cochabamba department.[4] The “most wanted” former leaders took refuge in the Mexican embassy in La Paz, which was besieged by pro-government sectors, self-proclaimed defenders of “freedom”, who harassed them, and others in their private homes, for months.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned this policy in press releases and reports calling for the repeal of totally arbitrary and unconstitutional laws that authorised the unbridled use of the armed forces in social conflicts or that sanctioned those expressing dissent over the national political situation, all with the excuse of combating COVID-19.[5]

As for the MAS, there was never any recognition of the political errors that had led citizens to mobilise in November 2019 in the first place. On the contrary, a story was constructed around an alleged international conspiracy led by the United States that was using the OAS to justify the “coup” and take Bolivia’s lithium, bringing the country to its knees before the transnationals, and in which the military was also apparently prominently involved.[6] This position gave the transitional government constant reason to scale up the persecution, attacks and public intimidation, creating a polarisation that permanently fuelled the ensuing electoral campaign.


Demonstrating for elections

After a rigid lockdown was decreed on 23 March, further national elections that were due to have been held in May had to be suspended twice. The new Supreme Electoral Court[7] finally set a date for 18 October after a national roadblock lasting several days threatened the supply of oxygen to the hospitals, which is brought by truck from plants in the east of the country to the Andes. The conflict lasted several days and although the government tried to pass it off as a criminal act instigated from Buenos Aires, where Evo Morales was in exile, the blockade was in fact an autonomous action and even against the wishes of the exiled leader, who also made unsuccessful attempts to defuse it.

This conflict damaged yet further the image of an illegitimate government which had already been handling the health crisis caused by the pandemic very badly. Their only response to the ensuing political crisis was the demonisation of Evo Morales and violent repression, kept somewhat in check by constant public challenging of their actions from a significant sector of society and the bold actions of international organisations and friendly countries, who acted as the guarantors of peace.


COVID-19 and Indigenous Peoples

The pandemic was administered by the Añez government as if the country’s Indigenous Peoples did not exist.[8] More than 100 days after the lockdown was decreed, a specific strategy document for the Indigenous population was finally made public by the Vice-Minister of Health, who was dismissed a few days later. The transitional government approved two specific coupons to alleviate the economic crisis generated by the pandemic: the Family Basket Coupon and the Family Coupon[9] but this resulted in large numbers of Indigenous people travelling to intermediary settlements to collect the coupons and then taking the virus back to their communities. The same happened with the distribution of COVID-19 medicines. Those who visited the communities (officials or soldiers) were often the vectors of infection for entire communities, ruining the organisations’ efforts to isolate themselves from the disease.

The Indigenous organisations submitted several documents and made various submissions to the state calling for the adoption of culturally-appropriate measures given the plurinational nature of Bolivian society but they received no response whatsoever. For their part, the Indigenous communities, together with their support institutions, took a series of measures of their own to protect themselves. Several campaigns were conducted to provide the health posts with useful medicines, booklets were produced on preventive[10] health protocols and humanitarian aid was dropped in territories declared in an urgent situation.

The organisations’ main self-protection measure was to ban entry and exit to and from their communities, as well as to incorporate their traditional medicines into the prevention protocol: their knowledge of their medicines’ effects in reinforcing antibodies and providing immunological defence. These actions were autonomous measures taken by Indigenous Peoples, who did not need external advice, counsel or guidance from “mainstream” medicine.[11]


October elections and the return of the MAS

Against all odds, or at least against those who believed that the fall of Evo Morales would plunge the MAS into a deep crisis never to return to power, the corrupt and repressive administration of those who put themselves forward as the alternative never managed to draw the eye of the Bolivian electorate. Those running as a centrist alternative, such as former President Carlos Mesa, were strategically and mercilessly attacked from both sides of the political spectrum, resulting in a boost for the MAS and a limitation of their chances, as well as those of the extreme right as represented by civic leader Luis Fernando Camacho. Their only proposal being that the “dictator” should not return, and with the errors of the transitional government weighing heavy on their shoulders, the political opposition never had a chance. The Lucho-David team won 55.1% of the vote, Mesa 28.3% and Camacho 14%. The explanation for such a vote for the MAS after a year out of power, its leaders persecuted and with systematic scorn and intimidation via the social media, largely lies in the following reasons: firstly, a lack of understanding of the ethnic/cultural composition of the country, in which more than 80% of the population are of Indigenous or popular heritage and who felt, despite justified criticism of the abuses committed by Evo Morales, that this white/mestizo minority had no legitimacy to trample on hard-won rights, above all that of their dignity as Indigenous people, a right that was systematically violated by an opposition campaign that often bordered on the most recalcitrant racism. The second factor was related to the fact that the MAS’s competition were completely unable to detach themselves from the catastrophic administration of the transitional government and ended up paying the price. Thirdly, and linked to the above, they never really put forward an electoral proposal that went beyond criticising the 14-year tenure of Evo Morales, even though the MAS itself failed to offer anything much new beyond their past offers.

At the inauguration ceremony, the message of Vice-President David Choquehuanca reverberated strongly in political circles, not only because of its profound and conciliatory content but also because of who he is: the most legitimate Aymara leader among the Indigenous Peoples and the urban intelligentsia, and one who had distanced himself from the MAS when sectarian positions began to prevail. The vice-president claimed the beginning of a new dawn, a new pachacutik: “A new sun and a new expression in the language of life where empathy for the other or the collective good replaces selfish individualism.... We are in times of being Jiwasa once more: I am not me, we are us.”

He also stressed that, after everything that had happened, the Indigenous people were still alive and remained a reference for the construction of a more just, supportive and inclusive society. Above all, this last aspect was a breath of fresh air that helped ease the tensions in Bolivian society, at least for a while, in the face of fears that the return of the MAS to power could herald the start of a new cycle of polarisation and revenge. Despite the hopes of the current political opposition, however, this has not been forthcoming.


Situation of the Indigenous territories

This year, as last, voracious forest fires were once again reported in the east of the country. There were 7,144 hot spots recorded in 48 Indigenous territories.[12] This new disaster came on top of the pandemic, leaving several Indigenous Peoples in crisis. Such was the case of the Ayoreo people, and significant migration was noted from their titled territories.[13] The impact was also severe on families in a state of voluntary isolation in the Chaco region, under the jurisdiction of Charagua Iyambae, where the areas identified for the protection of these groups will need to be reconsidered due to the almost total destruction of the forests they occupied.

The new cycle of fires called into question the state’s true desire to preserve its natural forests and to promote real policies of conservation and responsible natural resource use. In this context, the transitional government of Jeanine Añez approved a set of regulations aimed at finally opening the doors to transgenic crops, including the adoption of Supreme Decree 4232/20 authorising genetically-modified corn, sugar cane, cotton and wheat. The Guaraní Nation and other environmental activists proposed a class action in response. The current government has mooted the possibility of repealing the decree in question in the context of a technical and policy discussion on agricultural development.

Progress in Native, Peasant, Indigenous Autonomy (AIOC) access procedures

As the quarantine measures began to be lifted, the agenda for accessing Indigenous autonomy for those territories involved was revived. The formation of autonomous Indigenous governments in Indigenous municipalities and territories is a right enshrined in the 2009 Constitution. The procedure for accessing autonomy is regulated by the Constitution itself and the Framework Law on Autonomies and consists of a seemingly endless series of stages that force the people to go through all four branches of government before validly electing their authorities and setting up their own governments. To date, only three of 36 autonomy procedures have resulted in the successful formation of Indigenous autonomies; the others have either been suspended due to internal conflicts or are still in the process of completing the more than 12 stages involved. Most Indigenous autonomy processes are taking place in the highlands. Of the 33 autonomies being processed, only nine are in the lowlands, including the Beni Multiethnic Indigenous Territory (TIM I), the Monkox Nation of Lomerío Territory in Santa Cruz, and the Kabineño People’s Territory, all of which are being supported by the CEJIS Centre for Legal Studies and Social Research.

The TIM and Lomerío are currently in the final stages of endorsing the autonomous statutes within their jurisdictions in order to form a government, the last stage of Indigenous autonomy. Over the next few months, these two territories are expected to finally achieve autonomy despite the bureaucratic barriers the state has put in their path.


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 advisor to the Guaraní Autonomy of Charagua Iyambae.


This article is part of the 35th 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 2021 in full here

Notes and references

 [1] INE 2017, sobre consulta para el Navegador Indígena –Bolivia.

[2] This succession was endorsed by the Constitutional Court in Ruling 0003/01.

[3] This particular political/institutional situation supports the thesis that Añez' transitional government was far from being a “dictatorship”, despite its authoritarian way of governing.

[4] Even while in detention, parliamentary members were denied visits to check on her state of health in prison.

Pagina siete “Impiden que comisión de diputados visite a Patricia Hermosa” [MP delegation prevented from visiting Patricia Hermosa], 16 June 2020.


[5] The IACHR and various bodies publicly challenged the adoption of Supreme Decree 4078/20 of 14 November, which authorised the security forces to intervene in conflicts but provided for no punishment with respect to any excesses they might commit (Art. 3). The government abrogated this rule 14 days later. Through Supreme Decree 4231/20, the government gave itself the authority to prosecute and punish those who spread news causing “anxiety” among the population, thus hindering the right to freedom of expression.

Los Tiempos. 13 May 2020. https://www.lostiempos.com/actualidad/pais/20200513/derechos-humanos-onu-pide-modificar-ds-4231-no-criminalizar-libertad?fbclid=IwAR36_cXI9wFhjwAiSw6Q57Iu71GPxcOm1UyZLWhGWA5_30y1wlUsneBLJow#

[6] Evo Morales approved Supreme Decree 2310/19, which empowered him to negotiate the lithium of the Salar de Uyuni, the main tourist site in Bolivia, awarding it to an unknown German company. This led to protests in Potosí even before the elections, as this department was left without royalties or any possibility of creating work for its inhabitants, in express violation of the Constitution. Finally, Evo repealed the decree as a way of appeasing the mobilisations.

DW. “Evo Morales deroga el decreto de empresa mixta de litio con una firma alemana.” [Evo Morales repeals decree on lithium joint venture with German firm].


[7] Because the Supreme Electoral Court (TSE), which administered the 2019 elections, was dismissed due to serious allegations of having been part of the irregularities revealed by the OAS, and was even later detained on that accusation, it was re-established with its seven members being elected from lists of three “notable names” proposed by each of the different political forces, including the MAS. The member of the TSE was directly appointed by President Añez, Dr. Salvador Romero Ballivián, a prestigious legal professional; three other members came from sectors related to the MAS and the final three from sectors critical of Evo Morales’ administration.

[8] Vargas Delgado, Miguel, “Entre el abandono y el etnocidio: pueblos indígenas y COVID-19 en Bolivia,” [Between abandonment and ethnocide: Indigenous Peoples and COVID-19 in Bolivia]. Indigenous Debates, 1 July 2020. https://www.debatesindigenas.org/notas/55-abandono-etnocidio.html

[9] Ministry of Economy and Public Finance “En todo el país se realizaron 8 millones de pagos en bonos sociales.” [8 million payments in social coupons made throughout the country] 2 June 2020. https://www.economiayfinanzas.gob.bo/en-todo-el-pais-se-realizaron-8-millones-de-pagos-en-bonos-sociales.html

[10] CEJIS, “Cartilla de medidas básicas de bioseguridad frente al COVID-19 para las comunidades del TIM I, Beni” [Basic biosafety measures against COVID-19 in the TIM I communities, Beni], 28 December 2020. https://www.cejis.org/cartilla-de-medidas-basicas-de-bioseguridad-frente-al-covid-19-para-las-comunidades-del-tim-i-beni/

[11] Monasterio Mercado, Fátima: “Remedios del monte: indígenas amazónicos de Bolivia lanzan un recetario de medicinas ancestrales” [Remedies from the countryside: Bolivian Amazonian peoples launch book of ancestral medicines]. Indigenous Debates, 11 May 2020. https://www.debatesindigenas.org/notas/45-remedios-del-monte.html

[12] CEJIS. “Reporte de focos de calor acumulados entre el 1 y el 30 de noviembre de 2020” [Report on cumulative hotspots between 1 and 30 November 2020], 14 December 2020. https://www.cejis.org/reporte-de-focos-de-calor-acumulados-entre-el-1-y-el-30-de-noviembre-de-2020/

[13] ORE Bolivia: “Recuperación del hábitat del pueblo ayoreo después de los incendios en la región de la Chiquitanía y el Chaco.” [Recovery of the habitat of the Ayoreo people after fires in the Chiquitanía and Chaco region], 2020, WWF Bolivia, Santa Cruz de la Sierra.



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

Indigenous World

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

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