Bolivia Migration and Urbanization

Bolivia Country Studies index

Bolivia - Migration and Urbanization

Migration and urbanization

Migration has transformed social relations since the 1952 Revolution. Before the revolution, the average peasant's horizons were delineated by his or her village, those similar settlements surrounding it, and a nearby mestizo town. Contact with the world beyond was limited to an occasional trip to the landlord's city residence or his other haciendas. Few peasants had actually lived in a city, worked in the mines, or served in the military.

By the 1970s, however, most rural young adults could expect to spend at least part of their lives away from home. Many of these would migrate permanently to a city. Others would seek occasional wage labor to supplement their farm earnings. Some also migrated to foreign countries, seeking seasonal work on plantations in Argentina, in the ports of northern Chile, or in the Brazilian Amazon.

Rural-to-urban migration typically constituted a lengthy process. A peasant might begin by working in a city during slack agricultural periods. Young men and women often had their introduction to the city through marketing their families' farm products. In addition, military service gave young men an awareness of the larger society, as well as some experience in nonagricultural work.

Migration rarely represented a decisive break with the community of origin. Migrants maintained complex, ongoing, and mutually fruitful relations with their natal communities. They also served as liaisons with national society. The migrants' knowledge of Spanish and greater familiarity with the government bureaucracy were invaluable resources. Former residents became particularly important after the 1953 enactment of the Agrarian Reform Law. In addition to helping obtain land titles and working out agreements with the former landowners, they also continued to mediate between their villages and the nation.

Aid from kin and fellow villagers was essential to the success of migrants. Earlier migrants assisted those who followed by providing temporary housing and help in finding work. Most migrants belonged to an association of former residents of their native village. These organizations offered recreation and assistance to migrants. The idiosyncratic job choices of individual migrants spawned unique patterns of occupational specialization. The majority of the migrants from one village, for example, became tailors with the help of an early migrant from the same settlement. In other instances, regional agricultural specializations formed the basis for occupational choices; butchers, for example, often came from cattle-raising areas.

Even highly successful, long-term migrants did not sever their ties with relatives and neighbors in the countryside. Migrants retained their rights to land. Women and children spent years in the village while husbands and fathers remained semipermanent city residents. Families routinely returned to the countryside to help during harvesting and planting. Grandchildren spent their vacations with grandparents in the village. Many migrants continued to participate in community fiestas, concrete evidence of their willingness to continue to fulfill community obligations beyond those owed to kin.

Bolivian governments had long promoted the notion of colonization, especially in the lowlands. Plans were first put forth in the 1830s, and formal proposals were outlined in legislation in 1886, 1890, and 1905. Colonization did not occur, however, until after the 1952 Revolution. One of the goals of the victorious Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario--MNR) was to provide a safety valve for population pressure in the Altiplano by promoting "Bolivianization" of the frontier. Other objectives were to increase the production of domestic food crops and to integrate more farm families into the national economy. In the next three decades, both government-sponsored and spontaneous settlements fueled a population explosion. The main zones of growth were the region around Santa Cruz (Santa Cruz Department), the Alto Beni (Beni Department), and the Chapare (Cochabamba Department). From 1900 to 1950, Santa Cruz's population grew at less than 1 percent annually; between 1950 and 1976, however, the annual rate climbed to more than 4 percent. The sheer numbers of migrants created a land-rush atmosphere. In the province of Obispo Santisteban (Santa Cruz Department), authorities granted titles to 55 percent more land than the province encompassed.

Because most migrants came from the overpopulated Altiplano, they entered sharply different environments. The Oriente had a highly distinct regional culture. A unique dialect of Spanish, known as castellano camba, identified Oriente natives. Plantations in the region, unscathed by the land reform, still had a resident labor force, but it was not organized into the cohesive community characteristic of the traditional hacienda. Farming and herding in the Andes had little in common with the requirements of agriculture in the tropical lowlands.

Official settlement projects ranged in approach from meticulously detailed planned colonies to the simple provision of a plot of land, some technical orientation, and assistance in gaining a land title. In general, government projects suffered from a lack of competent technicians, poor coordination among the various agencies charged with assisting the colonists, and lack of continuity at the upper administrative levels. Land titles were rarely granted within the amount of time specified on the project. Roads were neither completed nor maintained according to plans. About half of the colonists abandoned their plots and moved on.

Only about 15 percent of the settlers who migrated to the region from the early 1950s through the early 1980s came as part of government-sponsored colonies. Nonetheless, spontaneous settlements, too, suffered from the poorly developed infrastructure. Migrants resorted to a variety of methods to produce cash crops and market them without losing most of the profit to intermediaries. In some colonies, settlers cut their own feeder roads. Like those in government-sponsored settlements, spontaneous colonists often had difficulty getting land titles. They lacked technical advice and access to agricultural credit. In general, however, spontaneous settlers managed to form organizations and to develop sufficient organizational savvy and community spirit to deal with the logistics of establishing farms in the Oriente. Surveys found that income in spontaneous colonies averaged 75 percent higher than in government-sponsored projects. One of the fastest-growing colonization regions in the 1980s was the Chapare, Bolivia's principal coca-cultivating area. Major reasons for the influx of colonists to this tropical New Jersey- size region were the completion of a United States-financed paved road from Cochabamba in 1972 and the take-off of the cocaine- exporting industry in the late 1970s. By 1985 the population had burgeoned to 120,000, as compared with 80,000 in 1981 and 26,000 in 1967. Some press reports in 1988-89 cited Chapare population figures as high as 200,000. A 1981 survey found that most small-scale farmers in the Chapare were former highlanders, mainly from the upper Cochabamba Valley but also from Potosí Department, who resettled and cleared land for food and coca cultivation.

The Oriente also attracted small numbers of Italian, Japanese, Okinawan, and North American Mennonite settlers. In contrast to native Bolivians, these settlers were often more educated, had better technical training, came with more capital, received larger parcels of land in better locations, and had more ongoing support from their own governments or sponsoring agencies. They usually succeeded, although the turnover in a settlement's early years often nearly approximated the rates encountered in government colonies.

The first settlers in a new community typically consisted of a group of men who began clearing plots. Most brought their families to join them as quickly as possible; beginning farming in the tropical forest required the whole family's labor. A colony's founders were frequently kin and compadres; these ties helped create a spirit of cooperation and community solidarity. Settlers used the same kinds of strategies that had permitted Andeans to survive through the centuries. Colonization itself was an extension of the "vertical archipelago." Colonists expanded their regional ties by farming in the new settlement zones. Like rural-urban migrants, they maintained their links with their home villages. Kin sent gifts of food; colonists reciprocated with items of lowland produce. Those with land in the Altiplano continued to farm it and spent a good portion of the year there.

Community organizations were synonymous with the community itself in a settlement's early years. They agitated for land titles and maintained order, settling everything from marital disputes to property boundaries. They functioned as self-made extension agencies: their meetings were a forum for sharing experiences, organizing for joint endeavors, and overcoming the isolation of the frontier. The organizations' influence often waned as a community aged, reflecting both the politico-economic climate and the community dynamics. Solidarity declined as some settlers moved on and others spent more time away from their farms as wage laborers. New settlers, often members of a different ethnic group, bought out the original colonists, adding another element of divisiveness.

The migrants' degree of success varied considerably. Some were supported by their families in the Altiplano, who did not own enough land for all their children but who could send a son or daughter to the Oriente. These moderately capitalized migrants became veritable entrepreneurs in the expanding Santa Cruz economy. Many others simply transplanted a marginal subsistence holding from the Altiplano to the tropical forest. Unsuccessful colonists generally cleared subsistence plots, farmed them for a few years, and then sold out to more capitalized farmers. Poorer settlers moved farther on toward the frontier, often clearing the land with destructive methods. Many of these settlers destroyed tropical rain forests without conferring either the advantages of a stable system of swidden, or slash-and-burn, agriculture (which involved cutting down the forest, burning the dried debris, and planting crops over a period of two to three years) or those of permanent cultivation.

Although subsistence farmers entered the cash economy to purchase a few essentials, they found the terms of exchange distinctly unfavorable. Price uncertainty added to the problems generated by lack of knowledge of the tropical ecosystem. Cheaper subsidized credit was available only to farmers with land titles. Rural intermediaries controlled most marketing and took a hefty share of the profits.

The poor subsisted through a variety of stratagems. Even with the substantial increase in population, land reserves gave poorer families a sort of "safety net." A one- to two-hectare subsistence plot formed part of an intricate mix of income- generating and subsistence activities. The rural poor alternated between seasonal wage labor and subsistence agriculture. Some lived in town part of the year and found employment as street vendors, cargo carriers, construction laborers, or domestics.

The massive numbers of migrants had a pervasive impact on regional society. Cambas, native lowlanders, felt a certain resentment against the Altiplano migrants, Kollas. Each characterized the other group in predictably negative terms. Migrants were easy to identify on the basis of language or accent. Discrimination against them ranged from poor treatment by shopkeepers to the refusal of service at restaurants. Santa Cruz natives of all classes made common cause against the newcomers. Regional loyalties cut across class lines. Occasionally, landholders were able to recruit the support of cambas through appeals to regional solidarity.


You can read more regarding this subject on the following websites:

Rural-Urban Migration in Bolivia
Biggest Cities In Bolivia -
Migration in Bolivia - Adv and Disadv | Bolivia | Urbanization
UNICEF Bolivia - Resources - Territorial occupation and
Urbanization trends in Bolivia : opportunities and

Bolivia Country Studies index
Country Studies main page