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Agrarian colonisation in Bolivia

Image of an open scrapbook
Images retrieved from report, 'A record of a series of large pot trials with Dwarf cavendish bananas that were used to initiate a systematic investigation of soil fertility in tropical Bolivia'. By T.T Cochrane, advisor in tropical soils to the government of Bolivia. Ministry of Agriculture. La Paz, Bolivia. 1968. -INRA archive, La Paz.

Thanks to generous support from SLAS, I undertook two months of fieldwork in Bolivia between June and August 2023 as part of my postdoctoral fellowship within the Indigenous Ecologies and Environmental Crisis research cluster at UCL Institute for Advanced Studies. The purpose was to gather evidence for my postdoctoral project on Indigenous ecologies in lowland Bolivia c.1952-1996. This builds on my doctoral project which explored environmental ideas within highland Indigenous-campesino movements in twentieth-century Bolivia.

The new project concerns histories of agrarian colonisation in the Bolivia lowlands. It looks at state-directed ‘colonisation’ projects in twentieth century Bolivia, focusing on the entanglements between Indigenous-peasant ecologies and the non-human within new agrarian landscapes.

Agricultural colonisation projects accelerated in Bolivia in the wake of the 1952 Bolivian National Revolution when architects envisaged a grand programme of internal colonisation of the lowlands known as the March to the East. In the late 1950s, colonisation programs expanded into Santa Cruz, Alto Beni and other lowland areas, creating a new system of agrarian capitalism and demographic shifts in these areas. Highland Aymara and Quechua campesinos colonised lowland areas, sometimes displacing or mixing with existing Indigenous communities. Life the colonisation zones was arduous, especially in the initial years; insects, gastroenteritis and high infant mortality were a recurrent feature.

Moreover, the agricultural techniques for subsistence farming adapted over centuries in the Bolivian highlands by campesinos were ill-suited to the tropical ecosystem of the Bolivian lowlands. Colonisation entailed a new regime of tropical agriculture which required ‘technical’ expertise from foreigners, farming equipment and industrial pesticides. I am particularly interested in the new ecological cultures that developed in this process. To what extent did colonisation change the socio-ecological cultures of the highland Indigenous peoples who moved to these dramatically different ecosystems?

Centro de Investigación Histórica y Pueblos Indigenas, Autonomous University Gabriel René Moreno, Santa Cruz. Photo by author.
Centro de Investigación Histórica y Pueblos Indigenas, Autonomous University Gabriel René Moreno, Santa Cruz. Photo by author.

Colonisation programmes provide scholars with a lens to interrogate wider histories of nation building, ecological ideas and differing attitudes from Indigenous groups and the state towards the natural world in the late twentieth century. In the twenty-first century, the colonisers have become known as interculturales in recognition of their diverse ethnic origins. But their presence in lowland territories is often associated with environmentally destructive practices and rapacious land acquisition, placing them in conflict with Indigenous lowland groups over land titles. What are the historical origins of this conflict, and how might this help us understand the dynamics of deforestation which characterise these lowland areas today?

The purpose of the trip was thus to interview technicians, agronomists and NGO officials, and conduct archival research. I spent around four weeks in Santa Cruz and four weeks in La Paz, and I also attended the bi-annual Bolivian Studies conference in Sucre over five days.

In Santa Cruz I consulted the APCOB (Apoyo Para el Campesino-Indígena del Oriente Boliviano­) fondo now housed in the Biblioteca Municipal. This contained a large quantity of reports from state agencies and NGOs relating to colonisation, and bulletins from the Indigenous organisation CIDOB (Confederación de Pueblos Indígenas de Bolivia) and APCOB. I also spoke with retired NGO workers who had been involved in supporting colonisation communities.

Plaza 24 de Julio in the town of San Julian, a colonisation site. Photo by author.
Plaza 24 de Julio in the town of San Julian, a colonisation site. Photo by author.

On an unseasonably rainy and windy morning, I visited subtropical San Julian around 3 hours from the city of Santa Cruz. In the 1960s it was an archetypal semi-dirigida (semi-directed) colonisation site, meaning it received support from the Bolivian state and USAID for road construction, basic infrastructure and some healthcare services.

The town itself is now a busy thoroughfare on the expanding agrarian frontier of Santa Cruz. With its main two streets named after the ‘Plurinational State’ and the socialist leader Marcelo Quiroga, affiliation to the political project of the Movimiento al Socialismo (Mas) government is clear. The passengers in my trufi were Quechua speakers, reflecting the visible influence of the Andean highlands and valleys.

In the much chillier climes of La Paz, I used the ample collections of the INRA archive. These contain reports from the Bolivian government, NGOs, agencies and USAID. Foreign governments were heavily involved in the colonisation process. In 1975, CIAT (Centro de Investigación Agrícola Tropical) was founded to assist with the demands of tropical agricultural with extensive support from the UK Government (Mision Britanica).

I am extremely grateful to the individuals and staff at the organisations and archives mentioned above, for their time and invaluable insights, and of course, to SLAS for enabling the research to take place. I will be writing up the results of this research in the coming few months.

Olivia Arigho-Stiles, UCL

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