Is Slavery Still Alive in Bolivia?

A senior United Nations official recently led a mission to the eastern lowlands of Bolivia to investigate the alleged use of slavery among some wealthy landowners and the Guarani indigenous workers they have toiling on their land—and returned horrified. "We are very scandalized by what we've seen. … We have seen indigenous people, the original owners of the land, who are now in a situation of landlessness, forced labor, servitude and extreme poverty," Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, head of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, told reporters in La Paz, according to the BBC.

What they saw is nothing short of modern-day slavery: The system hinges on the creation of debt that people have little chance of paying off. Workers are given cash and food, which is then docked from the average daily wage of as low as $2 (and in some cases it’s been reported to be as paltry as 30 cents).

According to other reports, an estimated 2,000 families continue to live in almost feudal servitude and debt bondage. Many of these workers find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle paying back debts to their employers, which cancel out any meager wages they earn. The calculations of their wages remain a mystery to many Guarani since, many times, they are illiterate.

“This is a relationship of strong servitude that condemns these people to poverty and dependency on the landlords," says Alejandro Almaraz, Bolivia's deputy land minister.

But changes do seem to be occurring: President Evo Morales, who is himself of indigenous background, recently succeeded in changing the constitution to give more rights to Bolivia’s 36 indigenous groups in the areas of government, judiciary and land-owning. The changes also allow agrarian land reform by limiting the size of rural landholdings in future sales. In March, he also handed over thousands of hectares of land seized from large-scale owners to indigenous farmers.