Sites: Municipal governments and decentralisation in Bolivia

Typical rural home in Pando, Bolivia.
Photo by Kristen Evans.

Bolivia was one of the first countries to address negative impacts of its neo-liberal market ovriented economic transition by adopting policies that encourage social inclusion. In the 1990s, the country began a decentralisation process that fundamentally changed the role of local governments through a series of policy changes that included a Municipalities Law, a Popular Participation Law and an Administrative Decentralisation Law. Change extended to the country’s Poverty Reduction Strategy that defined key roles for municipal governments for poverty alleviation. In addition, two sectoral laws, the new Forestry Law and the Agrarian Reform Law, while not devolving much power to local government, began the recognition of tenure and forest access rights of rural people, strengthening their political and economic positions within municipal territories. Taken together, these changes set the stage for new relations between government and constituents in the country.

Bolivia’s decentralised system mandates direct consultation between municipal governments and representative community organisations. The principal administrative setup is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Simplified administrative set up in Bolivian municipalities.

While the Municipalities Law, passed in 1986, was a first step towards defining municipal governments, the 1994 Popular Participation Law created the mechanisms for funding municipal governments and for residents to participate in municipal government decision making. The law redistributes the national budget through ‘coparticipation’ and assigns 20% of state income to all municipalities of Bolivia. This is intended to give a clear voice to municipal residents in the allocation of funds and oversight of their use.

The autonomy of municipal governments, however, was severely curtailed by the Administrative Decentralisation Law in 1995, which assigned authority of important government functions (including education and healthcare) to the departmental prefectures and their agencies. Important development activities aimed at poverty alleviation are now controlled by the prefecture offices and municipal governments have less influence.

In 1996, a new Forestry Law gave rural people and indigenous communities access to forests and opportunities to capture benefits from them. The law also defined new sources of income for municipal government from forest taxes and fees. The 1996 Agrarian Reform Law attempted to bring order to Bolivia’s ill-defined and overlapping land tenure. Through this law and a presidential decree (DS25848) that was prepared especially for tropical forest communities, villages in Pando have the right to communal territories, equivalent in size to 500 hectares per family. This has shifted the balance of power in rural areas by prioritising community rights rather than those claimed by the regional elite, who previously controlled extensive stretches of forest land.

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© 2007 Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)
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