Bolivia's distinctive topography and ecology have had an enduring impact on settlement patterns. They also have figured in the relations among the country's diverse groups because the isolation most communities and regions faced until at least the 1950s contributed to cultural diversity.

In mid-1989 Bolivia had an estimated population of 6.6 million with a projected annual growth rate of 2.5 to 2.6 percent from 1980 to 2000. The estimated population growth rate in 1989 was 2.1 percent. A death rate of 13 per 1,000 inhabitants and a life expectancy of fifty-two years for males and fifty-six years for females in 1989 contributed to a population that was predominantly young. Population was concentrated in the Altiplano and valleys. Even the steeper Yungas were moderately settled. The lowlands, the region with the most dramatic rise in population in recent decades, remained relatively sparsely settled. In the mid-1980s, over half of all Bolivians lived in the Altiplano, nearly 30 percent in the valleys and the Yungas, and about 20 percent in the lowlands.

Settlement patterns were uneven as well. Around Lake Titicaca, the mild climate and favorable growing conditions resulted in high population densities. Settlement dropped off to the south, but communities existed wherever there was adequate water along the Desaguadero River. East of Lake Poopó, settlements lay along the west-facing flank of the Cordillera Real on the alluvial fans of streams flowing from the mountains. There were also small settled valleys in the northern part of the Cordillera Occidental. In the south, the semiarid plateau supported only seminomadic shepherds.

The population of the valleys clustered in the crowded environs of Cochabamba, Sucre, and Tarija. In the Yungas to the north, the convoluted terrain limited exploitation of the fertile soils, and the population was concentrated in areas with relatively ready access to La Paz. Settlement increased in response to population pressure in the Altiplano and government support for colonization in the decades following land reform. Population growth followed access and feeder roads in the region and was concentrated at the middle elevations.

The lowlands' small population was scattered, except for the concentration near Santa Cruz. Significant colonization developed along the Santa Cruz-Cochabamba highway. Large commercial farms producing cotton, rice, or sugarcane occupied the areas accessible to Santa Cruz. Elsewhere, large ranches, small towns, and settlements clustered along riverbanks where roads had not penetrated. Small subsistence farms were scattered along the perimeter of larger holdings and represented the spearhead of penetration into the forest. Indian tribes inhabited the sparsely settled northern half of the lowlands.

Lowland Indians
Altiplano, Yungas, and Valley Indians
Mestizos and Cholos


Country Studies main page | Bolivia Country Studies main page