Bolivia's modern slaves

The Guarani, a South-American indigenous people, were reduced to servitude by colonisation. To this day, their basic rights continue to be violated, but new land ownership legislation is allowing some to start a new life.


For centuries, the Guarani people have lived in the sub-tropical forests of South America. Five hundred years ago European colonisation decimated them. Those who did not die entered a cycle of slavery that lasts to this day.

Like her parents before her, Ines, 72, has spent her life in servitude, toiling for long hours on a privately-owned ranch for no pay. "It was still dark when we started work in the mornings.  We worked until 8, 10 o'clock at night, weaving, doing housework, cooking, spinning wool, everything", she says. She remembers being beaten by her boss as a child.

All her life, Ines has worked without being paid. "I don't know how much I should have been paid.  They gave me old clothes - that was how they paid me", she says.

Today, in this remote corner of southern Bolivia, an estimated 2,000 families continue to live in semi-feudal servitude and debt bondage. Year after year, many workers find themselves trapped into paying back debts to their employers, which cancel out any meagre wages they earn. The calculations of their wages remain a mystery to many Guarani since, like Ines, they are often illiterate.

"The boss isn't bad, he doesn't hit me!"

Miriam Campos, a lawyer with the Bolivian Ministry of Justice and an advocate of Guarani rights to a decent wage and living conditions, pays regular visits to the Guaranis. "When we make these visits, we tell them they have the right to ask for their salaries - they work 10-12 hours a day.  And they say to me, it doesn't matter. 'The boss isn't bad, he doesn't hit me!'"

Miriam has found children labouring on ranches for just 30 cents a day; women working for less than a dollar, and people receiving nothing at all. "People live in really miserable conditions, and we see that they have lost their self-respect", she says.

Yet thanks to pressure from people like Miriam, the system is beginning to change and some workers have received retroactive lump sums for their years of labour.  Last year, the Bolivian government passed a contentious land redistribution law.  Portions of privately-owned land can now be handed back to the Guarani if it is proved that workers are being exploited.

The issue of land-ownership is tearing the country apart as ranch-owners claim equal rights to the land they were also born on. "I identify with it - I feel fulfilled here", says Roman Reynaga, who owns the hacienda where Ines and her family live. "We're both Bolivians. We both deserve these lands where we are living.  I was also born here. We need to find alternatives where we work together."

Some ranch-owners have taken the law into their own hands, recruiting armed thugs to keep government land inspectors out of their properties, thus halting the redistribution of land.  

Last year, a Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous was adopted at the United Nations.  It calls for the basic rights of indigenous peoples to be respected and recognises the ownership of their lands as the key to their survival.

Some Guarani have recently received land of their own, for the first time in their lives. Deep in the forest in Chaco, a group of 22 Guarani families are building a new village on land that used to be privately owned.

Paulina Molino, her husband and five children left their house on a hacienda 10 months ago to live under plastic sheeting.  In spite of the hardships they are enduring, she relishes her new-found freedom and the fact that her children can now go to school.

"That was my dream - to leave the boss and to get down to work, planting the fields with seeds," she says, adding, "To have all my family with me, and to build our house."

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