Land Use

Bolivia Table of Contents

Bolivia contains slightly over 108 million hectares of land. Forest or woodland comprised 40 percent of all land, or 56 million hectares, in the late 1980s. Pasture accounted for a quarter of total land, or about 27 million hectares. Crops covered only 2 percent of all land, or over 1 million hectares. The remaining 30 percent of the land was destined for "other uses," including 8 percent of all land that was arable but not in use. Of the land deemed suitable for agricultural use, only about 10 percent was in use.

As with land tenure, the country's land use was best explained in terms of its geography. Most highland farmers worked minifundia plots of staples and vegetables, such as potatoes, corn, haba (beans), and quinoa (a native cereal), selling only 30 percent of their output. Produce usually was marketed to truckers, the most common marketing outlet for Bolivian farmers, or was sold at large agricultural fairs, an Inca custom. Although Indians in the highlands terraced their steep fields in the Inca style, traditional farming techniques also made farmers vulnerable to frost, irregular rainfall, and erosion. Farm animals plowed the soil, and the abundance of sheep, llamas, and alpaca, used as a form of insurance income against bad weather, made overgrazing common, thus further eroding the soil and lessening soil fertility.

Farmers in the valleys used their farmland for a mixture of traditional and nontraditional purposes, producing both food and cash crops. The primary food crops were tubers, barley, corn, wheat, fruits, and vegetables. Export crops such as cacao, tea, and coffee were also planted, the latter because of the ideal altitude. Livestock activity also was common. Although yields were not always high, the valleys usually produced two crops a year and were less vulnerable to weather fluctuations than on the Altiplano. Nevertheless, farmers in the valleys also relied on truckers for their marketing and suffered greater isolation than those on the Altiplano, particularly during the rainy season, October to April. Although farmers in the valleys took more risks than those on the Altiplano, they still suffered from a low technological level and the lack of direct access to markets.

The country's most productive farmers were those who cultivated the fertile plains of the lowlands, especially in the department of Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz's rise to prominence was the consequence of infrastructure improvements in the 1950s, land reform, and colonization. By the 1960s, Santa Cruz was responsible for the import substitution industrialization of sugar, rice, cotton, and oilseeds. With the rapid increase in commodity prices in the early 1970s, cruceña (Santa Cruz region) lands were increasingly sown with cash crops, especially cotton and soybeans. For political reasons, Santa Cruz also received a disproportionate share of the sector's credit in the 1970s, which also accelerated growth. In contrast to the rest of the country, farmers in Santa Cruz were actively engaged in all aspects of the market economy, such as harvesting, processing, marketing, and even research and development. These farmers were organized into powerful producer organizations that traditionally negotiated prices with the government and provided technical assistance to members. Small farmers also continued to occupy Santa Cruz; many were responsible for the growing problems of deforestation because of slash-and-burn approaches to rice farming. An estimated 100,000 landless wage earners in the agricultural sector cut sugarcane or picked cotton in Santa Cruz or performed seasonal labor in Argentina.

The northern lowland departments of Pando and Beni were much more isolated than Santa Cruz, thus limiting their ability to be major agricultural producers. They were originally settled in the late 1800s during a boom in rubber exports from the Amazon region. As colonization proceeded, larger-scale commercial agriculture developed in coffee, rice, and especially cattle. By the 1960s, large cattle ranches of 500 hectares and more flourished in Beni, making it the cattle capital of the country. In the 1980s, Beni Department also became an important producer of commercial timber.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress