No. 26/08




La Paz, Bolivia, June 13, 2008 — The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) conducted a visit to Bolivia from June 9-13, to gather information on the situation faced by a large number of indigenous Guaraní families known as captive communities, who continue to live in a state of bondage analogous to slavery in Bolivia’s Chaco region, in the departments of Santa Cruz, Chuquisaca, and Tarija. The IACHR delegation was led by Commissioner Luz Patricia Mejía, in her capacity as Rapporteur for Bolivia, and by Commissioner Víctor Abramovich, as Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.


During the visit, the Commission obtained information and testimony verifying that the problem of debt bondage and forced labor has continued in the Bolivian Chaco, and the situation of the Guaraní people in this region has worsened since the Commission’s last visit in November 2006. The delegation notes that the situation of bondage and forced labor in which the families of the Guaraní people live is an extreme manifestation of the discrimination that Bolivia’s indigenous peoples and campesino communities have suffered historically and continue to suffer.


This visit came about as the result of a Memorandum of Commitment signed on March 11 of this year at IACHR headquarters, during the Commission’s 131st period of sessions, by the government of Bolivia, the Council of Gauraní Captains of Chuquisaca, and civil society organizations. In that agreement, the State made a commitment to adopt the protection measures needed to safeguard the personal integrity of all the Guaraní families, their leaders, and advisors. It also agreed to inform the Commission as to measures adopted and progress made in the process of restoring territories to the Guaraní people. In order to ascertain how this agreement is being carried out, this IACHR delegation traveled to La Paz, Sucre, Camiri, and Santa Cruz.


The Commission recognizes the efforts being carried out by the State to address this problem, and verified that the Bolivian State has attempted to carry out the regularization of lands in compliance with Law 1715, adopted in 1996, and Law 3545, adopted in 2006, both of which are related to a process of agrarian reform. However, the enforcement of these laws faces obstacles on the part of various political and economic sectors that resist the implementation of the law in the affected region. This has even generated acts of violence that resulted in persons being seriously injured, as well as cases of kidnappings and torture. The IACHR condemns these grave violations of human rights that have been committed against members of the Guaraní people and the obstruction by individuals of the implementation of public policies. These acts must be investigated and those responsible punished.


The Commission reiterates the State’s obligation to implement the existing laws related to agrarian reform. In this regard, the IACHR urges the State to guarantee the effective implementation of these laws, bearing in mind the particular relationship of indigenous peoples with the land, and thus to give priority to recognizing their ancestral lands and territories in the process of land titling.


The Commission has received information from civil society about some large estates or haciendas in which the relationship of involuntary servitude appears to have come to an end. The IACHR also received testimony from Guaraní families who, as a result of their territorial vindication, have been expelled from the haciendas in which they labored without compensation for the work they had done, and who do not have even the minimal resources necessary for subsistence. Some of these families were displaced to other communities that do not have enough land to sustain the number of people who live there.


Other communities remain captive on portions of land located within the estates, even in cases in which they have entered into a state of conflict with their former bosses and are no longer providing them with services on a regular basis. Although they are living on their ancestral territories, these are lands identified as the private property of third parties, which places the members of these communities in an extremely vulnerable situation, since they lack freedom of movement, suffer from threats and acts of aggression as a result of exercising their right to association, and are unable to employ their traditional means of production due to the lack of recognition of land titles.


The existence of these various mechanisms and circumstances should be verified and attested to on the ground by the appropriate State authorities.


The IACHR traveled to the community of Itacuatía, located in the Alto Parapetí region, in the province of Cordillera, department of Santa Cruz. The community is four hours away from the city of Camiri, via public roadways crossing private property that has been gated and in some cases locked. To access the area, the Commission had to negotiate with one of the estate owners for a lock to be opened. Some members of the community of Itacuatía told the Commission that because of their efforts to vindicate their rights, they are denied work in neighboring haciendas and are persecuted in different ways. They also told the IACHR that they had been subject to threats and aggressions. The Commission also received information about severe restrictions to the Guaraní people’s right to freedom of association. This includes persecution and harassment of their leaders, as well as serious difficulties related to access to the territory, which hinders their contact with the communities.


The Commission expresses its concern for the lives and personal integrity of these individuals and for the reprisals they could suffer as a result of their activity and for having given testimony to the IACHR. In this regard, the Commission urges the State to take effective protection measures for all members and leaders of the Guaraní people. In addition, with a view to guaranteeing their right to association, the IACHR urges national, departmental, and local authorities to take measures within their jurisdictions to ensure free circulation on public roadways.


The IACHR also observed that the Guaraní families in a state of bondage or forced labor live in extreme poverty and are subject to punishments such as being lashed with whips or having their crops burned and their animals killed. In addition, in Alto Parapetí the Commission verified the existence of child labor, which is prohibited by national laws and international treaties ratified by the Bolivian State. All of this occurs in a framework of impunity, due to the almost total absence of the national State in the Chaco region and the ineffectiveness of the Office of the Public Prosecutor. This impunity fosters the recurrence of practices that are incompatible with human rights.


In this regard, the IACHR urges the State to increase its institutional presence in the Bolivian Chaco in order to guarantee access to the exercise of these communities’ fundamental rights. The State should design these policies in consultation with the indigenous peoples, ensuring that the policies are compatible with their worldview and cultural identity.


During a meeting held with the Public Ministry, the Commission received information about the obstacles encountered in the course of investigations into the crime of involuntary servitude and other related crimes, such as injuries, mistreatment, and illegitimate restrictions to freedom of the affected communities. The obstacles noted include: the difficulty of independent access to the area; the limited cooperation of the police; the lack of protection measures for victims and witnesses; and the weak coordination of the respective national ministries, as well as the lack of cooperation of direct victims of this crime. In light of these issues, the affected communities expressed to the Commission their lack of confidence in the Public Ministry’s actions.


The Commission emphasizes that the response by the Public Ministry and the judicial branch has been insufficient in terms of the need to investigate and punish those responsible for these crimes. The Commission believes that there is sufficient documented information, as well as evidence provided by national and international organizations, that would allow an investigation to move forward. At the same time, it reiterates that it is the State’s duty to have suitable and effective mechanisms in place that would allow it to combat some of the aforementioned obstacles. The Commission trusts that there will soon be progress in the investigation and that this will allow the restoration of the confidence needed for a greater participation of victims in the process.


The Commission has noted that another relevant institutional problem having to do with the administration of justice in Bolivia is the lack of integration of the Constitutional Tribunal. This court carries out an essential role in guaranteeing the application of the Bolivian constitution and the rule of law, and has jurisdiction in various constitutional disputes related to laws on land ownership. The IACHR expresses its deep concern about this irregular situation and urges the National Congress to resolve this as soon as possible.


The Commission deplores the existence in Bolivia of situations of slave-like debt bondage and forced labor, a practice that is absolutely prohibited by the American Convention on Human Rights and other international instruments to which Bolivia is party. The United Nations Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery defines as practices analogous to slavery “debt bondage” as well as “serfdom, that is to say, the condition or status of a tenant who is by law, custom or agreement bound to live and labour on land belonging to another person and to render some determinate service to such other person, whether for reward or not, and is not free to change his status.”


The IACHR also expresses its concern over the lack of integral State policies to address this problem. The Commission reiterates that the State of Bolivia has the international obligation to eradicate bondage and forced labor in all of its territory and should immediately take all necessary measures to comply with this obligation. Similarly, the State should adopt the measures needed to confront and resolve the legal, institutional, political, and other obstacles that are hindering the execution of the government’s program to eradicate bondage and forced labor throughout its territory. The State should also adopt all measures needed to eliminate discrimination against indigenous peoples, generating a culture of respect toward Bolivia’s rich cultural diversity.


Finally, the Commission gathered information on the acts of violence that took place in Sucre in November 2007 and in May 2008, on which it will continue to follow up.


The delegation visited the departments of La Paz, Santa Cruz, and Chuquisaca, where it carried out an intensive agenda of meetings and verification activities on the ground. The IACHR held meetings with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Worship, the Interior Minister, and the Minister of Rural Development, Agriculture and the Environment; the Deputy Ministers of Lands, of Labor, and of Coordination of Social Movements; the Director of Lands; the Coordinator of Indigenous Peoples and Empowerment, in the Ministry of Justice; the President of the Chamber of Deputies; the People’s Defender; the Public Prosecutor of the Nation; the National Agrarian Tribunal; the Mayor of Sucre and the Inter-institutional Civic Committee of Sucre; the Mayor of Camiri and the Ranchers Federation of Camiri; the Prefecture of Santa Cruz; the presidential representative of Santa Cruz; international organizations such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and UNICEF; the social pastoral organization Cáritas; civil society organizations; the Guaraní People’s Assembly; the Council of Gauraní Captains of Chuquisaca; and members of other indigenous organizations as well as other nongovernmental organizations.


The IACHR would like to express its thanks to the government of Bolivia for its hospitality and for its cooperation in planning and carrying out the agenda of activities. It also would like to thank and recognize the government of Denmark for its financial contribution which made this visit possible. The Commission would also like to express its appreciation to the indigenous organizations and associations, and particularly to those individuals who provided valuable testimony. The Commission also thanks the nongovernmental organizations and international agencies for the information and cooperation they provided.


 In the context of the existing collaboration with the government and with a view to contributing to the search for greater and stronger human rights protections in Bolivia, the IACHR—based on the functions and authority it has been granted under Article 41 of the American Convention on Human Rights—will lay out its final observations, conclusions, and recommendations in a report on the situation of the captive communities of the Guaraní people in Bolivia. This will be put to the consideration of the State of Bolivia and made public in the near future.


            A principal and autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the Inter-American Commission derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights and acts in representation of all the OAS member countries. It is made up of seven independent members who act in their personal capacity, do not represent any particular country, and are elected by the OAS General Assembly.



Useful links:


The report entitled Access to Justice and Social Inclusion: The Road towards Strengthening Democracy in Bolivia, published in June 2007, based on observations during a visit conducted in November 2006, contains observations and recommendations by the IACHR on the situation of captive communities.


Video recording of the hearing on the situation faced by captive communities in Bolivia held on March 10, 2008, during the Commission’s 131st period of sessions, and which led to the signing, on March 11, of a Memorandum of Commitment



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