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Page last updated at 08:35 GMT, Friday, 17 April 2009 09:35 UK

Hidden kingdom of the Afro-Bolivians

Afro-Bolivian family in Los Yungas
Afro-Bolivians are among the poorest people in the country

By Andres Schipani
BBC News, Murarata, Los Yungas

It is a three-hour journey on a winding route known as the Death Road from La Paz to the region of Los Yungas, a patch of rainforest in the Andes Mountains.

It is in one of these green valleys that the symbolic "hidden kingdom" of the Afro-Bolivians is located. If you listen hard enough you can hear the drums.

"I am the king," Julio Bonifaz Pinedo proudly says, standing next to his wife Angelica, an Afro-Bolivian woman dressed in the traditional Andean outfit of bowler hat, multi-layered skirt and shawl.

"It is an immense responsibility because I have to work very hard for my people, my poor people, and we have no means."

First Afro Bolivian King
Julio Bonifaz Pinedo was crowned the first Afro-Bolivian king

King Julio is one of the many poverty-stricken Afro-Bolivians. But a few years ago he discovered that he was a direct descendant of Bonifaz, a tribal king from central Africa.

Almost two years ago he was crowned at a lavish ceremony as the first Afro-Bolivian king - a move intended to further the group's cause and gain recognition in the country's new constitution.

The original Bonifaz was brought to Bolivia as a slave in the 16th Century to work in the silver mines of Potosi.

Like most slaves who survived the mines, Bonifaz was later traded to estate owners in the plantations of Los Yungas, where the climate is more akin to sub-Saharan Africa.

Today, more than 35,000 Afro-Bolivians continue to feel overlooked in a country that recently approved its first "multi-ethnic and multicultural" constitution.

"There is still a lot poverty among Afro-Bolivians, we are among the poorest of the poor in this country," King Julio says.

He shows me around his humble grocery store, where he sells bananas, bread and little else.

Coca growing

Afro-Bolivians are traditionally farmers, growing citrus, coffee and banana trees. But today many grow coca.

Los Yungas is one of the two places in Bolivia where coca - cocaine's raw material - can be grown legally, albeit in limited amounts.

Bolivians have been growing it for centuries, since the time of the Inca empire.

Afro Bolivian woman tending her coca plantation
Irene Morales says today's poverty is similar to slavery.

The Afro-Bolivian "cocaleros", or coca-growers, have adopted this indigenous tradition and work hard planting and harvesting the coca bushes.

Irene Morales, an Afro-Bolivian woman, tends her coca bushes barefoot, hacking into the hard earth in her steep and small plot of land.

"We might not be slaves any more but we Afros are very poor, which is similar to slavery," she says, holding a bunch of coca leaves.

"If we don't take good care of our small plantations, we have nothing, nothing at all. And we are always hated and discriminated against."

But now, for the first time since they arrived in Bolivia as slaves, they believe attitudes towards them are slowly changing.

Running for office

"At least we are mentioned in the new constitution as one of the 36 Bolivian nationalities," says Jorge Medina, an Afro-Bolivian leader who hopes to run for parliament in the December elections.

"Yet this is mostly an indigenous constitution and we are not considered indigenous people like the Aymara, the Quechua or the Guarani."

If elected, he will be the first Afro-Bolivian to have become a political representative in Bolivia, a country that elected its first indigenous president, Evo Morales, three years ago.

If Barack Obama is President of the United States, why should an Afro not be able to be in parliament here in Bolivia?
Jorge Medina, Afro-Bolivian leader

"We back this process of change started by Morales, because it is the only way we, the voiceless, can have a voice," Mr Medina adds.

"But there is still a long way to go. There are people here in Bolivia who have no idea that there are Afros in this country. There are others who do not want to believe we exist."

At Medina's office, only four pictures hang on the walls - one of Bob Marley, one of Kunta Kinte (from the Alex Haley novel, Roots), one of Malcolm X and one of Martin Luther King.

A few years ago the Afro-Bolivians started to develop links with other black communities on the continent to try to get international recognition.

Jorge Medina
Jorge Medina broadcasts Afro-Bolivian issues on his radio show

"Afros have no frontiers. Drums connect the Afros from all over Latin America and the Caribbean with Africa, with our roots out there in Senegal, Congo, Guinea, and Angola," Mr Medina says during the radio show African Roots which he presents on Radio Yungas, in the town of Chulumani.

Every Friday, Jorge Medina uses his radio programme to speak about issues affecting the Afro-Bolivian community.

"There is still discrimination, there is still racism, there is still xenophobia here in Bolivia… But if Barack Obama is president of the United States, why should an Afro not be able to be in the parliament here in Bolivia?" he asks.

"But let it be clear, we are not here in Bolivia only to make people dance to black music. We are here to make people think, believe and consider the black people. This is our awakening."



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