Nestled between the Andes to the west and the Amazon to the east, the farmlands of eastern Bolivia offer a unique opportunity for agriculture, with higher quality soil than other areas. In recent decades however, there has been a surge in deforestation, mostly a result of large landholding Brazilian migrants who arrived in the 1980s and 1990s. This has caused stress on the surrounding environment and threatened the ability of native communities to preserve their ways of life. International law protects indigenous property rights, both to the land itself and to the sustainability of the land, as a means of protecting local interests. Under both the American Convention and the American Declaration, state parties, including Bolivia have an obligation to respect and protect these threatened native land interests.

Slightly over a third of Bolivia’s population lives in rural areas, and the agricultural output from the country’s eastern departments accounts for over a quarter of the country’s GDP. Therefore, issues affecting the frontiers have a tremendous effect on the country. The environmental effects of expanding cities and deforestation for cattle ranching have hit residents with warmer and drier weather from the farming and more flooding from the ranching. A report from the Regulatory Agency for the Social Control of Forests and Lands also found that 3.3 million hectares of land were illegally deforested between 1991 and 2009, largely for new agriculture. Indigenous farming communities downriver from the development have complained that they now have no water because of the ranching.

When Evo Morales was elected as president in 2006, he sought to remedy the situation by renegotiating the relationship between the state and the latifundia, the large landholding class. The 2006 agrarian reform law and the new constitution in 2009 aimed to limit the accumulation of landed power by limiting purchase of land between private parties to 5,000 hectares. As a result, native Bolivian ownership of productive land in Santa Cruz increased by 17% from the 1998-99 harvest to the 2008-09 harvest. However, the changes are largely forward-looking and therefore will have only limited effects on those transfers that have already occurred.

While both the appropriation of land by collectives and the micro-climatic effects of deforestation threaten indigenous land rights, Article 21 of the American Convention on Human Rights and Article XXIII of the American Declaration protect property rights. The right to property goes beyond mere ownership or residence to recognize the role of land as a means of securing community and anchoring culture. In the Case of the Yakye Axa Community v. Paraguay, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR, Court) established that indigenous groups have an interest in preserving their habitat as a means of maintaining their cultural attachment to the land. This right extends specifically to water and mineral resources. Furthermore, the Court declared in the Case of the Mayagna (Sumo) Awas Tingni Community v. Nicaragua that “indigenous groups, by the fact of their very existence, have the right to live freely in their own territory.”

The dramatic changes to the environment and reduction of water pose indirect challenges to indigenous property rights, not by threatening to seize the land but rather by slowly pushing the native people off of their land. In the Case of the Saramaka People v. Suriname, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights required that neither governments nor third parties “affect the existence, value, use or enjoyment of the [indigenous] territory.” The changes in rainfall and access to water in eastern Bolivia are material problems may restrict the historical occupants’ use of the land.

The last several decades have seen remarkable liberalization of land ownership and use in eastern Bolivia, but these changes have also negatively affected the ability of indigenous groups to maintain their communities. Recent trends suggest that the Bolivian government’s attempts to reign in the use of land for large farming and ranching have had at least limited success. However, to the extent that deforestation for agricultural purposes continues to prevent the indigenous communities from using their land, the Bolivian government may not have fully complied with its obligation to protect indigenous interests in land ownership.