Most of the 30,000 Afro-Bolivians live in the Yungas region of the Department of La Paz, where they are employed on farms, cultivating the coca-leaf, coffee or citrus fruits (data: UN report on Bolivia, May 2003). Many Afro-Bolivians are bilingual in Aymara and Spanish and their religion shares the Roman Catholic Andean syncretism. They are usually distinguished from ‘whites’ and mestizos in economic rather than racial terms, and the majority tend to think of themselves as Bolivian rather than African.
‘Afro-Bolivian’ was adopted as a self-description with the emergence of a black consciousness movement in the early 1990s; but the movement has faced organizational problems as well as a split between the interests of urban intellectuals and rural peasant farmers.
Bolivia’s Afro-Latin population is descended from slaves who were brought to work in the silver mines in Potosí in the early 1500s. Many died due to maltreatment and inhumane conditions. They were also unaccustomed to the high altitude and cold temperatures. When mining declined they migrated to the Yungas, where they were exploited as slaves on the large haciendas. The agrarian reform of 1953 ended this form of slavery. Since the 1980s a large number of Afro-Bolivians have migrated from the Yungas to the cities of La Paz, Santa Cruz and Cochabamba.
Over time many Afro-Bolivians adopted Aymara language and culture, and the Afro-Bolivian Spanish dialect, and their music and dance, became less distinctive. However, this trend was reversed in the late twentieth century with the revival of the saya dance, as part of a black consciousness movement. The Movimiento Cultural Negro was formed in 1994; literature on the country also makes reference to a Casa Afro-Boliviana in Santa Cruz and a Centre for Afro-Bolivian Development in La Paz. The most well known group, however, is the Movimiento Saya Afro Boliviano, which aims to recuperate, strengthen and promote the values and cultural identity of Afro-Bolivians.
Due to improving access to education since the revolution of 1952, some Afro-Bolivians have been successful in areas such as medicine, law and teaching, but most are extremely poor farmers. They have shared the same problems as other rural workers: environmental deterioration, low prices for agricultural produce and US-sponsored demands for coca eradication. In contrast to Bolivia’s indigenous peoples, the census of 2001 failed to recognize Afro-Bolivians as a distinct ethnic/cultural group.
The Afro-Bolivian community does not figure in the constitution and many people complain that the government fails to recognize and appreciate the contribution of black people to Bolivian society. Afro-Bolivians have repeatedly demanded that they be included in the official population census; in 2001 these demands were rejected, but government authorities in Santa Cruz have since agreed to a census of Afro-Bolivians for 2006. In April 2005 a ‘March for Afro-Bolivian Dignity’ was organized in La Paz.
Human rights organizations report continuing discrimination against Bolivians of African descent, claiming they face severe disadvantages in health, life expectancy, education, income, literacy and employment. Rural areas are still lacking in many basic services such as running water, electricity, drains and roads. The election of Evo Morales in 2005 was welcomed by many Afro-Bolivians: he vowed to improve the living standards of Bolivia’s socially excluded, indeed, to end their exclusion, and since his election he has stopped the US sponsored coca-eradication campaigns (affecting many Afro-Bolivian coca-growers in the Yungas).
In mid-2006 there were complaints about the lack of Afro-Bolivian candidates included in Morales’ new Constituent Assembly, however, since then the government has taken a step forward by recognizing and naming Afro-Bolivians as a legitimate minority ethnic group belonging to the Bolivian nation in the new Bolivian Political Constitution of the Plurinational, Communitarian State, approved by the Constituent Assembly in June 2007.