text size: smaller reset larger



Country profile - Bolivia


As South America's poorest country, around 60 per cent of Bolivia's population live below the national poverty line - in rural areas as many as 80 per cent live in poverty. Despite being a lower-middle-income country, Bolivia ranks only 108th out of 187 countries on the UN's Human Development Index. Over the last decade, stunting in children has remained at 27 per cent nationally and 37 per cent in rural areas according to the UN's World Food Programme (WFP). About two-fifths of the population is engaged in agriculture, but the deterioration and fragmentation of land, climate change, lack of adequate technologies, poor natural resource management and limited rural infrastructure are serious challenges facing the sector.


In the west of the country, two towering Andean ranges run parallel from north to south. Stretching between the mountains is the Altiplano (high plain), the largest plateau in the Andes, with an average altitude of 4,000 metres. Almost 60 per cent of Bolivia's farmers live in the Altiplano but extracting a livelihood from this high, dry and cold land is difficult particularly as the region has the least fertile soils and the least rain. Farmers generally practise very traditional farming methods; fields are terraced and many still use foot ploughs. However these methods leave crops vulnerable to frost, irregular rainfall and erosion. Most farmers have small plots of between one and three hectares where they grow staples and vegetables, predominantly potatoes, maize, beans and quinoa, the highland cereal crop developed by the Incas. Around 200 wild varieties of potato exist in the Andes, of which 30-40 are widely grown. According to government data, Bolivians consume over 90 kg of potatoes each year.

In the Altiplano, sheep, llamas and alpaca are abundant (© Mike Davison)
In the Altiplano, sheep, llamas and alpaca are abundant
© Mike Davison

In the Altiplano, sheep, llamas and alpaca are abundant, providing insurance against poor harvests, as well as food, fibre, hides and skins. But they also contribute to soil infertility and erosion, through over-grazing. Livestock yields, milk extraction rates and reproductive performance are low due to limited livestock support services in terms of training, technical assistance, technology transfer, and veterinary services, especially in the highlands. Poor families generally raise a variety of different animals to supplement their incomes and diversify their activities.

To the east of the Andes, broad, wet and comparatively fertile valleys run down to the major river basins, such as the Amazon basin in the north. These are called the Yungas and are home to 20 per cent of the country's farmers. Both food and cash crops are grown on plots averaging between five and ten hectares, and the more favourable climate allows two crops a year in many places. In the low-lying regions to the east, sugarcane and tropical fruits, including pineapples and papayas, are grown. A little higher up the altitude is perfect for coffee, cacao and coca. Higher still, maize, wheat, rye and oats are popular.

Bolivia is the third largest producer of coca (from which cocaine is made), but according to the UN Office of Drug Control, the area under coca crop cultivation fell by almost seven per cent between 2011 and 2012 to around 25,300 hectares. Government-led eradication efforts, as well as dialogue with farmers and social incentives to enhance alternative livelihoods, have been put forward as the main reasons for a decrease in production. However despite this fall, Bolivia's coffee federation has stated that coffee producers are abandoning the crop in favour of coca because it is less susceptible to international price fluctuations. The federation said that growing coffee had also become less profitable as a result of aging coffee plants and a lack of government incentives. However, initiatives are underway to create the infrastructure, technology and skills needed to transform Bolivia into a high-quality speciality coffee producer.

Rice is a major agricultural product in the lowlands (© Neil Palmer (CIAT))
Rice is a major agricultural product in the lowlands
© Neil Palmer (CIAT)

Sprawling lowlands account for 65 per cent of Bolivia's land area with dense rainforests in the north and grasslands in the south. The region produces the vast majority of Bolivia's agricultural exports, grown principally on large commercial farms (50-75 hectares) using modern methods. In the northern departments, rice, cattle and timber are the main agricultural products, while further south cattle, soybeans, coffee, rice and maize dominate. Infrastructure improvements, land reform and better access to credit, for example, have helped make the department of Santa Cruz the central power base for agricultural interests and many farms in this area exceed 5,000 hectares.

Environmental sustainability

However, agricultural expansion and cattle ranching has resulted in deforestation, desertification and soil depletion. Bolivia has more than 58 million hectares of forest and the largest amount of forest per capita of any country but this is being rapidly reduced as a result of intensive farming, forest fires, illegal logging, migration and the extension of roads. Since 1990, deforestation has been increasing to around 300,000 hectares per year. Bolivia is the world's largest producer of Brazil nuts, which are an important livelihood for many people living in the Bolivian Amazonia. But the Brazil nut tree is threatened by deforestation because it has a unique reproductive system which means they only thrive in natural forests. When trees are cut down around them they stop producing fruit.

Soil erosion has become a major problem (© Mike Davison)
Soil erosion has become a major problem
© Mike Davison

Soil erosion due to cattle grazing and unsustainable farming practices, such as slash and burn, have also become a major problem. Soils, both in the highlands and lowlands, have little depth and are easily eroded, which is a serious obstacle to increasing agricultural productivity. The number of natural disasters is also increasing. According to Oxfam, severe storms normally associated by El Nino periods, every seventh year, now occur regularly, while changing weather patterns due to climate change have resulted in rapid melting of glaciers, droughts, floods, forest fires and erosion.

With indigenous peoples disproportionately affected by climate change, the importance of combining indigenous knowledge with scientific methods to help vulnerable populations adapt is being increasingly recognised. Oxfam, for example, is helping communities to revive the ancient 'camellones' system to adapt to climate change. The system of raised platforms, surrounded by water, was last used 3,000 years ago but protects crops during floods. The Chipaya people monitor the wind, clouds and frosts to predict the weather and improve agricultural practices. Their ancient form of forecasting is now used to identify El Nino years.

When Bolivia rewrote its constitution in 2008, the country made sure to take steps to protect its food sovereignty from foreign interest. Not only were 12 articles added to the constitution regarding local control over food, but in the following five years, Bolivia also added two laws in resistance to industrial agriculture and an economy too heavily weighted toward commodity crops. Bolivia's Law of Mother Earth encourages the protection of natural resources and biodiversity and the Ministry of Production is encouraging small-scale farming communities to form economic organisations to achieve food sovereignty and reduce reliance on imports.


Interest in quinoa is also growing due to its high nutritional value (© Bioversity International/Alfredo Camacho)
Interest in quinoa is also growing due to its high nutritional value
© Bioversity International/Alfredo Camacho

According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), markets for camelid meat, fibre and leather are currently small but hold significant potential to benefit poor herders in the Andean highlands. Interest in quinoa is also growing due to its high nutritional value; Bolivia is currently the largest producer and exporter in the world. In 2012 the country produced around 58,000 tonnes, including over 26,000 tonnes for export, generating revenue of US$80 million. Increased international demand for quinoa has pushed up prices, from US$12 in 2000 to US$115 per 100 kg. But despite price rises, domestic consumption is up three-fold in the past four years. However, with more profit to be made, there is concern that farmers are abandoning traditional land management practices, including crop-rotation, in order to grow more.

Bolivia's agricultural potential may be the key to its future prosperity, but if subsistence farmers are to build modern, competitive, productive and sustainable enterprises, the development of the transportation, storage and communications infrastructure will be vital. With poverty alleviation at the top of the agenda, environmental concerns have tended to take second place. However prosperity will continue in the long term only by responsible exploitation and protection of Bolivia's natural and agricultural resources. 'Win-win' technologies which both increase production while also improving the natural resource base could be the answer in trying to tackle the growing problems of deforestation, soil erosion, desertification, and loss of bio-diversity.

Statistical information
  • Country: Bolivia
  • Capital: La Paz
  • Area: 1,098,581 sq km
  • Population: 10,461,053 (July 2013 est.)
  • Population growth rate: 1.6% (2013 est.)
  • Life expectancy: 68 (2013 est.)
  • Languages: Spanish (official) 60.7%, Quechua (official) 21.2%, Aymara (official) 14.6%, foreign languages 2.4%, other 1.2%
  • Inflation: 5.7% (2012 est.)
  • GDP purchasing power parity: US$56.14 billion (2012 est.)
  • GDP per capita: US$5,200 (2012 est.)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture: 9.6%; industry: 38.3%; services: 52.1% (2012 est.)
  • Land use: arable land: 3.49%; permanent crops: 0.2%; other: 96.31% (2011)
  • Major industries: mining, smelting, petroleum, food and beverages, tobacco, handicrafts, clothing, jewellery
  • Agricultural products: soybeans, coffee, coca, cotton, maize, sugarcane, rice, potatoes, Brazil nuts, timber
  • Natural resources: tin, natural gas, petroleum, zinc, tungsten, antimony, silver, iron, lead, gold, timber, hydropower
  • Export commodities: natural gas, soybeans and soy products, crude petroleum, zinc ore, tin
  • Export partners: Brazil 40.3%, US 17.7%, Argentina 7.7%, Peru 5.3% (2012)

Date published: November 2013


Have your say


The New Agriculturist is a WRENmedia production.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.
Read more