• 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 2024: Bolivia

According to the 2012 National Census, 41% of the Bolivian population over the age of 15 is of Indigenous origin, although 2017 projections from the National Institute of Statistics (INE) indicate that this percentage is likely to have now increased to 48%. Of the 36 recognized peoples in the country, the majority live in the Andes and are Quechua- or Aymara-speaking (49.5% and 40.6% respectively) and they self-identify as one of 16 nationalities.

The remaining peoples live in the lowlands, and are largely the Chiquitano (3.6%), Guaraní (2.5%) and Moxeño (1.4%). Together with the remaining 2.4%, they make up the 36 Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia. To date, Indigenous Peoples have consolidated their collective ownership of 25 million hectares of land in the form of Tierras Comunitarias de Origen (Community Lands of Origin / TCO), and these account for 23% of the country's total land mass. Following the approval of Decree No. 727/10, the TCOs acquired the constitutional status of Territorio Indígena Originario Campesino (Native Indigenous Peasant Territory / TIOC). At the time of writing this article, a new National Census of Population and Housing is expected to take place on 23 March 2024. Bolivia has ratified the main human rights conventions and has been a signatory to ILO No. 169 since 1991. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) has been in full force and effect since the approval of Law No. 3760 of 7 November 2007. With the adoption of the new State Political Constitution in 2009, Bolivia took the name of Plurinational State.

Court rulings in favour of Indigenous Peoples and against mineral extraction

In 2023, a new chapter of the conflict arose with the small- and medium-sized cooperative mining sector, which had the previous year benefited from agreements between the National Protected Areas Service (SERNAP) and the Mining Jurisdictional Authority (AJAM) to undertake activities within protected areas and Indigenous territories in the Amazon. However, Indigenous organizations and environmental defenders were able, at least formally, to reverse these agreements by organizing a large-scale social mobilization and public awareness campaign and obtaining rulings of the constitutional and agro-environmental courts.

In September, a judge of the Joint Tribunal, based in Rurranabaque, admitted the class action filed by the Central de Pueblos Indígenas de La Paz (Association of Indigenous Peoples of La Paz/CPILAP) and ordered a halt to mining activities in the Beni and Madre de Dios rivers and their tributaries, as well as in Alto Beni, Kaka, Tuichi, Quiquibey and Tequeje, in the Amazon region of La Paz. The court's ruling instructed AJAM to suspend contracts with mining operators in the area and to implement processes of prior consultation with the local Indigenous communities.

At the same time, empowered because of pressure from the miners through multiple mobilization actions, along with threats made to social leaders and government officials, and illegal incursions into protected areas, all repeatedly denounced by Indigenous organizations, SERNAP also cancelled all environmental licences granted in previous years, particularly those from 2022.[1] This resurgence in the conflict led to a logical reaction from the miners, who once again besieged the seat of government with noisy and intimidating demonstrations. They have so far not been able to change the minds of the Ministry of the Environment or the AJAM regarding reinstatement of the suspended licences.

New cycle of forest fires in Indigenous territories in the Chaco and Amazon regions

2023 was once again a year of environmental crisis in the east of Bolivia. The city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra experienced nearly 20 days of record levels of air pollution, forcing local authorities to suspend the school year, temporarily close airports and take other measures to safeguard the population.[2] Under pressure from environmental activists, who mobilized as they had done in 2019, and in the context of political concessions offered to the opposition by one of the factions into which the ruling party is now divided, a number of the laws being observed by these activist groups, which offered flexibility in terms of forest clearing and burning, were repealed.[3]

The territories occupied by Indigenous Peoples were also severely affected. Of the 58 Indigenous territories in the lowlands with forests, 49 of them were the site of 25,270 forest fires. Territories in the department of Beni being worst affected with 16,242.[4] The most tragic situation was that of the Indigenous populations of Rurrenabaque and San Buenaventura, in the Amazon region of La Paz, where the area’s communities suffered the destruction of homes and crops, including the local police infrastructure.[5]

The Multiethnic Indigenous Territory (TIM) lost 22,397 hectares to fires, the largest area for the last five years.[6] The greatest number of forest fires was recorded in November, with 2,452. More than half of the 16 communities were affected. This situation was clearly caused at least in part by extraordinary climate change conditions: high temperatures, low humidity, wind gusts of more than 40 km/h and a delay in expected rains.

Between October and November, a large area of the country's Amazon region was affected by uncontrolled fires.[7] According to the Social Control and Inspection of Forests and Land Authority (ABT), by mid-November forest fires and “chaqueos” [slash-and-burn practices] had affected a total of 3,518,708 hectares of land throughout Bolivia. The department of Beni was worst affected, with 2,309,761 hectares ablaze, accounting for 66% of the total area burnt. Following this, Santa Cruz recorded a loss of 719,567 hectares and La Paz 295,642 hectares, 20% and 8% of the total area respectively.[8] It was not until the third week of November, after a delay of at least a month and a half, that seasonal rains finally arrived to put out the fires in the region.

Indigenous justice and women's rights in Bolivia

When people speak of Indigenous autonomy or self-government in Bolivia, they are generally referring to local government tasks that are to be assumed by new Indigenous structures, especially those of an administrative and financial nature. And yet little or nothing is known about the situation of Indigenous women and respect for their rights in this new institutional reality. As in the case of municipal councils, Indigenous autonomies need to establish social services to address violence against women and, in so doing, their actions often clash with decisions taken in the communities or by the traditional authorities, who are accused of undermining these efforts.

One emblematic case arose in the Charagua Iyambae Guaraní Autonomy, albeit in the opposite direction to this accusation. In July, a Guaraní woman approached the Integral Family Unit, which handles complaints of violence against women and children, and reported that she had been savagely beaten by her husband, who also happened to be the head of the autonomous government.[9] Neither her lawsuit nor her verbal complaint were admitted, despite the fact  she had to be treated at Charagua hospital for the blows she had suffered to her body and face. The woman was forced to turn to the Prosecutor's Office of a neighbouring district, which subsequently summoned her husband and ordered his immediate detention for 90 days.[10]

This situation had huge ramifications in Charagua, and the different autonomous and traditional public bodies of the Guaraní people were convened, where they unanimously condemned the aggression against the woman and demanded the immediate removal of the perpetrator from his position. However, this decision clashed with a contradictory provision of Law 348, which guarantees women's rights.[11] This law establishes that the removal of elected authorities accused of committing crimes of violence can only occur once a firm sentence has been passed against them.[12] This situation meant that the aggressor could be reinstated to his position despite the severity of the crime, provoking a schism in Guaraní society. Finally, the Departmental Electoral Tribunal of Santa Cruz validated the position of the Guaraní people. This all culminated in an historic decision and, in the end, a female representative was elected as the new Tëtarembiokuai Reta Imborika, TRI.[13]

Indigenous autonomies in the Bolivian Amazon

The first autonomous government in an Indigenous territory to obtain municipal jurisdiction in Bolivia was the Multiethnic Indigenous Territory (TIM), in the South Amazonian department of Beni. After endless and completely unnecessary bureaucratic procedures, State President Luis Arce finally enacted Law No. 1497/2023 creating the Territorial Unit of the TIM. This law involved creating the TIM as a territorial jurisdiction in which the Indigenous government, elected in accordance with its Autonomous Statutes, will exercise all the powers assigned by the Constitution.

The election of representatives to the two bodies of the new government of the TIM took place from 23-25 July in the community of San José del Cavitu. The Territorial Assembly was elected on 24 July, comprising five representatives (one for each people)[14] and five alternates, as a deliberating body. Finally, the representatives of the Executive Body, the cacique, their adviser and the Natural Resources and Culture and Production operators were elected on 25 July.

Elections were attended by more than 1,500 individuals from the peoples that inhabit the TIM, as well as special guests, support institutions and historic leaders of the Indigenous movement.

The unfortunate decision to proceed with individual voting, imposed by sectors from outside the communities, resulted in long delays in obtaining candidate accreditation. Practically none of them met the State’s requirements in terms of military service books, criminal records or tax solvency, all of which are expensive documents to obtain and have to be sought in the capital of Trinidad department. In a demonstration of flexibility, the Intercultural Service for Democratic Strengthening finally allowed these documents to be submitted by the elected candidates in the 10 days following their election. The T'simane people had the most difficulty in complying with these formalities as they did not have any of these documents. Had it not been for the support NGOs, their representatives would have been excluded from the positions to which they were elected.

The most closely contested election was between Alfredo Matareco, a Mojeño Trinitario from the host community of San José del Cavitu, and Bernardo Muiba, a native of the community of Puerto San Borja, former president of the TIM branch and current deputy mayor of the TIM Indigenous district. In the end, the former won by a dozen votes, coming from the community of San José itself.

Voting for the other positions was spread out over time in such a way that the number of voters fell considerably on the last day, causing one of the operator candidates to drop out and thus rendering voting for the most operational roles pointless. Now up and running, the Autonomous Indigenous Government of the TIM[15] is currently structuring its internal bureaucracy so that it will be able to act formally as from 2024.

Just when it seemed that another of the most inexplicable absurdities generated by the State itself, such as the Agro-environmental Tribunal’s annulment of the property title for the Chimanes Forest, would be favourably resolved through an administrative adjustment, this judicial body once again admitted a lawsuit against the legal document regularizing the rights of the TIM peoples to their ancestral territory. The annulment was the result of an appeal filed by a private landowner, who was claiming that his property of more than 3,000 hectares had mistakenly been titled by the National Agrarian Reform Institute in favour of the TIM. To resolve this problem, instead of removing the part of the area that had been titled to the TIM in error and restoring it to the rightful owner, they took almost two years to decide to annul the entire TIM title – covering almost 200,000 hectares – in order to title the 3,000 hectares claimed by the owner and then issue another resolution titling the remaining area to the TIM. This excessive delay emboldened other ineligible claimants, however, and they are now being given the opportunity by the Agro-Environmental Court to keep this new title pending until their petitions have been resolved. This lawsuit is currently in process through this judicial body.

Resumption of the highway through the Isiboro Sécure National Park Indigenous Territory

Since the start of 2023, there has been renewed pressure for the construction of the highway through the Isiboro Sécure National Park Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), and this has also involved the Multiethnic Indigenous Territory, this time with greater visibility, given that one of the stretches will cross through its land. These pressures have been expressed by means of successive public events promoted by the departmental and national authorities in which former Indigenous leaders and authorities have given their support for the highway project and demanded that the government of the TIPNIS and TIM territories take a position.

By February, the organizations had been forced to convene extraordinary events to address the issue, such as an extraordinary meeting of Corregidores (community leaders) in the community of Monte Grande del Apere on 12 February and an extraordinary meeting in April in the community of Retiro. In both cases, the decision was that, without prior studies, without a prior consultation process, without clear publicity of the impacts, without regularization of the section that is being upgraded through the TIM, it was not possible to talk about accepting a project that the people knew so little about.

Independently, the three Indigenous Peoples’ organizations of the TIPNIS[16] met for this same purpose and unanimously rejected the highway project, for the reasons noted above, in particular the government’s failure to fulfil multiple initiatives promised since the time of President Evo Morales, who had offered these in exchange for their acceptance of the highway. This decision was subsequently endorsed by the branches of the Indigenous territories of Mojos on 18 March in San Ignacio de Mojos,[17] where rejection of the highway project was ratified.

In loco visit of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

On 27 and 31 March, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) visited the country. Thanks to IWGIA's efforts, a special meeting was held on the TIPNIS highway issue, which was chaired by the first vice-president of the Commission and holder of the Rapporteurship on Indigenous Peoples. At this meeting, the TIM and TIPNIS branches gave a joint presentation on the history of the highway project, the violations of Indigenous rights to prior consultation promised by the State in its attempt to force the communities’ to accept it, and the current situation in the two territories. In concluding its visit, the IACHR noted its concern in its preliminary observations at the lack of State consultation with regard to building the highway, as well as the general impact of infrastructure projects on the Indigenous territories.[18] Although this did not seem that significant at the time, in the following months pressure from the authorities and leaders to open the highway through the TIPNIS declined considerably.



Leonardo Tamburini holds a Bachelor’s degree in Jurisprudence from the Università degli Studi di Macerata (Italy) and a Master's degree in Indigenous Rights and Development from the Universidad Autónoma Gabriel René Moreno (Santa Cruz-Bolivia). He is currently executive director of Oré (Legal and Social Support Organization).


This article is part of the 38th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is of an Indigenous man harvesting quinoa in Sunimarka, Peru. This photo was taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2024 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2024 in full here


Notes and references

[1] “SERNAP anula autorizaciones mineras en áreas protegidas por ser ilegales.” Ministry of Environment and Water, 28 August 2023. https://www.mmaya.gob.bo/2023/08/sernap-anula-autorizaciones-mineras-en-areas-protegidas-por-ser-ilegales/#:~:text=SERNAP%20anulates%20mining%20authorizations%20in%20areas%20protected%20by%20being%20illegal,-Osman%20Jayro%20Arancibia&text=The%20National%20Area%20Service,entity%2C%20Omar%20Gustavo%20Tejerina%20Vértiz.

[2] “Contaminación del aire por incendios en Bolivia hace que se suspendan las clases.” El País, 23 October 2023. https://elpais.com/internacional/2023-10-24/contaminacion-del-aire-por-incendios-en-bolivia-hace-que-se-suspendan-las-clases.html

[3] This was despite the fact that opposition lawmakers are representatives of the agro-industrial and cattle ranching sectors, sectors that are largely responsible for the fires, along with the “intercultural” colonizing peasant farmers.

[4] CEJIS - CPTA. Forest fires in Indigenous territories of the Bolivian Lowlands. CEJIS, Bolivia, 2023. https://www.iwgia.org/en/documents-and-publications/documents/746-iwgia-cejis-focosdecalor-bolivia-noviembre2023/file.html

[5] “Preocupación en San Buenaventura, el fuego consume dos depósitos.” La Razón, 16 November 2023. https://www.la-razon.com/sociedad/2023/11/16/preocupacion-en-san-buenaventura-el-fuego-consume-dos-depositos/

[6] Multiethnic Indigenous Territory (TIM). “Reporte SIG del sistema de control de bienes naturales comunes, reporte de incendios en el TIM 2023 No. 3/2023.” https://timgobernanzaterritorial.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/Reporte-de-monitoreo-3-2023-incendios.pdf

[7] “Los incendios forestales avanzan sin control en tres de nueve departamentos de Bolivia.” France 24, 18 November 2023. https://www.france24.com/es/minuto-a-minuto/20231118-los-incendios-forestales-avanzan-sin-control-en-tres-de-nueve-departamentos-de-bolivia

[8] Alexis Candia. “Más de 3,5 millones de hectáreas quemadas en Bolivia; aquí el último reporte de la ABT.” Bolivia Verifica, 22 November 2023. https://boliviaverifica.bo/mas-de-35-millones-de-hectareas-quemadas-en-bolivia-aqui-el-ultimo-reporte-de-la-abt/

[9] Tëtarembiokuai Reta Imborika (TRI).

[10] FELCC Case No. 85/2023 FUD 70730229300119.

[11] Integral Law to Guarantee Women a Life Free from Violence No. 348 of 9 March 2013.

[12] Article 46 IV. Exceptionally, conciliation may be promoted, but only by the victim and only once, and this is not possible in cases of repeat offences.

[13] Departmental Electoral Tribunal of Santa Cruz. “#TEDSCinforma“. Facebook, 19 October 2023 https://www.facebook.com/TEDscz/posts/pfbid02ax7nyeFj2Rx8oJjkMADWyR18Wd3utYsxJY7Axqfu1RqW9KcwVnUce29zWWwNSfTzl?locale=es_LA

[14] The TIM is inhabited by the Mojeño Trinitario, Mojeño Ignaciano, Movima, T'simane and Yuracaré peoples.

[15] The peoples of the TIM decided to move away from the constitutional category of Autonomous Original Indigenous Peasant Government (GAIOC), adopting that of Autonomous Indigenous Government (GIA), as they consider that there was aa risk of their territory and institutions being appropriated by “peasant farmers” in the former.

[16] Subcentral de Cabildos Indigenales del Territorio Indígena Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure, Subcentral del Río Sécure and the Central de Comunidades Indígenas del Sur (CONISUR).

[17] In other words, the branches of TIM, TIMI, TIPNIS, Sécure, Movima, the women's branches of these organizations, the Gran Cabildo Indigenal de San Ignacio de Mojos and the Gran Consejo T'simane.

[18] IACHR - OAS. Preliminary observations, in loco visit to Bolivia. IACHR - OAS, 27 to 31 March 2023. https://www.oas.org/es/cidh/actividades/discursos/2023/03-31-Visita-in-Loco-Bolivia.pdf

Tags: Land rights, Women, Business and Human Rights , Climate, Autonomy



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