Bolivia, officially known as the Plurinational State of Bolivia, is a landlocked country in western and central South America. It is bordered by Brazil to the north and east, Paraguay to the southeast, Argentina to the south, Chile to the southwest and Peru to the northwest. One third of the country is made up of the Andes Mountains, with one of the largest cities and one of the main economic centres, El Alto, located on the altiplano. Bolivia is one of the two landlocked countries (the other being Paraguay) outside of Afro-Eurasia. Bolivia is the largest landlocked country in North and South America.
Before Spanish colonisation, the Andean region of Bolivia was part of the Inca empire, while the lowlands in the north and east were inhabited by independent tribes. Spanish conquistadors from Cuzco and Asunción took control of the region in the 16th century. During the Spanish colonial period, Bolivia was administered by the Royal Court of Charcas. Spain built its empire largely on the silver extracted from Bolivia’s mines.
After the first call for independence in 1809, 16 years of war followed before the republic bearing the name of Simón Bolívar was established on 6 August 1825. Since independence, Bolivia has gone through periods of political and economic instability, including the loss of various peripheral territories to its neighbours, such as Acre and parts of the Gran Chaco. Since the annexation of its Pacific coast territory by Chile after the War of the Pacific (1879-84), Bolivia has been a landlocked country but has indirect access to the Pacific and Atlantic oceans through agreements with neighbouring countries.
The country’s population, estimated at 11 million, is multi-ethnic, including Amerindians, mestizos, Europeans, Asians and Africans. Racial and social segregation as a result of Spanish colonialism has continued to the present day. Spanish is the official and predominant language, although 36 indigenous languages also have official status, the most widely spoken being Guarani, Aymara and Quechua.
Modern Bolivia is constitutionally a democratic republic divided into nine departments. Its geography ranges from the Andean peaks in the west to the eastern lowlands in the Amazon basin. It is a developing country, ranking in the middle of the Human Development Index, with a poverty rate of 53%. Its main economic activities are agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining and the manufacture of goods such as textiles, clothing, refined metals and refined oil. Bolivia is very rich in minerals, especially tin.
Sometimes called the Tibet of South America, Bolivia is one of the most ‘isolated’ countries in the Western Hemisphere. With the exception of the navigable Paraguay River, which extends to the distant Atlantic Ocean, Bolivia and Paraguay are the only two landlocked nations in the Americas. It is also the most indigenous country in the Americas, with 60% of the population being of pure Indian descent.
Bolivia has a higher percentage of indigenous people than any other country in America. These are mainly Quechua and Aymara peoples (the Spaniards wiped out the Inca aristocracy when they conquered the Andes). You may have seen Quechuas in your town selling colourful scarves and jumpers, or heard a Quechua ensemble playing traditional music. But while many Andeans have to move abroad in search of a better life, many more are still here, and their culture lives on.
Bolivia is located in the central zone of South America, between 57°26′-69°38’W and 9°38′-22°53’S. With an area of 1,098,581 square kilometres, Bolivia is the 28th largest country in the world and the fifth largest in South America, stretching from the central Andes through part of the Gran Chaco to the Amazon. The geographical centre of the country is the so-called Puerto Estrella (“starry port”) on the Río Grande, in the province of Ñuflo de Chávez, department of Santa Cruz.
The country’s geography presents a great diversity of terrains and climatic zones. Bolivia has a high biodiversity, considered one of the highest in the world, as well as several eco-regions with ecological sub-units such as the Altiplano, the tropical rainforests (including the Amazon rainforest), the dry valleys and the Chiquitania, which is a tropical savanna. These areas have huge differences in altitude, from an altitude of 6,542 metres above sea level in the Nevado Sajama to almost 70 metres along the Paraguay River. Although the country is geographically diverse, Bolivia has remained a landlocked country since the Pacific War.
Bolivia can be divided into three physiographic regions:
- The Andean region, in the southwest, represents 28% of the national territory and covers 307,603 square kilometres (118,766 square miles). This area lies above 3,000 metres (10,000 feet) and is situated between two major Andean ranges, the Cordillera Occidental (“Western Range”) and the Cordillera Central (“Central Range”), with some of the highest points in the Americas, such as Nevado Sajama at 6,542 metres (20,000 feet) and Illimani at 6,462 metres (20,000 feet). Also in the Cordillera Central is Lake Titicaca, the highest commercially navigable lake in the world and the largest lake in South America; the lake is shared with Peru. This region also includes the Altiplano and the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt lake and an important source of lithium.
- The sub-Andean region, located in the centre and south of the country, is an intermediate region between the Altiplano and the eastern llanos (plains); this region represents 13% of the Bolivian territory and covers 142,815 km2 (55,141 sq mi). It includes the Bolivian valleys and the Yungas region. It is characterised by its agricultural activities and temperate climate.
- The Llanos region, in the north-east, covers 59% of the territory with 648,163 km2 (250,257 sq mi). It is located north of the Cordillera Central and extends from the foothills of the Andes to the Paraguay River. It is a region of flat lands and small plateaus, all covered by vast tropical forests that are home to enormous biodiversity. The region is less than 400 metres above sea level.
Bolivia has three basins:
- The first is the Amazon Basin, also known as the Northern Basin (724,000 km2 (280,000 sq mi)/66% of the territory). The rivers in this basin generally have large meanders that form lakes, such as Lake Murillo in the department of Pando. The most important Bolivian tributary of the Amazon basin is the 2,000 km long Mamoré River, which flows north to its confluence with the 1,113 km long Beni River, the second most important river in the country. The Beni River, together with the Madeira River, forms the main tributary of the Amazon. From east to west, the basin is formed by other important rivers, such as the Madre de Dios River, the Orthon River, the Abuna River, the Yata River and the Guaporé River. The most important lakes are Lake Rogaguado, Lake Rogagua and Lake Jara.
- The second is the Rio de la Plata basin, also known as the Southern basin (229,500 km2 (88,600 sq mi)/21% of the territory). The tributaries of this basin are generally less abundant than those that make up the Amazon basin. The Rio de la Plata basin is formed mainly by the Paraguay River, the Pilcomayo River and the Bermejo River. The most important lakes are Lake Uberaba and Lake Mandioré, both located in the Bolivian marshes.
- The third basin is the central basin, which is an endoreic basin (145,081 square kilometres / 13% of the territory). The Altiplano has a large number of lakes and rivers that do not flow into any ocean because they are enclosed by the Andes. The most important river is the Río Desaguadero, with a length of 436 km, the longest river in the Altiplano; it has its source in Lake Titicaca and then flows southeast to Lake Poopó. The basin is then formed by Lake Titicaca, Lake Poopó, the Desaguadero River and large salt flats, including the Salar de Uyuni and Lake Coipasa.
Conservation of water supply
Deforestation in upper river basins has led to environmental problems, including soil erosion and declining water quality. An innovative project designed to address this situation involves landowners in upstream areas being paid by downstream water users to maintain the forests. Landowners will receive $20 to preserve trees, avoid pollution from livestock, and improve biodiversity and forest carbon on their land. They receive $30, which they use to buy a beehive to offset the preservation of two acres of water forest for five years. The income from honey per hectare of forest is $5 per year. In five years, the landowner has therefore sold $50 worth of honey. The project is implemented by Fundación Natura Bolivia and Rare Conservation, with support from the Climate & Development Knowledge Network.
The geology of Bolivia includes a variety of lithologies and different tectonic and sedimentary environments. At the synoptic scale, the geological units coincide with the topographic units. Essentially, the country is divided into a mountainous western zone influenced by Pacific subduction processes and an eastern plain with stable platforms and shields.
Bolivia, with its enormous diversity of organisms and ecosystems, is one of the “like-minded megadiverse countries”.
Bolivia’s different altitudes, ranging from 90 to 6,542 metres above sea level, allow for great biological diversity. Bolivia’s territory includes four types of biomes, 32 ecological regions and 199 ecosystems. In this geographical area there are several parks and nature reserves, such as the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, the Madidi National Park, the Tunari National Park, the Eduardo Avaroa Andean National Wildlife Reserve and the Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco National Park and Integrated Management Natural Area, among others.
Bolivia has more than 17,000 species of seed plants, including more than 1,200 species of ferns, 1,500 species of Marchantiophyta and mosses, and at least 800 species of fungi. In addition, there are over 3,000 species of medicinal plants. Bolivia is considered the country of origin of species such as peppers and chillies, peanuts, common beans, yucca and several species of palm trees. Bolivia also naturally produces more than 4,000 varieties of potatoes.
Bolivia has more than 2,900 species of animals, including 398 mammals, more than 1,400 birds (about 14% of the world’s known birds, making it the sixth most diverse country in terms of bird species), 204 amphibians, 277 reptiles and 635 fish, all of which are freshwater, as Bolivia is a landlocked country. There are also more than 3,000 species of butterflies and more than 60 domestic animals.
Bolivia has drawn worldwide attention to its “Law of the Rights of Mother Earth”, which gives nature the same rights as humans.
According to the last two censuses of the Bolivian National Institute of Statistics (Instituto Nacional de Estadística, INE), the population increased from 8,274,325 (of which 4,123,850 were men and 4,150,475 women) in 2001 to 10,027,254 in 2012.
Over the last fifty years, the Bolivian population has tripled, reaching a population growth rate of 2.25%. The population growth in the periods between the censuses (1950-1976 and 1976-1992) was about 2.05%, while in the last period, 1992-2001, it reached 2.74% per year.
About 62.43% of Bolivians live in urban areas, while the remaining 37.57% live in rural areas. The majority of the population (70%) is concentrated in the departments of La Paz, Santa Cruz and Cochabamba. In the Andean region of the Altiplano, the departments of La Paz and Oruro have the largest share of the population; in the Valley region, the departments of Cochabamba and Chuquisaca; and in the Llanos region, the departments of Santa Cruz and Beni. At the national level, the population density is 8.49, with significant variations between 0.8 (Pando department) and 26.2 (Cochabamba department).
The largest population centre is located in the so-called “central axis” and in the Llanos region. Bolivia has a young population. According to the 2011 census, 59% of the population is between 15 and 59 years old, and 39% is under 15 years old. Almost 60% of the population is under 25 years old.
According to a genetic study of Bolivians, the averages of Amerindian, European and African ancestry are 86%, 12.5% and 1.5% respectively for individuals from La Paz and 76.8%, 21.4% and 1.8% for individuals from Chuquisaca.
Bolivia’s ethnic composition is diverse. There are about three dozen indigenous groups that together account for about half of the Bolivian population – the largest proportion of indigenous people in Latin America. The exact figures vary depending on the wording of the question on ethnicity and the response options available. In the 2001 census, for example, there was no ‘mestizo’ response option, so a much higher proportion of respondents identified themselves as belonging to one of the available indigenous ethnic groups. According to a 2009 estimate, the proportion of mestizos (a mixture of whites and Indians) was 68%, indigenous 20%, white 5%, cholo 2%, black 1%, other 1%, while 3% did not specify. 44% of respondents classified themselves as belonging to an indigenous group, mainly Quechua or Aymara.
The indigenous peoples, also called “originarios” (“natives” or “originals”) and more rarely Amerindians, may be Andean, such as the Aymara and Quechua (who formed the ancient Inca empire), concentrated in the western departments of La Paz, Potosí, Oruro, Cochabamba and Chuquisaca. There is also a large ethnic population in the east, including the Chiquitano, Chane, Guaraní and Moxos, who live in the departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Tarija and Pando.
Mestizos are spread throughout the country and represent 26% of the Bolivian population. Most people embrace their mestizo identity while identifying with one or more indigenous cultures.
Whites represented about 14% of the population in 2006 and are generally concentrated in the largest cities: La Paz, Santa Cruz de la Sierra and Cochabamba, but also in some smaller cities such as Tarija. In the department of Santa Cruz, there are several dozen German-speaking Mennonite settlements, with a total population of about 40,000 (in 2012).
The Afro-Bolivians, descendants of African slaves who arrived during the Spanish Empire, live in the department of La Paz and are mainly found in the provinces of Nor Yungas and Sud Yungas. Slavery was abolished in Bolivia in 1831.
There are also large communities of Japanese (14,000) and Chinese (4,600).
There are a small number of European citizens from Germany, France, Italy and Portugal, as well as from other American countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, the United States, Paraguay, Peru, Mexico and Venezuela, among others. There are important Peruvian colonies in La Paz, El Alto and Santa Cruz de la Sierra.
The indigenous peoples of Bolivia can be divided into two categories of ethnic groups: Andean peoples, located on the Andean Altiplano and in the valley region, and lowland groups, inhabiting the warmer regions of central and eastern Bolivia, including the valleys of the department of Cochabamba, the Amazon basin areas north of the department of La Paz, and the lowland departments of Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz and Tarija (including the Gran Chaco region in the southeast of the country). A large number of Andean peoples have also migrated and formed Quechua, Aymara and intercultural communities in the lowlands.
- Ethnic groups in the Andes
- The Aymara people. They live in the highlands of the departments of La Paz, Oruro and Potosí, as well as in a few small areas near the tropical lowlands.
- The Quechua people. They live mainly in the valleys of Cochabamba and Chuquisaca. They also live in some mountainous regions of Potosí and Oruro. They are divided into different Quechua nations, such as the Tarabucos, Ucumaris, Chalchas, Chaquies, Yralipes, Tirinas, among others.
- The people of Uru
- Eastern Lowland ethnic groups
- Guaraníes. Includes the Guarayos, Pausernas, Sirionos, Chiriguanos, Wichí, Chulipis, Taipetes, Tobas and Yuquis.
- Tacanas: consists of Lecos, Chimanes, Araonas and Maropas.
- Panos : consists of chacobos, caripunas, sinabos, capuibos and guacanaguas.
- Aruacos: includes apolistas, baures, moxos, chané, movimas, cayabayas, carabecas, paiconecas or paucanacas.
- Chapacuras: consists of Itenez or More, Chapacuras, Sansinonianos, Canichanas, Itonamas, Yuracares, Guatoses and Chiquitos.
- Botocudos: Composed of Bororos and Otuquis.
- Zamucos: Made up of ayoreos.
Bolivia is a secular state enshrined in the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion and the independence of government from religion.”
According to the 2001 census conducted by the National Institute of Statistics of Bolivia, 78% of the population is Roman Catholic, followed by 19% Protestants and 3% non-religious.
The Association of Religion Data Archives (based on the World Christian Database) notes that in 2010, 92.5% of Bolivians identified as Christian (all denominations), 3.1% identified with an indigenous religion, 2.2% identified as Baha’i, 1.9% identified as agnostic, and all other groups were 0.1% or less.
A large part of the indigenous population adheres to various traditional beliefs shaped by inculturation or syncretism with Christianity. These include the cult of Pachamama, the “Mother Earth”. Devotion to the Virgin of Copacabana, the Virgin of Urkupiña and the Virgin of Socavón is also an important feature. There are also important Aymara communities near Lake Titicaca that have a strong devotion to the Apostle James. Among the deities venerated in Bolivia are Ekeko, the Aymaran god of abundance and prosperity, whose feast day is celebrated every 24 January, and Tupá, a god of the Guaraní people.
In 2012, Bolivia’s gross domestic product (GDP) was estimated at $27.43 billion at the official exchange rate and $56.14 billion at purchasing power parity. Economic growth was estimated at about 5.2% and inflation at about 6.9%. Bolivia was ranked in the “repression” category in the Heritage Foundation’s 2010 Index of Economic Freedom. Despite a series of mainly political setbacks, the Morales government stimulated growth between 2006 and 2009, which was the highest in the last 30 years. This growth was accompanied by a moderate decline in inequality. By 2012, a budget surplus of 1.7% (GDP) had been achieved, and the government has been running surpluses since the Morales administration, reflecting prudent economic management.
A major blow to the Bolivian economy was the sharp drop in the price of tin in the early 1980s, which affected one of Bolivia’s main sources of income and one of the country’s most important mining industries. Since 1985, the Bolivian government has implemented a broad programme of macroeconomic stabilisation and structural reform aimed at maintaining price stability, creating the conditions for sustainable growth and alleviating shortages. A major reform of the customs system has significantly improved transparency in this area. Parallel legislative reforms have introduced liberal market policies, notably in the hydrocarbon and telecommunications sectors, which encourage private investment. Foreign investors are given national treatment.
In April 2000, Hugo Banzer, then president of Bolivia, signed a contract with Aguas del Tunari, a private consortium, to operate and improve the water supply in Bolivia’s third largest city, Cochabamba. Shortly afterwards, the company tripled water rates in that city, leading to protests and riots among those who could no longer afford clean water. In the context of Bolivia’s economic collapse and growing national unrest over the state of the economy, the Bolivian government was forced to withdraw the water contract.
Bolivia has the second largest natural gas reserves in South America. The government has a long-term purchase agreement to sell natural gas to Brazil until 2019. The government held a binding referendum on the hydrocarbon law in 2005.
The US Geological Survey estimates that Bolivia has 5.4 million cubic metres of lithium, or 50-70% of the world’s reserves. However, mining would disrupt the country’s salt flats (known as the Salar de Uyuni), an important natural feature that boosts tourism in the region. The government does not want to destroy this unique natural landscape in order to meet the growing global demand for lithium. On the other hand, the government aims for sustainable lithium extraction. This project is being carried out by the state-owned company “Recursos Evaporíticos”, a subsidiary of COMIBOL.
At one time, the Bolivian government relied heavily on foreign aid to finance development projects and pay public personnel. At the end of 2002, the government owed $4.5 billion to foreign creditors, of which $1.6 billion was owed to other governments and most of the balance to multilateral development banks. Most payments to other governments have been rescheduled several times since 1987 through the Paris Club. External creditors have been willing to do so because the Bolivian government has generally met the monetary and fiscal targets of IMF programmes since 1987, although economic crises have undermined Bolivia’s normally strong record. In 2013, however, foreign aid represents only a fraction of the national budget, thanks to tax revenues derived mainly from profitable natural gas exports to Brazil and Argentina.
Revenues from tourism have become increasingly important. The tourism industry in Bolivia has been developing gradually since about 1990.