We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Download PDF

Migration, Development and a New Rurality in the Valle Alto, Bolivia

The relationship between migration and development is often discussed but seldom empirically demonstrated. In this case study from Bolivia, we examine the impacts migration has had on the small sending-region of Valle Alto in the Department of Cochabamba. Using data collected from interviews, surveys, and field observation, the study identifies distinct migration patterns and remittance flows and how they contribute to the material development of this region. The study highlights the diverse destinations that emigrants seek to maintain remittance income, the circularity of such income, and the development of diasporic knowledge networks. In some instances, a new rurality is observed, in which small rural communities are perceived to have more material resources than older colonial towns. While the Valle Alto offers many examples of migration stimulating development, there is concern over the sustainability of some of these networks as circular migration, particularly between the United States and Bolivia, becomes more difficult and costly.


La relación entre migración y desarrollo ha sido discutida a menudo pero pocas veces demostrada empíricamente. En este estudio en Bolivia, examinamos los impactos que la migración ha tenido en la región pequeña de emigración denominada Valle Alto, en el Departamento de Cochabamba. Usando datos colectados de entrevistas, encuestas, y observaciones, el estudio identifica sistemas de migración y movimientos de remesas que son únicos a la región y muestra como contribuyen al desarrollo de la zona. El estudio muestra los diversos destinos que los emigrantes buscan para mantener ganancias de remesas, el movimiento circular de dichas ganancias, y la construcción de redes de conocimiento sobre la diáspora. En ciertas instancias, se observa una ruralidad nueva, en donde se percibe que las comunidades rurales tienen más recursos materiales que los pueblos coloniales. Aunque Valle Alto ofrece muchos ejemplos de migración que estimula el desarrollo económico, hay preocupación sobre la sostenibilidad de algunas de estas redes cuando la migración circular, particularmente entre los Estados Unidos y Bolivia, se vuelve más difícil y costosa.


Bolivia, emigration, remittances, diasporic networks

Palabras clave

Bolivia, emigración, remesas, redes de la diáspora

[End Page 107]


The migration history of the residents of Valle Alto, a highland agricultural area in the Department of Cochabamba, Bolivia is lengthy and significant. International migration has been an integral part of the society, culture, and economy of the region for the past six decades due to structural inequalities that limit access to income and resources (especially land) which, in turn, drive people out in search of employment (Dandler and Medeiros 1988; Balan 1990; Cortes, 2004; de La Torre Ávila, 2006). The experience of this region reveals a livelihood strategy in which the migration of men, and later women, has produced several distinct migration streams. The early labor flows were to Chile and then Argentina (Dandler and Medeiros, 1988). Some three decades ago, a flow of migrants targeted the United States, especially Washington DC (Price, 2007). In the last six years Spain has become an important new destination (Hinojosa, 2006). International labor migration has become the means by which individuals and households purchase land, build homes, educate children, and hopefully invest in future income-generating activities. At the same time, there is a significant pattern of return migration and continued financial support of the region from afar. The return of migrants has had a visible impact on the landscape of the Valle Alto. In some cases the social and economic changes in this region of emigration have produced a new rurality, in which formerly poor peasant communities (comunidades) are materially better than nearby colonial towns such as Tarata. Yet there are also negative consequences of this migration-driven livelihood system, namely the fracturing of households across great distances and the vulnerability to political and economic changes in receiving countries (Quiroga, et. al., 2007).

This article describes the impact migration has had on the Valle Alto, particularly the villages and towns of the province of Esteban Arze, where the city of Tarata is considered the provincial center. It will also explain the systems that have allowed this migration to support development, a complex and uneven process that has been reported in other rural Andean communities that rely upon out-migration (Jokisch, 1997; Jokisch 2002; Jokisch and Probilsky 2002; Altamirano Rua, 1996, Novick, 2008). An important feature of the migration system is the multiple destinations that emigrants have strategically selected over time to insure continued remittance income. A second feature is the long-term development of complex migrant social networks. Residents of the Valle Alto have extended experience in building transnational networks that link the residents of the Valle Alto to far away settings. Referred to in the literature as diaspora knowledge networks (DKN) (Meyer and Wattiaux, 2006: 4), the maintenance of these networks fosters a strong sense of identity with the communities of the Valle Alto. The flow of remittances directly to the small cities in the Valle Alto has increased, as have the speed and efficiency in which capital can be sent to rural residents. These three features: 1) shifting destinations in response to changing opportunity structures, 2) diaspora knowledge networks, and 3) remittances have stimulated what Bolivian scholar, Leonardo de La Torre Avila, has termed the new Bolivian rurality in the Valle Alto (2006). We offer the Valle Alto as a compelling case study of this new rurality that demonstrates the complex linkages between migration and development.

Migration and Development

Interest in the relationship between migration and development has intensified in the past two decades, especially as major international organizations such as the World Bank and United Nations have improved methods for tracking remittance flows and have taken a more optimistic view of the role of remittances in fostering development. Geographer Jørgen Carling's assessment of this shift in institutional thinking contends [End Page 108] that a pessimistic review of remittances in the 1970s and 1908s was informed by dependency theory which saw labor migration has undermining developing economies and remittances being wasted away on frivolous consumption. Carling argues that in the 1990s:

…remittances were increasingly seen in an optimistic light. This optimism was based, in part, on new understandings of the division between consumption and investment. In particular, remittance expenditure on health and education was increasingly seen as investment in human capital (2007, 45).

Such unbridled optimism is seen in a United Nations report on international migration and development, which boldly stated, "migration's potential for good is enormous" (United Nations, 2006: 6). In quantitative terms, the Inter-American Development bank estimated that Latin American countries received over US$65 billion in remittances in 2007 (IDB).

Beyond the growing volume of remittances, much of the evidence for the "good" that may come from migration has to do with numerous case studies that document local communities benefiting from this new source of capital (Taylor, et. al. 1996; Carling, 2004; Lee, 2004; Cohen and Rodríguez, 2005; Novick, 2008). Yet these same studies caution about the dangers inherent upon remittance dependence, where entire villages, and in some cases small countries, become vulnerable to reliance upon income from abroad. This vulnerability has several components: workers can be barred from legally entering particular labor markets due to policy shifts or destination countries may economically falter and not support foreign labor (as was the case in Argentina during its economic crisis in 2000–2002). After working abroad for long periods, migrants may cease to send remittances as they have their own families to support in destination countries or ties to family and home community may weaken. Other studies report that household members who rely upon remittances cease to engage in economic activities in sending communities because their basic needs are met by money from abroad (Levitt, 2001). Over time, community reliance upon remittances promotes a cycle of migration in which new emigrants must continually be added to insure the support of the sending community. Thus the potential benefits of international migration, namely more capital, are tempered by the reality of fractured families, depopulated settlements, labor abuses, questions of legality and the lingering suspicion that migration can not possibly promote long-term and widespread development in and of itself (Castles and Wise, 2008).

Given these divergent outcomes, the literature on migration and development often falls into two countervailing interpretations, one of the vicious circle and the other of the virtuous circle (Delgado-Wise and Guarnizo, 2007). The vicious circle model is used by those who view international labor migration as exploitive and counter to the goals of development. Scholars look at migration from Latin American countries to the United States, in particular, as driven by deep structural inequalities in the relationship between the U.S. and Latin America. In this view, large-scale emigration reinforces underdevelopment and inequality. For countries such as Bolivia, there is a popular belief that emigration (both permanent and temporary) is one of the most common survival strategies in a country undermined by structural adjustment policies and neoliberalism (Whitesell, 2008; Kohl and Farthing, 2006).

In contrast, other scholars emphasize the virtuous circle as one that forms when mature migrant networks result in circular flows, in which pooled remittances lead to the development of emigrant communities. In this study, we are cautiously optimistic about migration's role in developing local communities, but only under certain circumstances. [End Page 109] Also, the effectiveness of the virtuous circle can be undermined by national policies in both the sending and receiving countries over which local communities have little influence. Thus, if a country receiving immigrants decides to curtail immigration or a sending country begins to tax remittances, as Bolivia did in the fall of 2007, the benefits of migration can quickly unravel (Copa, 2007). While it may be rhetorically convenient to divide migration into virtuous and vicious circles, the reality is more likely a continuum in which the same migrant stream can have positive and negative results depending upon the timing of the migration, the destination, the migrant networks and the skill level of individuals and groups. Most economic migrants from Latin America leave because of poverty at home and demands abroad for their labor. Thus migration in and of itself is neither good nor bad, but a growing and global livelihood strategy to address economic inequalities and poverty.

Alejandro Portes contends that there is no case of remittances causing a labor-exporting nation, as a whole, to develop (Portes, 2008), but positive effects of migration are documented at smaller scales of analysis such as regions, communities or households. In Portes's thoughtful review essay reflecting upon the circumstances under which migration can promote community development, he suggests that, "cyclical labor migration can have positive development effects," but that "permanent family migration" leads to "the emptying of sending places" (Ibid., 24). Brad Jokisch (2002) reports similar findings in highland Ecuador where decades of international labor migration in Cañar and Azuay have promoted both rural development but has left some communities depopulated

In the cases where migration supports local development there tends to be circularity of movement, strong social networks, and a tradition of communal reciprocity that leads to sustained investment. In the Valle Alto these elements exist, although legal constraints in the receiving countries (such as the USA and Spain) may be challenging the cyclical nature of flows from this region. In particular, as legal entry into the United States became more difficult in the late 1990s, many undocumented residents from the Valle Alto working in the United States were unable to return to Bolivia for fear of not being able to re-enter the United States. Uncertain legal status, therefore, hindered the pattern of circular return that was so typical of the earlier Bolivian-Argentine migration streams.

The scale and duration of migrant flows must be taken into consideration when assessing the impact of migration upon development. The unevenness of both migration and remittance investment can produce shifting relations between rural communities and small urban centers, whereby once poor rural communities surpass their provincial capitals in terms of relative wealth and material well-being. Relationships between rural and urban areas have always been dynamic within Latin America, yet the tendency for urban areas (be they cities or towns) to be materially better off than rural areas is the expected norm. The challenge to this norm is captured in the concept of new rurality, in which the relative status of localities is inverted when smaller rural communities, with access to remittance dollars, become more prosperous than nearby towns, and so challenge the traditional urban hierarchy. We are not arguing that the primacy of major cities such as La Paz, Santa Cruz or Cochabamba could ever be challenged by remittance-funded investment. But, at a regional scale, the relative importance of provincial cities (secondary or tertiary urban centers) may be weakened as a new rurality takes hold.

As Bolivian scholar Leonardo de la Torre Avila contends (2006), the Valle Alto offers a compelling example of a new rurality. Here, we seek to expand this concept to include not only changes in the material landscape but also shifts in social and economic status. Such shifts in rural investment and provincial status have been noted in other [End Page 110] migrant-producing areas, especially in Mexico. Richard Jones's work on remittances and inequality in Zacatecas powerfully demonstrates the importance of scale when comparing rural and urban investment in that state. His analysis of remittances concludes that "urban income superiority has been replaced by rural income superiority!" and that in other regions of Mexico "agricultural improvements stimulated by former migrants have enabled the farming class to rise above the traditional urban business class" (Jones, 1998: 21–22). While Jones does not use the term new rurality, we contend that such shifts in relative income and investment are expressions of it.

In this study we invoke a broad definition of development that is not tied strictly to economic indicators but as processes that improve the quality of life, be it by better education, healthcare, housing, transportation, employment or material goods. There is a complex discourse about the meaning and practice of development, especially in Latin America where various institutions (states, intergovernmental agencies, and multi-national corporations) have regularly failed to promote development (Crush 1995). Many of the people interviewed in this study observed that through migration they were able to develop their communities, whereas if they had waited for the "state" to help them they would not have experienced the same social or material gains. For the communities of the Valle Alto, migration is understood as a proven, albeit difficult, path to development, one that is taken to increase access to capital but also to expand the limited range of opportunities. Decades of deep structural inequalities and weak institutions have undermined rural and urban livelihoods in Bolivia (Kohl and Farthing 2006; Klein 1992). Thus for the individual who seeks to buy more land, plant an orchard, educate a child, have a medical procedure, or start a small business, international migration is seen as the most likely route to achieve this development goal.


This research used field observation, census data, remittance surveys, and interviews, the majority of which were conducted in the Valle Alto. The Valle Alto is a high valley averaging 9,000 feet in elevation southeast of the city of Cochabamba. The valley floor is about 30 miles wide and contains several important colonial cities such as Tarata, Cliza and Punata. It has perpetually been a productive agricultural zone for the Department of Cochabamba and the country as a whole. Grains from the Valle Alto were sent to the mines of Potosí in the colonial era (Larson, 1992), and today corn, grains, and fruits flow to the large urban markets of Bolivia. Our research focuses on the southwest corner of the valley in the third section of the province of Esteban Arze (Figure 1). Nearly 10,000 people were counted in this section in the 2001 census. We focused on this area because many of the Bolivians interviewed in the Washington metropolitan area were from this section.

Over 50 open-ended interviews were carried out in the Valle Alto with the families of immigrants currently residing in Washington DC, local officials, and those employed in the immigrant economy (especially money transfer operators) in January 2008. Contacts with migrant households in the Valle Alto were established through a previous series of surveys and interviews with Bolivian soccer players working in Washington (Yarnall 2008; Price and Whitworth 2004). This was not a random sample but was built through repeated contacts with immigrant associations in Washington and repeated trips to the Valle Alto by one of the authors. These interviews provided valuable information regarding communal and familial transnational networks as well as the role of migrants in local development. Beyond interviews, field observation was important, as the authors were able to observe changes in the built environment and household composition caused by emigration from the area. In the city of Cochabamba, [End Page 111] archival newspaper research was conducted and the articles gathered were particularly helpful in understanding the effects of migration and remittances, as well as the role of the state in migration processes.

Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 1.

Location of the Third Section of Esteban Arze Province within Cochabamba Department

Since many households in Esteban Arze have migrant family members in metropolitan Washington, this research was also informed by interviews and surveys conducted among migrant organizations in the Washington area. Manuel Orozco, a remittance expert at the Inter-American Dialogue, provided unpublished survey data on remittances by Bolivians from Metropolitan Washington. These data, with a sample size of 70 individuals, were [End Page 112] collected in 2005 by Orozco's team at a money transfer business in Arlington, Virginia that specializes in transfers to Bolivia. While these data were published as part of a larger sample (Orozco et. al., 2007), Bolivian remitters had not previously been isolated from the data set. The Bolivia-specific data were analyzed and used to quantify and characterize the remittance flow between Metropolitan Washington and Cochabamba (Yarnall, 2008).

Multiple Destinations, One Place Called Home

When Cresencio Soto, the mayor of the Third Section of Esteban Arze Province was asked to explain the role of migration in the region he summarized by saying, "Simply, it is the role of the Bolivian to migrate" (Soto, 1/8/2008). Most residents of the Valle Alto echo this sentiment. The widespread understanding of the role of migration in the region's culture and consciousness is due to a century of emigration from the region to other countries.

The first documented wave of international labor migration from the Valle Alto is discussed by historian Brooke Larson (1992, 318), who describes a flow from the region into Northern Chile. This flow began during the late nineteenth century and was caused by a decline in the mining industry in Potosí. This decline caused a decrease in demand for the food produced in the Valle Alto. Faced with a lack of work, men migrated to Northern Chile to work in the nitrate mines of the Atacama Desert. This migratory flow was short-lived with most workers returning to Bolivia by the beginning of World War I, due to the invention of synthetic nitrate which caused a decrease in the demand for naturally mined nitrates. While the number of men that migrated from the Valle Alto to Chile is not known, the effects of this international labor migration established a pattern in which Valle Alto residents viewed international migration as a viable employment strategy.

The next major wave of migration from the Valle Alto began after the Bolivian agrarian reform of 1952. Part of the larger Bolivian National Revolution, the agrarian reform was particularly violent in the Department of Cochabamba, where large latifundias were split apart and given to indigenous campesinos. The revolution marked the first time in Bolivian history that the rural indigenous majority was given full participatory citizenship by the state (Kohl and Farthing, 2006: 45–50). While the agrarian reform of 1952 did redistribute land in the Valle Alto, it was flawed in its execution. The problems of low peasant productivity, small parcel sizes, and the concentration of the best lands among the elite remained (Gisbert el al., 1994).

Following the agrarian reform, many residents of the Valle Alto had small landholdings; yet these properties had to be subdivided in order to provide land to subsequent generations. With less land per farmer, the next generation sought alternative means of income generation, which resulted in more spatial mobility (Dandler and Medeiros, 1988: 8). Compounding this need was the lack of large-scale irrigation systems, which meant that farmers were only able to produce one annual crop. This had the effect of, "greatly limiting income and reducing labor demand for agricultural activities. Therefore, households developed a highly diversified economic strategy that included temporary and permanent migration" (Ibid., 1988:13). The majority migrated to Argentina, particularly to Buenos Aires.

Migration from the Valle Alto to Buenos Aires was well established by the 1960s and increased throughout the 1970s. Working mainly in the construction industry in Buenos Aires, the men that left the Valle Alto returned on an annual or semi-annual basis (Balan, 1990). Balan observes that in the 1970s and 1980s there did not "exist a formal mechanism to transfer money and informal methods were not always reliable" [End Page 113] (Ibid., 286). This resulted in men saving large sums of money and bringing it back to the Valle Alto in the form of cash and goods.

During the 1980s residents of the Valle Alto increasingly migrated to the United States, particularly to metropolitan Washington. A few residents from the Valle Alto came to Washington in the late 1960s and found employment. This small node attracted other migrants through chain migration and by the 1980s Washington had emerged as the preferred destination (Price 2006). From 1980–1990 the Bolivian population tripled based on the great demand for their labor and reliance on social networks (Price, 2007). In 1980 only 10 percent of Cochabambinos working abroad resided in the United States. By 1988 this number had increased to 31 percent, with the majority traveling to metropolitan Washington (Cortes, 2004:158). When asked about the initial migration from the Valle Alto to Washington, several residents of the municipality of Mamanaca echoed this chronology: "Before 1984 or 1985 there were only a few people that traveled to Virginia [part of metropolitan Washington]. After 1985, people began to leave in large numbers" (Anonymous, 1/13/2008). The 1990s represented a growth in migration to the United States with a continued flow to Argentina. A decline in migration to Argentina coincided with the financial crisis that occurred between 1999 and 2002. Since 2004 there has been a sudden increase in the number of Bolivians migrating to Spain, although within the Valle Alto connections to metropolitan Washington remain strong. The continued preference for Washington underscores the importance of social networks for Valle Alto migrants. Although it may have been easier to enter Spain, social connections continue to reinforce the transnational community in Washington.

Diaspora Knowledge Networks

Valle Alto emigrants have created and maintained various organizations that build their social capital and facilitate active exchange between the Valle Alto and various migrant destinations. Throughout the region it is widely acknowledged that the way to improve your circumstances (build a better house, buy more land, or even marry) is to work abroad for a period of time to accumulate capital. In Quechua the word cheqanchada is used to refer to a short cut that only locals know about, which allows you to get from one place to another much faster and with less effort (De la Torre Avila, 2007, 1–2). Rural communities in the Valle Alto view international labor migration as their cheqanchada but the system only works because of the complex formation and maintenance of knowledge networks.

Migration and diaspora literatures often examine the role of social networks or diaspora knowledge networks (DKN) (Kuzentsov, 2006; Meyer and Wattiaux 2006). These refer to the social networks and support systems that migrants construct with their co-ethnics in countries of origin and destination. While some proponents argue that origin country governments should devote resources to develop and maintain these networks, such official support of the diaspora community does not currently exist in Bolivia.

The knowledge networks that exist in the Valle Alto that facilitate migration and investment are closely associated with the residents' understanding of the Quechua cultural practice of iyne – or mutual assistance and village-based reciprocity. Iyne works as a means to share resources and information, and loan money. While these practices are observed in migrant-sending communities worldwide, and are by no means unique to Bolivia, the residents of the Valle Alto often explain the creation of migrant networks and resource redistribution as part of the deeper cultural tradition of iyne. For example, when a young man or woman decides to work abroad, the person turns to villagers in the community for a loan, which could be up to US$15,000. Usually the loans are contingent [End Page 114] upon an already established place to work in the host country based upon family and village employment connections. Sometimes these systems of mutual cooperation and sharing are not monetized but the expectations to help someone from your community are real and one's reputation may depend upon it. Yet, in the case of lending money, these are informal contracts with interest and payment timelines that are principally enforced through a sense of duty and obligation.

In this part of rural Bolivia soccer clubs and other hometown associations have been critical in maintaining contact, sending money and promoting infrastructural development. The activities of one soccer league in particular, INCOPEA, will be discussed in detail below. Playing on a weekly soccer team with people from your country of origin means much more than staying fit. These teams are network-enforcing organizations that bring people together on a weekly basis during the soccer season, allowing them to see friends, share news, and maintain their sense of identity as someone from the Valle Alto. In terms of actual development, the mission of INCOPEA is to assist in the development of the rural communities that its players hail from. Thus in an iyne-based system, resources are pooled and villages receive funds on a rotating basis. Other hometown associations in this region also exist in the US and engage in public works, but the soccer leagues have been the most successful in terms of localized development.

Patterns of Remittances

The Inter-American Development Bank estimated that in 2007 remittances to Bolivia surpassed one billion dollars. The average annual amount sent by a Bolivian remitter was found to be US$1,400. In a country where the per capita GNI was roughly US$1,000 in 2007, having access to remittances greatly impacts household income. In an earlier study, which measured remittances sent through both informal and formal channels, it was found that roughly eleven percent of the Bolivian adult population received remittances (IDB 2007), yet in the Valle Alto the percentage of households receiving remittances was much higher. According to the Bank, the top remittance-sending countries were Argentina, the United States, and Spain.

While the importance of remittances to Bolivia as a whole is undisputed, more general studies do not isolate sub-national flows such as those from the Washington area to Cochabamba. To quantify and describe this remittance flow, a 2005 survey undertaken in Arlington, Virginia, by Manuel Orozco was utilized by the authors. The Bolivian community is concentrated in the northern Virginia suburbs, but its members send remittances to eight of the nine departments in Bolivia. Eighty-four percent of the survey transactions went to the three most populated departments: Cochabamba, La Paz, and Santa Cruz. While the departmental distribution of remittances sent to Bolivia generally follows the population distribution, the Department of Cochabamba stands out. In the survey Cochabamba received 41 percent of the transactions, yet it only accounts for 18 percent of the country's population (Table 1). These survey data confirm the existence of chain migration between Cochabamba and northern Virginia

The mean amount of each remittance to Bolivia from metropolitan Washington was US$246. Ninety-seven percent of survey respondents reported sending money on a monthly basis. Using the mean monthly remittance sent from Washington, an annual average of nearly US$3,000 is probable. Sixty-four percent of survey respondents reported sending remittances to parents, and not spouses, which is perhaps surprising given the tradition of men leaving spouses behind to work abroad. Yet the average remitter is relatively young (29 years old) with living parents at home. Moreover, perhaps parents are trusted to carry out their children's wishes with regards to how remittance [End Page 115] monies are spent. Or, in the case when a couple leaves the region for employment elsewhere, parents are often left to care for the couple's children (i. e. grandparents tending grandchildren). The second largest recipient group of remittances is children (23 percent), while only 10 percent of remittances are sent to spouses. One potential explanation for this pattern may be that respondents stated they were sending funds to children when this money was actually going to a spouse to be spent on children. While the data may be misleading as to the actual household recipient of the remittances, there is clearly a strong financial link between parents and children separated by foreign labor migration.

Click for larger view
View full resolution
Table 1.

Remittances to Bolivian Departments from Metropolitan Washington, 2005.

The data showed that three-quarters of the survey respondents have been sending remittances from Washington for less than seven years. While there has been a Bolivian community in the Washington area for much longer, newly arrived immigrants with fresh connections to their hometowns appear to comprise the majority of remitters. It is also evident from interviews that newer migrants have more immediate financial obligations. One financial priority for many newly-arrived Bolivians is the repayment of debt incurred for illegal entry to the United States. This debt, typically secured through a private informal loan in Bolivia can be as high as US$15,000. Property titles are often given as collateral and most loans have a repayment term of roughly two years (Anonymous, 1/14/2008). The remittance survey data show a disproportionate flow of money to Cochabamba. At a small remittance receiving office in Tarata owned by a Bolivian living in Arlington, Virginia, business was brisk in 2007. The office manager reported that roughly 200 remittances arrived each week with a total value of about US$40,000. This annually translates into almost US$2 million arriving in the study area through this one company alone. While it is difficult to disaggregate the flow of remittances, data from individual transfer companies in receiving and sending countries illustrate the unevenness in which remittances flow to some localities much more than others. In the case of the communities studied here, remittance transfer companies are important nodes in the migrant economy that have developed.

Immigrant-led Development and a New Rurality

Like many communities in Latin America that rely on migration for their livelihood, the striking features of the Valle Alto region are its many new and elaborate churches, western-style two-storey homes in brick and stucco, new amenities such as basketball courts, soccer fields and renovated plazas and more capital intensive agriculture. Yet, many of these amenities stand empty or are under-used, which illustrates the immigrant paradox of providing communities with more infrastructure while at the same time gutting these communities of their labor force. [End Page 116] Leonardo de la Torre Avila has used the phrase "a new rurality" to describe some of the changes occurring in the Valle Alto due to an increase in out migration (de la Torre Avila, 2006:160). He describes this phenomenon in the context of an increase in peach production due to migrant investment, which has led to greater economic productivity in the region. Under the new rurality, the Valle Alto has been transformed from an area of farming for subsistence for the local market to an area of more specialized cultivation oriented toward the national market. We argue that this term can be extended to apply to additional changes that have occurred in the Valle Alto due to international migration. In essence, the term can be used to explain how concepts of what it means to be rural are changing due to various social and economic impacts of migration. While the Valle Alto population is still rural, its landscape has dramatically changed, as have the lifestyles of many of its residents. Additionally, its relationship with urban areas in Bolivia has changed. All of these factors contribute to a "new Bolivian rurality" that has the unanticipated consequence of shifting the power/economic balance between rural communities and their supporting towns. It also means that rural people are linked to distant international cities via money transfers, cell phones and the Internet and somewhat less connected to provincial centers in their own country.

"Now when I travel to the valley the people there have more money than I do!" (Anonymous, 1/5/2008). This statement, made by a rural development specialist from the city of Cochabamba is indicative of the new rurality that is noticed by those who are familiar with the Valle Alto. The traditional economic and class divisions between rural and urban places are being altered by migration and the resulting inflow of remittances. Within this new rurality, comunidades that were long thought of as centers of peasant subsistence production can be seen to be slowly changing into areas that import labor and attract investment. This transition is not happening due to direct foreign investment from development agencies or corporations but due to the movement of capital from emigrants.

This changing economic balance between agrarian communities and urban centers can clearly be seen in the relationship between urban Tarata and the rural municipalities to its north and northwest in the Third Section of Esteban Arze Province. The best example of this shift in status and resources is illustrated when comparing the municipality of Arbieto with the city of Tarata. Thanks in part to funds provided by residents of Arbieto working abroad, Arbieto now has cobbled streets, which were previously dirt (Soto, 2008). Prior to the street improvement in Arbieto, Tarata was the only town in the surrounding area with cobblestones due to its colonial significance. Residents of the Valle Alto also frequently refer to Arbieto as the "modern" or "luxury" town. In the recent past, only the provincial capital of Esteban Arze, Tarata, would have been perceived as having some modern amenities. This break in the traditional hierarchy of Tarata being the principle city that rural Arbieto relied upon has strained relationships between the two localities. In fact, in 2009 children in Arbieto had their own high school and no longer attend secondary school in Tarata. Similarly, in the community of Tiataco, construction workers from the city of Cochabamba were observed building a house for a Tiataco family that currently lives in metropolitan Washington. The idea of a crew from urban Cochabamba, the third largest city in Bolivia, working for an agricultural family in rural Tiataco represents a stunning shift in established urban and rural relationships. Another economic impact of this migration is the seasonal returns for holidays, especially during Carnival and patron saint celebrations. Cresencio Soto, the mayor of the Third Section of the Province of Esteban Arze spoke about the new tourism industry in Arbieto saying, "tourism here is completely dependent upon the annual ferias (celebrations centered on holidays). Thousands come to celebrate" (Soto, 1/8/2008). While there are very few restaurants and hotels that operate year-round in the area, [End Page 117] during ferias numerous homes open their doors to visitors offering accommodations and food. Small shops, that usually sell groceries and dry goods, convert to restaurants to feed the large numbers that gather. According to Cortes, ferias have become increasingly important with a rise in migration as they represent an opportunity for migrants to reconnect with their hometowns and show their prosperity. Previously costs for ferias were split evenly among residents. Now, "migrants, recognized as having the greatest capacity financially are the only parties solicited to finance the feria costs" (Cortes, 2004:238). A fundamental shift has occurred in which ferias used to represent a local redistribution of wealth, to the current system in which migrant families have both taken over and are expected to bear the responsibility of community celebrations.

Often, the occasion of a feria marks the date in which a new amenity provided by migrant dollars is inaugurated. Thus, when many migrants return to these small villages they can celebrate in their collective efforts that resulted in the construction of a new church, plaza, school, soccer field or basketball court (Figure 2). Such amenities do not exist in villages that do not have substantial numbers of people working abroad. One of the interesting aspects of the Valle Alto is that many of the public structures built by emigrants in the United States have been funded by a soccer league based in northern Virginia that is made up of representative teams from each village in the region. The Institute of Cooperation for the Peoples of Esteban Arze (INCOPEA) is an immigrant soccer league that has existed since 1991. For nearly two decades this league of 10–15 teams representing various rural communities in Esteban Arze has organized championships and pooled resources to fund an impressive array of public works projects. Annually this league sends roughly US$20,000 to $30,000 to a particular village in a rotation system. Projects such as the church in Mamanaca (Figure 3) are a source of pride for residents and migrants alike. A plaque at the church entrance acknowledges the generous contributions made by INCOPEA and its member communities.

Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 2.

Valle Alto youth playing soccer in the village of Aranjuez on a soccer field funded by a Washington-based immigrant soccer league.

[End Page 118]

Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 3.

[left: Mamanaca church on land acquired by Washington-based soccer league INCOPEA; [right: dedicatory plaque on church]

[End Page 119]

Another expression of the new rurality is the construction of emigrant-built houses that are substantially larger and more elaborate than the typical adobe structures with tile roofs (Figure 4). Unlike the public projects that INCOPEA has engaged in, the construction of new homes is a private household affair. Many of these homes are occupied by family members who have stayed, but are supported by regular remittances from their household members. Typically, such homes have a woman acting as head of household (be it a mother or grandmother) living in a newly renovated or constructed home with children. Yet, it is also common to find these large homes unoccupied except for maybe a local caretaker. Once or twice a year the triumphant emigrant returns to enjoy the comforts of a large modern home during holidays or ferias but more often than not he or she returns to a job outside of the country to continue working and sending remittances. These remittance-funded homes are not only a major capital investment by migrant households but they are a symbol of success and an indicator that a migrant intends to either return or maintain physical connection with the community.

Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 4.

A view of the village of Arbieto highlights the difference between traditional and remittance-funded houses.

Less obvious on the landscape is the use of remittances to further a household member's education. With remittance dollars flowing into rural communities, opportunities for secondary and university education in the city of Cochabamba becomes possible for the children of migrants. This process began when migrants journeyed to Argentina and continued with emigration to the United States. In one family from Mamanaca, all six children were able to get a high-school education in Cochabamba and the youngest child was able to go to college. Similarly, a young man from Arbieto in his early 20s reported that three-quarters of the people he went to high school with were now working abroad, either in the United States, Spain or Argentina. Ironically, investment in education can lead to more migration rather than less. Families with access to capital earned through migration are able to purchase land and invest in non-subsistence agriculture. This modernization includes an increased use of tractors and other machinery, the purchase of high-yielding seeds, the expansion [End Page 120] of irrigation infrastructure, and the investment in orchard agriculture, especially peaches which are highly profitable. The mayor of the Third Section of Esteban Arze explained this phenomenon saying, "Where there is water, there are peaches. Where there is no water, there is wheat, corn, and potatoes" (Soto, 1/8/2008).

Along with the previously mentioned shift from subsistence agriculture to production for the national market, agricultural mechanization and an increase in irrigation infrastructure are changing agricultural norms in the Valle Alto. It is important, however, to note that for the most part these changes are affecting only families with a family member that has migrated. Those families without a family member working abroad are increasingly unable to meet their needs through agriculture (Cortes, 2004). This divide within the Valle Alto is another example of a new rurality in which there is increased social stratification among those engaged in agricultural production. Previously this divide existed between large landowners and campesinos but now there is more economic stratification among and within campesino communities.

Discussion: the sustainability of the new rurality

This research focuses on a small area of the Valle Alto from which large numbers of migrants have left for different foreign labor markets. Here, we have focused on the complex relationship between migration and development as demonstrated by the migrant-based connections that have formed between the Valle Alto and metropolitan Washington DC.

While this study points to many examples of individual and community-oriented development projects that have benefited the region, labor migration out of the Valle Alto in and of itself does not guarantee development. In the cases where communities are materially benefiting from migration, there is a constant flow of dollars, people and information between the sending and receiving areas. The sustainability of this system becomes undermined when migrants have difficulty returning or their legal status is uncertain. In the last decade, as legal entry into the Unites States has become more difficult for residents from the Valle Alto there is a tendency for labor migrants to work abroad for a longer period of time before returning home. This can lead to fracturing of families and fraying of community-based systems of reciprocity. In some cases, when an immigrant with legal status in the United States marries and has his or her own family there, the likelihood of permanently returning to the Valle Alto tends to diminishes.

Nevertheless, the Valle Alto has a long experience with migration. Many of the social networks created through the decades have managed to sustain both a sense of community and a commitment to place. As French geographer Genevieve Cortes observed in her 2004 monograph on emigration from Cochabamba, residents of the region have long understood the need to leave in order to stay. In the case of Bolivia, deep structural inequalities within the country often make it difficult to subsist on the resources that exist in the soils. Migration has become the short-cut (cheqanchada) that residents in the region have developed and sustained through the decades to better their lives. Albeit fraught with uncertainty and risk, migration that relies upon rich social networks and a deeply rooted sense of belonging to a place, can result in community development and a new rurality.

Marie Price
Department of Geography
The George Washington University


The first author wishes to acknowledge the support of a Campbell Graduate Student Summer Research Grant, awarded by the Department of Geography at the George Washington University that helped to fund this research. In Bolivia both authors are especially grateful for the assistance provided by Dr. Agusto Villareal and his family, Leonardo de La Torre Avila, and Celia Ferrufino Quiroga. [End Page 121]


Altamirano Rua, Teofilo. 1996. Migración: El Fenómeno del Siglo. Lima: Pontificia Universidad Católica de Perú Fondo Editorial.
Balan, Jorge. 1990. La Economía Doméstica y las Diferencias entre los Sexos en las Migraciones Internacionales: Un Estudio sobre el caso de los Bolivianos en la Argentina. Estudios Migratorios Latinoaméricanos, 5(15–16): 269–294.
Carling, Jørgen. 2004. Emigration, Return and Development in Cape Verde: The Impact of Closing Borders. Population, Space and Place 10(2): 113–132.
__________. 2008. Interrogating Remittances: Core Questions for Deeper Insight and Better Policies, pp. 43–64, in Stephen Castes and Raul Delgago-Wise (eds.), Migration and Development: Perspectives from the South. Geneva: International Organization for Migration.
Castles, Stephen and Raul Delgado-Wise (eds.). 2008. Migration and Development: Perspectives from the South. Geneva: International Organization for Migration.
Cohen, Jeffrey H. and Leila Rodríguez. 2005. Remittance Outcomes in Rural Oaxaca, Mexico: Challenges, Options and Opportunities for Migrant Households. Population, Space and Place 11: 49–63.
Copa Vásquez, Ana María. 2007. Decontento frente al cobro be 1 % a remesas, Los Tiempos, Cochabamba, November 6, 2007.
Cortes, Genevieve. 2004. Partir para Quedarse: Supervivencia y Cambio en las Sociedades Campesinas Andinas de Bolivia. La Paz: IRD/IFEA.
Crush, Jonathan. 1995. Power of Development. London and New York: Routledge.
Dandler, Jorge and Carmen Medeiros. 1988. Temporary Migration from Cochabamba, Bolivia to Argentina: Patterns and Impact in Sending Areas, pp. 8–41, in Patricia R. Pessar (ed.), When Borders Don't Divide: Labor Migration and Refugee Movements in the Americas,. New York: Center for Migration Studies.
De la Torre Avila. 2006. No Llores, Prenda, Pronto Volveré: Migración, Movilidad Social, Herida Familiar y Desarrollo. La Paz: Fundación PIEB.
De la Torre Ávila and Yolanda Alfaro Aramayo. 2007. La Chequanchada: Caminos y Sendas de Desarrollo en los Municipios Migrantes de Arbieto y Toco. La Paz: CESU and Fundación PIEB.
Delgado-Wise, Raúl and Luis Eduardo Guarnizo. 2007. Migration and Development: Lessons from the Mexican Experience. Published February 1, 2007, Migration Policy Institute, Migration Source. Accessed October 1, 2008 http://www.migrationinformation.org/Feature/display.cfm?id=581
Gisbert, Maria Elena, Michael Painter and Mery Quiton. 1994. Gender Issues Associated with Labor Migration and Dependence on Off-Farm Income in Rural Bolivia, Human Organization 53(2): 110–122. [End Page 122]
Honojosa, Alfonso. 2006. Bolivia for Export Temas de Debate. La Paz: Program de Investigación Estratégica en Bolivia.
Inter-American Development Bank. 2007. International Map of Remittances. Released October 7.
Jokisch, Brad D. 1997. From Labor Circulation to International Migration: The Case of South-Central Ecuador. Yearbook, Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers 23: 63–75.
__________. 2002. Migration and Agricultural Change: The Case of Smallholder Agriculture in Highland Ecuador, Human Ecology 30(4): 523–550.
Jokisch, Brad and Jason Prilbilsky. 2002. The Panic to Leave: Economic Crisis and the 'New Emigration' from Ecuador. International Migration 40(4): 75–102.
Jones, Richard. C. 1998. Remittances and Inequality: A Question of Migration Stage and Geographic Scale, Economic Geography 74(1): 8–25.
Klein, Herbert S. 1992. Bolivia, The Evolution of a Multi-ethnic Society, 2nd edition. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kohl, Benjamin and Linda Farthing. 2006. Impasse in Bolivia: Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Resistance. London and New York: Zed Books.
Kuznetsov, Yevgeny. 2006. Diaspora Networks and the International Migration of Skills. Washington, DC: World Bank Press.
Larson, Brooke. 1992. Colonialismo y Transformación Agraria en Bolivia. Cochabamba, 1500–1900. La Paz: CERES.
Lee, Helen. 2004. 'Second Generation' Tongan Transnationalism: Hope for the Future? Asia Pacific Viewpoint 45(2): 235–254.
Levitt, Peggy. 2001. The Transnational Villagers. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Massey, Douglas S., Joaquin Arango, Graeme Hugo, Ali Kouaouci, Adela Pellegrino, and J. Edward Taylor. 1993. Theories of International Migration: A Review and Appraisal, Population and Development Review 19(3): 431–466.
Meyer, Jean-Baptiste and Jean-Paul Wattiaux. 2006. Diaspora Knowledge Networks: Vanishing Doubts and Increasing Evidence. International Journal of Multicultural Studies 8(1): 4–24.
Novick, Susana (ed.). 2008. Las Migraciones en América Latina. Buenos Aires: CLASCSO.
Orozco, Manuel; Katy Jacob and Jennifer Tescher. 2007. Card Based Remittances: A Closer Look at Supply and Demand. Chicago: The Center for Financial Services Innovation. [End Page 123]
Portes, Alejandro. 2008. Migration and Development: A Conceptual Review of the Evidence, pp. 17–41, in Stephen Castles and Raúl Delgado Wise (eds.), Migration and Development: Perspectives from the South. Geneva: International Organization of Migration.
Price, Marie. 2006. Placing Transnational Migration: The Socio-spatial Networks of Bolivians in the United States, pp. 209–219, in John W. Frazier and Eugene L. Tettey-Fio (eds), Race, Ethnicity, and Place in a Changing America. Binghamton, NY: Global Academic Publishing.
__________. 2007. Andean South Americans and Cultural Networks, pp. 191–210, in Ines M Miyares and Christopher A. Airriess (eds.), Contemporary Ethnic Geographies in America. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.
Price, Marie and Courtney Whitworth. 2004. Soccer and Latino Cultural Space: Metropolitan Washington Fútbol Leagues, pp. 167–186, in Daniel Arreola (ed.), Hispanic Spaces, Latino Places. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Quiroga, Celia Ferrufino, Madga Ferrufino Quiroga, and Carlos Pereira Bustos. 2007. Los Costos Humanos de la Emigración. La Paz: CESU and Fundación PIEB.
Soto, Cresencio. Personal Interview. 1/8/08
Taylor, Edward J., Joaquín Arango, Graeme Hugo, Ali Kouaouci, Douglas S. Massey, and Adela Pellegrino. 1996. International Migration and Community Development, Population Index 62(3): 397–418.
United Nations. 2006. International Migration and Development: Report of the Secretary General. New York: UN.
Whitesell, Lily. 2008. And Those Who Left, pp. 254–289, in Jim Schultz and Melissa Crane Draper (eds.) Dignity and Defiance: Stories From Bolivia's Challenge to Globalization. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Yarnall, Kaitlin. 2008. Del Valle Alto a Washington: Bolivian Migrants as Transnational Agents of Development. Master's Thesis, Department of Geography, George Washington University. [End Page 124]