• 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.
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Acknowledgement, invisibility and participation in Afro-Bolivian communities


Despite the achievements of the Plurinational State, racism and racial disparities persist in Bolivia. In this regard, the absence of accurate statistical data on self-identification hinders the development of policies that promote equality. Afro-Bolivian women, in particular, experience intersectional discrimination wherever racism and sexism converge, worsening the conditions in which they live. Although the political constitution of the state institutionally recognizes their presence in the national political space, no significant progress been yet made in the participation of Afro-Bolivians in decision-making.

Historically, the Afro-Bolivian community has suffered discrimination, racism, and invisibility within national society. One reason for this, is that the majority of them have typically been located in rural and semi-urban areas. As a result, claims have been made that there are no black people in Bolivia. This situation has prompted Afro-Bolivian leaders to mobilize for increase recognition of their culture and their presence in the national territory.

More recently, mobilization aimed to achieve constitutional recognition through a national political advocacy process during the Constituent Assembly (2006-2009). Once the political constitution was approved, the democratic nature of the plurinational state institutionalized the recognition of indigenous and Afro-Bolivian populations in the national political space. In this way, leaders became advocates for marginalized sectors.

Despite these advances, recognition of Afro-Bolivian people has been characterized by the perpetuation of stereotyped images and the reduction of Afro-Bolivians to saya music. There has also been an appropriation of Afro-Bolivian cultural values: saya is practiced in the absence of Afro-Bolivians and is recognized as part of the country's folklore. Furthermore, racist representations persist in dances such as tundiki, which are attributed to being a historical recreation of slavery in Bolivia, causing the community pain.

The struggle for statistical visibility

As a reflection of the living conditions of social groups, censuses are fundamental technical tools for the design, implementation, and monitoring of equality policies. The inclusion of the ethnicity variable is a true democratic exercise that enables the realization of rights, participation, and inclusion. Consequently, one of the fundamental pillars of the political agendas of the Afro-descendant social movement is to demand that states generate statistical data reflecting the reality of Black populations.

The Afro-Bolivian movement is no stranger to this mobilization and has been working, since 2000, towards the inclusion of the Afro-Bolivian variable in census and household surveys. Its leaders have succeeded in getting the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) to issue recommendations to the Bolivian state with the aim of incorporating an option for Afro descendants in the censuses. Although the variable was included for the first time in 2012 in the Population and Housing Census, the final data fall below the expectations of Afro-Bolivian organizations.

In relation to the self-identification box, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) recommended that states make the introductory clause of questions related to identity as direct as possible, without using restrictions or filters that could create confusion or influence respondents' answers. Despite the recommendation, the beginning of question 29 in the 2012 Census used nationality as a filter: "As a Bolivian, do you belong to any other nation, original indigenous campesino nation or Afro-Bolivian people?"

Despite all the recommendations and technical criteria for including the variable in censuses, the question is one of self-affiliation and not self-identification. As is generally known, affiliation is not only about who we feel we are but goes beyond identity to consider the multiple dimensions of identity. In this way, question 29 was designed to generate a sense of belonging or connection to one of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples or to the Afro-Bolivian community. Consequently, its formulation may have led to several incorrect responses, and in the case of the Afro-Bolivian population, potential underreporting.

IWGIA DebatesIndigenas Bolivia Noviembre2023 2Question 29 in Nor Yungas and Sud Yungas of La Paz, representational of provinces of Black identity in Bolivia. Source: generated based on the results of the National Institute of Statistics (INE).

Doubts about the census results

Despite not being considered as variables on the census form, a significant number of people have indicated belonging to the categories "originario" (native), "intercultural," and "campesino" (peasant). The first question that arises here is whether Afro-Bolivian individuals can claim that they are native to the country, the communities, or the cities where they reside. On the other hand, there is also the possibility that Afro-Bolivians who are part of the National Federation of Intercultural Communities (FNCI) may have prioritized their affiliation with the trade union.

Considering the impact of the 1953 Agrarian Reform on national identity and the creation of “peasant” identity, there is also a strong possibility that many Afro-Bolivians may have identified as campesinos. In the same vein, it has also been noted that those who self-identify as Blackmixed race, and zambo (instead of Afro-Bolivian) might have chosen the category "indigenous or other unspecified origin." Finally, there is doubt about the impact of the intersection between the variables of language, age, and ethnic affiliation: due their coexistence with other indigenous populations, many Afro-Bolivians speak Aymara, but it is not their mother tongue.

It is evident that new tools and indicators have not been designed to respond to the lived experiences and specific requirements of indigenous peoples and Afro-Bolivians. Moreover, while there were socializations done of the census form, the participation of indigenous peoples and Afro-Bolivians in all stages of the census has not been guaranteed. As the next population and housing census is scheduled for March 2024, there are lessons to be learned. Additionally, the challenge remains to promote self-identification at the national level to obtain more precise data that allows for the full statistical visibility of the Afro-Bolivian people.

Social transformation and the power of Afro-Bolivian women

Afro-Bolivian women have played a central role in the survival of their people and in the leadership of their organizations. Beyond their role in the creation of these organizations, it is widely recognized that, historically, they have been spokeswomen and interlocutors for demands during the advocacy processes of the Afro-Bolivian movement. However, apart from addressing the intersectionality of racism and sexism, the general claims of the Afro-Bolivian people have not supported the specific demands of Black women.

The discrimination Afro-descendant women face as a result of their multiple lived identities are not simply a layering of discrimination. In fact, they also consist of the convergence of various factors that are intensified when experiencing racism and sexism simultaneously. To make matters worse, the poverty of Afro-descendant women in Latin America exacerbates their poor living conditions due to lower representation in the education system, more precarious employment, and limited access to health services.

The experience of Afro-descendant women in Latin America is not foreign to Afro-Bolivian women facing inequality in all spheres of their lives. In this context, it is important to incorporate an intersectional perspective when discussing gender equality and the autonomy of Afro-descendant women. This requires recognizing that race, ethnicity, gender, and class operate together to shape stratification in Bolivia. Additionally, it is crucial to acknowledge that the category woman does not necessarily include Afro-descendant women, and not every mention of Afro-descendants necessarily includes women.

IWGIA DebatesIndigenas Bolivia Noviembre2023 3Afro-Bolivian women have played a central role in the survival of their people, but they suffer racism and sexism on a daily basis. Workshop to reflect on the sexual division of labor.

Invisibility as a constant

Despite being the sixth-largest population among the 36 nationalities that make up the plurinational state, Afro-Bolivians are underrepresented in decision-making. The 2009 Constitution marks significant milestones for the political participation of Afro-Bolivian citizens: it promotes gender parity by enabling the equal participation of women in candidate lists while establishing the reallocation of seats. However, the number of special constituencies reserved for districts where indigenous, original campesino nations and peoples constitute a minority population is still pending.

It was only in 2010 that, for the first time, an Afro-Bolivian became a member of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly as a deputy for the special seat. By 2015, the number of Afro- descendants in the Assembly reached four representatives: one titular senator, two titular deputies, and one supra-state representative as an alternate, marking a significant advancement for our population in terms of political participation. Unfortunately, in the current legislative period, the Afro-Bolivian people do not have representation.

Consequently, the constitutional recognition of the Afro-Bolivian people and the measures taken in their favor are insufficient and invisibility remains a constant. To achieve change and progress, it is not enough to merely acknowledge inequalities that derive from structural racism. Public policies must be implemented to reduce them. In this regard, improving the Human Development Index of historically excluded groups means, in turn, improving the Human Development Index of an entire country. Along these lines, statistical information is of crucial importance to have understand more clearly and to develop public policies that respond to the demands of the Afro-Bolivian people.

 Paola Yañez-Inofuentes is an Afro-Bolivian activist, feminist, and civil engineer. She is also the General Coordinator of the Network of Afro-Latin American, Afro-Caribbean, and Diaspora Women.


Tags: Indigenous Debates



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