Bolivia Background Information Geography



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Bolivia: Lesson 1: Introduction to Bolivia

Bolivia Background Information

Geography

Bolivia is a landlocked nation in South America bordered by Brazil on the north and east, Peru and Chile to the west, and Argentina and Paraguay to the south. Bolivia's western half is covered by the Andes, as three meandering high mountain chains dominate the landscape. The Cordillera Occidental in the west is a long line of dormant volcanoes; the Cordillera Central stands in the middle, while the eastern Cordillera Oriental is a massive snow-capped series of stunning granite mountains. The Altiplano (a high plateau) is sandwiched between the cordilleras. Lake Titicaca sits on this plateau on the border between Bolivia and Peru. At 3,810 meters above sea level, it is the highest commercially navigable lake in the world, and with its substantial depth, it is the largest lake (by volume) of South America. It is also one of the 20 really old lakes of the world, with an age of probably 3 million years. It takes over 1,340 years for its water to be completely replaced. Ironically, its water is also landlocked – it drains through the Desaguadero River into the salty Lake Poopó, which sometimes overflows into the Colpasa salt flats. Other parts of Modern Bolivia include a section in the Amazon forest and a section on the southern Grand Chaco plateau.



Ancient History

The Andean region of South America (including Bolivia) has been inhabited for approximately 21,000 years. The Altiplano was inhabited by the Tiahuanacotas beginning about 2,200 years ago, when they settled near the southern end of Lake Titicaca. The city of Tiahuanaco, its centre, functioned as an important centre for trade and religion. The empire expanded rapidly then inexplicably disappeared around 1200 A.D. (probably due to climactic disasters such as long periods of drought), leaving behind traces and ruins of its greatest city, Tiahuanaco. Other cultures flourishing around the same time were the Mollos (north of present day La Paz), and the Moxos (eastern lowlands). Both societies were agriculturally advanced and disappeared at roughly the same time as the Tiahuanaco Empire vanished from the historical timeline.

With the fall of the Tiahuanacotas came the rise of the Aymaras, who may have been related, but were more warriors that lived in strongly fortified towns on hilltops around Lake Titicaca. They formed seven regional kingdoms and adapted very well to the region despite its difficult climate. One of their innovations was the use of irrigation systems to increase their food supply. The Aymara eventually overtook another major ethnic group, the Uru, who were reduced to being poor fishermen and landless workers. Despite the Incan and Spanish influences, the Aymara continue to be a dominant ethnic group in Bolivia and Peru, making up 25% of the population in Bolivia. The Aymara language is one of the official Bolivian languages.

The Quechua-speaking Incas entered the Altiplano in about 1450 A.D., conquering and assimilating other cultures including the Aymaras. They brought with them their traditions and customs, and controlled the area for about 75 years until 1525 when the Spanish arrived in search of gold and silver.

The Incas had a highly advanced and socially organized culture, and despite their relatively short dominance in Bolivia, they had a remarkable influence. During this time, a family could store up enough resources for a year by working their farm for about 65 days – the rest of the time they spent working on government projects. Some of the system of roads, aqueducts and hanging bridges they created still exist today. Educational and cultural exchanges throughout the Incan empire were fostered for local leaders, building substantial unity and relative well-being. 30 % of today’s population in Bolivia is Quechuan speaking, and this is also an official language of the country.

Colonialism

In 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean becoming the first European to reach what is now called Central America. The king of Spain had paid for his voyage across the Atlantic Ocean and Columbus claimed the land he discovered for the king of Spain. Other kings of Europe quickly started funding other explorers and soon the kings of Spain, Portugal, France and England claimed most of North, Central and South America. The kings of Europe had ruled kingdoms, and with the addition of these new lands, they now ruled empires. The new pieces of land that were claimed by the kings were called colonies. The more land and people a king controlled, the richer and more powerful he became, so for many years the kings of Europe sponsored explorers to find new colonies and often went to war to take colonies away from other kings.


The colonies in the so-called New World produced many raw materials for the European markets, and provided goods that were in short supply in Europe. The colonies in the Americas produced furs, fish, lumber, tobacco, sugar, coffee, citrus fruits, silver and gold. All of these products helped enrich the kingdoms and many people, benefited greatly from the colonies. Many fortunes were made, and Europe soon became the richest part of the world.

There were about 36 different native groups that lived in the territory that is now Bolivia, and they believed the land has always been theirs. As everywhere in the Americas, however, the Europeans had guns, cannons and well-trained armies and could force the native populations to accept the Europeans as rulers; helped out by tuberculosis that the Spaniards brought along and infected the Incan ruling class.


Technology, Warfare, and Independence

Bolivia produced a lot of silver for the Spanish kings and after most of the surface silver had been taken, Spanish settlers moved in to farm the land. The native people had been forced to work in the silver mines, and now they were forced to work on the large farms (plantations) to produce crops to be sold in Europe. By the 18th Century many European settler families had lived in the Americas for many generations (some more than 200 years), and they started to think that Bolivia should be an independent country, not a colony of a European king. Bolivia fought for independence for 16 years, and eventually, with the help of Simon Bolivar, gained its independence from Spain in 1825.

Unfortunately for Bolivia, the future did not turn out as many had hoped. The descendants of the European settlers, who made up 15% of the population, owned the silver and tin mines and all of the best farm land where they had their plantations. The native populations lived in poor conditions. They were forced to work in the mines and on the plantations through a conscription-like “mita” system that the Spanish borrowed from the Inca: everyone was required to do a certain amount of “public service”. However, they were not allowed to vote or get an education, and unlike the Inca, there was not much investment in infrastructure or services for these people. So, while the ruling class of European descendants lived well, the native people lived in extreme poverty. The Inca apparently tended to hang, stone or push lazy people off a cliff, so a certain work ethic was ingrained in the people.


The Bolivian descendants of the original Spanish settlers were called criollos. They had not intermarried with the native population, and therefore remained a distinct group in Bolivia. These criollos controlled the government (they were the only ones who could vote), controlled the economy (they owned the mines and plantations) and controlled society (because they controlled the government, they also controlled the police and military).


Between 1836 and 1939, Bolivia fought three wars with its neighbours. Bolivia lost all these wars and in so doing lost about half of its land to Peru, Chile and Brazil. In the 1950’s, many people in Bolivia, both native and criollos, worked together to try and bring political stability, economic prosperity and social equality to Bolivia. They took control of the government and passed laws to make change. They extended the right to vote to all citizens, they nationalized the tin and silver mines, and established an education system for everyone. In the 1960’s, however, the military overthrew this government and started to rule by force. While many of the criollos supported this military government, the poor opposed it. There was a lot of conflict in Bolivia and the economy suffered, as did many people who protested against the military rule. The military itself had many internal conflicts, mostly about who should rule and how. So far, there have been 190 revolutions and coups in the country since independence.


Tragically for Bolivia, this conflict continues today. Many of the rich urban criollos seem to have little interest or concern for the poor native rural people and vice versa. There are other Bolivians, though, that want to see real changes that would bring about political and social stability and economic progress to their country. The most recent development has been the election of Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of the country. Morales has moved to nationalize oil and gas, transportation, telecommunication, and electricity – a response to increasing privatization that the International Monetary Fund had promoted. He has also started land reforms, redistributing land from large estates to poor farmers. Controversy about these moves continues today, including governors of different parts of the country trying to gain greater independence.


While Bolivia is potentially rich, it has been called a “donkey sitting on a gold mine”. Besides the large deposits of silver and tin, there is uranium, gold and natural gas. Bolivia also has a lot of excellent farmland and there is great potential for hydro-electric energy development. Hopefully sometime soon the Bolivians will be able to cooperate amongst themselves and start to develop their economy, in such a way that all citizens share in the wealth.

Contribution of Fishing to Bolivian history
Bolivian history is dominated by agricultural innovations during the pre-colonial time, and by mining once the Incas and Spaniards showed up. However, it also contains substantial fish resources in Lake Titicaca, tributaries of the Amazon river, and the rivers of Chaco plateau.
As in other developing countries in these lessons, fishing has probably always had a role as a supplement to subsistence farming and/or hunting and gathering a level of society that may continue relatively unchanged independent of empires that pass by. It can also tend to be a last resort for people that are socially excluded, since there is no need for owning land and can be fairly cheap to get into. For this reason, fishing is often also seen as an appropriate development to increase food availability and poverty reduction. Only once fishing gets more lucrative, as in Canada, do the interests and level of investments change. These two visions of fishing often get mixed up in development work.
In Bolivian history, the war-like activities of the Aymara appear to have created the specialized fishing culture of the Uru, These were excluded from land-ownership and moved onto islands of reeds “uros” that they built on the lake, living primarily on fishing. This culture is still evident in both Bolivia and Peru, though largely seen as a curiosity. The reed boats traditionally used for navigation and fishing are quite famous, but very few remain.
With increasing populations and appetite for fish, fishing activities would have increased during the time of the Inca, the Spaniards, and modern Bolivian society. Currently, the main fishing port on Lake Titicaca is the Isla de Sol, a traditional Inca temple and village site (according to legend, the birthplace of the Inca). Wooden boats largely took over from reed boats probably in this century. Monofilament nylon nets, that generally radically transform fisheries, only came into use about 10 years ago on Lake Titicaca (incidentally causing a serious decline in the populations of flightless Titicaca tern). In 2006, there were about 5,300 fishermen and women in Bolivian lakes, landing about 2,000 metric tons annually (compared to 6,290 tons landed by about the same number of fishermen/women in Peru).
The main native fish species collected included the “ispi” and “carache”, small minnow-like fish (Orestias sp.). Rainbow trout were introduced in the 1930s, initially for sport fishing and then aquaculture. Until recently, these also contributed substantially to the commercial fishery, but now contribute about 0.1% of the catch. The main catch currently is of the sardine-like silverside or pejerrey (Odontesthes bonariensis) also introduced in the 1930s, but from Argentina. The giant Titicaca frog and a native catfish are also collected for eating.
Lake Poopó, also has contributed to the fishery in the past, producing up to 2,000 tons per year from 1988-1992 with the help of a development project and creation of a fishing cooperative. However, this fishery collapsed after the lake dried up in a drought of 1992. Since then it has continued to be quite salty and became more polluted from mining, but is improving with continued rains.
In the case of the Grand Chaco the fish are more warm-water tropical fish. The main species in this region, a sabalo (Prochilodus sp.), migrates upriver in the Pilcomayo and Bermejo Rivers in large schools from Argentina to spawn, and were traditionally caught in large numbers in fish weirs by the Weenhayek in fish weirs. This weir fishery was hundreds of years old, but once an export market for the fish developed, it intensified greatly – supplemented by nets with nylon thread in the 1960s. At one time, this fishery represented up to 40% of the total fish catch in the country. Overfishing and changes in the climate mostly wiped out this fishery after 1986. Fish stocks have recovered to some extent, but are now being challenged by pollution from mining in the Pilcomayo and siltation from agriculture in the Bermejo, and overfishing with gillnets and destruction of lagoons important for the young fish further downstream.

On the Amazon tributaries, the fish are also warm-water tropical species, including the sabalo, the giant piranha-like paco and tambaqui, and the catfish dourada. These also migrate upriver, in this case from Brazil, but are fished by small fishing communities on the river by hook and line, gill nets, and castnets. The environment has very substantial seasonal flooding and large seasonal lagoons, resulting in opportunities to fish both in lagoons as they dry up and the migrating schools. This fishery probably developed as part of the subsistence farming typical of tribes in the Amazon, supplemented since the late 1800s by rubber tapping. The fishery is not very large, because margets are too far away.

Fisheries in all regions of Bolivia are not very well managed, and are showing signs of overexploitation.

Aquaculture:

Rainbow trout were identified as the best species to grow in Lake Titicaca to supplement the economic fortunes of Bolivia, and were introduced from the USA in 1939. The culture of this species has been promoted by a number of development projects, including missionary projects from Canada in the 1980s and most recently a Japanese government project in the late 1990s. The activity now continues at a small scale in various parts of the lake and surrounding rivers.



Tilapia were introduced for aquaculture in the Amazonian tropical regions by missionary projects in approximately 1964, and again by USAid in 1990. The European common carp and some Chinese carp were also introduced from Brazil into the Grand Chaco region by a Bolivian university. These species continue in Bolivia, but their aquaculture is not well developed. The carps, however, have become established in a reservoir of the Gran Chaco and are starting to be fished.


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