An image of the country's flag.

Despite the large numbers of people migrating to urban areas, Bolivia’s population and especially its population of poor people remains significantly rural and closely tied to the country’s natural resources. Inequality in land distribution and access to productive resources perpetuates the deep divisions between the wealthy and the poor. Progress in providing land access and tenure security for the country’s indigenous people has accelerated under the current administration but remains slow. In the first ten years of the land title regulation (saneamiento) process, only 6.6% of the land subject to regularization was titled. Despite a high percentage of female-headed households and formal laws mandating gender equality in land rights and community property in marriage, most of the land is distributed to men and titled in men’s names. The titling of indigenous communally-managed territories (TCOs) has been halted in some regions due to conflicts over the land rights and access to natural resources involving indigenous communities, local governments, and private tenants.

The Morales government pledged to begin a new era of land reform and to revitalize the land-redistribution process, and has been actively working on the overwhelming number of pressing land and natural resource issues. Provisions in the 2009 Constitution and the accelerated pace of the land titling and registration project reflect serious attention to these goals, but many challenges remain. In particular, there is a need to evaluate the status of various initiatives, to determine whether refinements and revisions are necessary, and to ensure that the new constitutional provisions on decentralization and indigenous rights are incorporated into implementable legislation.


The following are areas of particular need:

  • Strengthen the legal framework for land and natural-resource rights. Bolivia’s formal land laws and land-reform laws do not provide a sufficient foundation to address the inequality of land distribution and tenure insecurity, and provisions in the new Constitution need to be incorporated into new or existing laws to ensure that they are consistent and binding. One approach would be to seek out less time-consuming and less expensive alternatives to address land access and land security than current titling, registration, and informal land regularization efforts. The legal framework is in need of new codes governing mining, water rights, and forest management. Foundational steps include conducting the research and building the consensus necessary to support the process of drafting and enacting these new laws.
  • Land access for land-poor and landless people. To increase land access for those with little or no land, it will be important to pursue alternatives to traditional procedures for reclaiming portions of large holdings and redistributing the land to the landless or land poor. Such alternatives could include: equity-sharing by former employees and landowners through joint stock companies; contract farming; and programs that provide land and access to other resources to landless laborers and allow them to engage in production processes. Because rural communities are beginning to gain more land and resources, donors could support projects that facilitate equitable strategic alliances between communities (with land and resources) on the one hand and entrepreneurs with access to capital, technology and markets (but with limited and diminishing land and resources) on the other.
  • Land access and tenure security for women. Gaps exist between the expressions of gender equality in Bolivia’s formal laws, discrimination in the implementation of land reforms, and entrenched preferences for men in many customary laws governing access to and management of natural resources. One approach to addressing these gaps would be to design and implement pilot projects targeting women beneficiaries within existing programs of reform. Another approach would be to ensure that formal laws protecting the land rights of women are secured in land administration processes.
  • Increase access to safe water. Approximately 40% of Bolivia’s total population lacks access to safe water. The country has high levels of waterborne diseases related to water pollution. The problem is acute in rural areas where 79% of the population lacks access to an improved water supply. It will be important to identify opportunities for clean water production, as well as support water-infrastructure development projects in rural areas, particularly the development of wastewater treatment plants and effective gray water and solid-waste disposal systems. Donors could help to support rural health education programs focused on the mitigation of waterborne illnesses.


Bolivia is a large country defined by extremes in geography, land distribution, and the socioeconomic status of its people. The Andes Mountains run the length of the country, with the mountainous terrain descending into jungles, barren plateaus, and lowlands. Half of Bolivia’s 1 million square kilometers of land is covered in forest; one third is semiarid or arid. Only 7% of Bolivia’s land (8 million hectares) can be productively used for agriculture, and 10% of agricultural landholders control 90% of that land.

Bolivia has the highest income- inequality and lowest social mobility in South America. Sixty- three percent of the population is poor; 40% live in extreme poverty. Poverty is mostly rural (83% of the rural population is below the national poverty line), and almost 90% of the rural poor are indigenous. Those who are born into poor families in Bolivia are likely to remain poor. Land-reform efforts in the 1990s were plagued by poor implementation, lack of resources, corruption, and failure of political will. Land invasions, strikes, blockades, and mass demonstrations became an often violent reminder of the social, economic and political circumstances that in part led to the election of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president. In May 2006, the Morales administration launched its land-reform program to address the unequal distribution of land and insecurity of land tenure.

While women are legally able to own land in Bolivia, in reality there is little gender equality in land ownership. Women rarely inherit land, and their land rights tend to be less secure than men’s. Indigenous women’s rights are especially vulnerable because they often lack identity documents and enter into unregistered relationships, hindering their ability to exercise their legal rights.

Bolivia is highly biodiverse. Land-tenure insecurity and uncertain rights to forests and forest products have discouraged land investment and development of sustainable practices to manage the country’s natural resources. Bolivia suffers from deforestation, water and soil pollution, erosion and desertification, and institutional weaknesses that prevent the development and enforcement of principles of environmental stewardship.

Bolivia is also rich in mineral resources; however, these resources have often been plagued by conflict and pollution. The poorest communities in Bolivia are located in mining areas, and Bolivia’s mining practices have caused significant environmental damage to the land and natural resources in those regions. Mining operations are responsible for substantial erosion, leakage of toxic dust and cyanide, contamination of the soil, and pollution of fresh water.

Published / Updated: January 2011