The Beautiful Yungas Region and its Ugly Past

Only three hours drive from the high-altitude, cold climate La Paz is a neotropic ecozone with dense lowland forest and cloud forest. The road there follows the rugged terrain through valleys, across streams and past some of the most ecologically diverse environments in Bolivia.


Las Yungas serves as a transition between the highlands of Bolivia and Peru and the Amazonian lowlands. The flora and fauna in this region is extremely diverse, but Las Yungas is notoriously famous for four main agricultural commodities – coca, cotton, citrus and coffee.


During our stay in La Paz, we took a day trip to Coroico in Las Yungas after a recommendation from the Dueno at El Cafetal, to see what the region was about. Unfortunately time limited our visit to a day, but it was worth the side trip where we discovered the beautiful lowlands of this region and its unfortunate social past that has contributed to the region’s prosperity.


The Spanish conquistadors brought Africans to Bolivia as slaves in the 16th century to replace native workers that were dying off from the harsh conditions in the mines in Potosí. The conditions were so horrific that eight million Africans and natives are estimated to have died in the mines by the end of the colonial period in 1825. It has been recognised as the worst human rights abuse in European colonial history.


Like most African slave colonies they fought hard against their European aggressors and relieved their misery through music and dance, which has greatly influenced Bolivian culture and music today.


When African slaves were finally emancipated in the 19th century they started to relocate. By then however, mining had already started to decline and many Africans had been moved to large haciendas in the Yungas to work in the region as slaves in cotton, coca and coffee.


Although living and working conditions were more humane than in the mines, many Africans remained in the Yungas, in a cycle of extreme poverty. An estimated 30,000 Afro-Bolivians live in the Yungas today where they still work on coffee, citrus and coca farms.


Although slavery officially ended in 1825 it wasn’t until 1952 that Afro-Bolivian rights were first beginning to be recognised. Agrarian reform in that year allowed some form of land ownership to Afro-Bolivians, but even that was limited.


Since their emancipation, Afro-Bolivians have faced severe discrimination and disadvantages in health, life expectancy, education, income, literacy and employment. In the ‘80’s some started to move away from the Yungas to live in cities like Santa Cruz and La Paz, but many still live in the rural areas of this region which lack basic services such as running water and electricity.


In the ‘90’s a new black consciousness movement emerged and the term ‘Afro-Bolivian’ was adopted as a form of self-description and identity.

David, a local guide that accompanied us on a trek recently is an Afro-Bolivian from Las Yungas and proud of his heritage. He told us that his grandparents and great grandparents were of African heritage, but when asked where they came from he replied, “I don’t know. There were many slaves brought over from different countries in Africa.” The term Afro-Bolivian is their main means of identity.

In 2005 a ‘March for Afro-Bolivian Dignity’ was organised through La Paz and the struggle for dignity, rights and recognition continued, although it fell mostly on deaf ears.


Only in recent years has the situation started to change for Afro-Bolivians. Bolivia’s new Constitution of the Plurinational Communitarian State introduced in January 2009 recognised them as one of Bolivia’s 36 indigenous groups.


The current President Evo Morales has done a lot for Afro-Bolivian minority rights and recognition in the country. Although much discrimination still exists, there is now Afro-Bolivian representation in Morales Assembly and in 2010 the Assembly passed a law against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination in accordance with international law.


Recognition as a distinct ethnic and cultural group and the new law against discrimination promises to lift Afro-Bolivian living standards in the future. In the meantime, those in Las Yungas and the rest of Bolivia continue to strive to keep their culture and recognition of their past struggle alive.







2 Responses to “The Beautiful Yungas Region and its Ugly Past”
  1. I suggest adding a facebook like button for the blog!

  2. David Malinda says:

    This looks like a picture from paradice, and accompanied by an excellent story..

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  • Natasha Malinda from Melbourne, Australia
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