The economy of Bolivia has had a historic pattern of a single-commodity focus. From silver to tin to coca, Bolivia has enjoyed only occasional periods of economic diversification. Political instability and difficult topography have constrained efforts to modernize the agricultural sector. Similarly, relatively low population growth coupled with low life expectancy has kept the labor supply in flux and prevented industries from flourishing. Rampant inflation and corruption also have thwarted development. The mining industry, especially the extraction of natural gas and zinc, currently dominates Bolivia’s export economy.
Bolivia had an estimated GDP of US$22.3 billion in 2004, with a growth rate from the previous year of 3.7 percent. Bolivia experienced a budget deficit of about US$500 million in 2004. Expenditures were nearly US$2.8 billion while revenues amounted to only about US$2.3 billion. Inflation has plagued, and at times crippled, the Bolivian economy since the 1970s. At one time in 1985, Bolivia experienced an inflation rate of more than 20,000 percent. Fiscal and monetary reform reduced the inflation rate to single digits by the 1990s, and in 2004 Bolivia experienced a manageable 4.9 percent rate of inflation.
Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing: Agriculture, forestry, and fishing accounted for 14 percent of Bolivia’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2003, down from 28 percent in 1986. Combined, these activities employ nearly 44 percent of Bolivia’s workers. Most agricultural workers are engaged in subsistence farming--the dominant economic activity of the highlands region. Agricultural production in Bolivia is complicated by both the country’s topography and climate. High elevations make farming difficult, as do the El Niño weather patterns and seasonal flooding. Bolivia’s agricultural GDP continues to rise but has attained only a rather modest average growth rate of 2.8 percent annually since 1991. Bolivia’s most lucrative agricultural product continues to be coca, of which Bolivia is currently the world’s third largest cultivator. The Bolivian government, in response to international pressure, has worked to restrict coca cultivation for the use of producing cocaine. However, eradication efforts have been hampered by the lack of a suitable replacement crop for rural communities that have cultivated coca for generations. Since 2001, Andrea Bolivia’s leading legal agricultural export has been soybeans. Additionally, cotton, coffee, and sugarcane have been viable exports for Bolivia. For domestic consumption, corn, wheat, and potatoes are the crops of choice of Bolivian farmers. Despite its vast forests, Bolivia has only a minor timber industry. In 2003 timber accounted for only 3.5 percent of export earnings. The Forestry Law of 1996 imposed a tax on sawn timber and consequently cut Bolivian timber exports significantly. The tax was used to establish the Forestry Stewardship Council, which has been only minimally successful in forest restoration efforts and eliminating illegal logging. With increased efficiency, Bolivia could likely expand the profitability of its forest resources, while still protecting them from overexploitation. Bolivia has a small fishing industry that taps the country’s freshwater lakes and streams. The annual catch averages about 6,000 tons.
Mining continues to be vital to Bolivia’s economy. The collapse of the world tin market in the 1980s led to a restructuring of the industry. The state dramatically reduced its control and presently operates only a small portion of mining activities. Small-scale operations, often with low productivity, employ many former state miners. Natural gas has supplanted tin and silver as the country’s most valuable natural commodity. A discovery in 1997 confirmed a tenfold gain in Bolivia’s known natural gas reserves. Finding markets to utilize this resource, both domestically and internationally, has been slowed by a lack of infrastructure and conflicts over the state’s role in controlling natural resources. Although the world tin market has reemerged, Bolivia now faces stiff competition from Southeast Asian countries producing lower-cost alluvial tin. Gold and silver production has increased dramatically over the past decade. Annually, as of 2002 Bolivia extracted and exported more than 11,000 kilograms of gold and 461 tons of silver. Additionally, Bolivia has increased zinc production, extracting more than 100,000 tons each year. Other metals excavated include antimony, iron, and tungsten.
Bolivian imports of goods and services were valued at about US$2.1 billion in 2004. The import of consumer goods increased for the first time since 2002. By sector, Bolivia imported mostly intermediate goods, followed by industrial, capital, and consumer goods. Leading sources of Bolivian imports include Brazil, Argentina, the United States, and Chile.
Bolivian exports of goods and services in 2004 stood at more than US$2.1 billion compared with US$1.9 billion in 2003. Increased production of hydrocarbons, especially natural gas, led Bolivia’s trade upturn in 2004. A 20-year supply contract with Brazil for natural gas, ending in 2019, the necessary capital to increase production. In 2004 export revenues for natural gas topped US$619 million. Bolivia also exported significant quantities of petroleum. Beyond hydrocarbons, other significant exports included zinc, soya, iron ore, and tin. In 2001 Brazil overtook the United States as Bolivia’s primary export outlet. Switzerland, Venezuela, and Colombia are also important export partners. Bolivia has actively sought to foster economic connections in South America after long relying on the United States as its primary trade partner.
Balance of trade and currency
Bolivia had an estimated trade surplus of more than US$340 million in 2004. This figure represents a marked change in Bolivia’s economic balance sheet. Bolivia reached a peak trade deficit of US$888 million in 1998 before increased hydrocarbon exports radically altered the situation.
Bolivia had a large negative balance of payments for 2002⎯US$317 million. However, this situation has been remedied by the vast increase in export revenue. Estimates for the balance of payments for 2004 show a record surplus of US$126 million. Bolivia’s external debt totaled an estimated US$5.7 billion in 2004. The International Monetary Fund has assisted Bolivia in paying down this debt. In 1995 the United States, among other countries, reduced Bolivia’s debt by two-thirds.
Bolivia’s currency is the boliviano (BOB). The exchange rate in January 2006 was bout 8 bolivianos per US$1.
Foreign investment in Bolivia was buoyed in 1995 by privatization. Investment in mining and natural gas extraction increased, as did investment in the banking sector. However, the economic decline of the late 1990s, along with political unrest, caused foreign investors to pull out of Bolivia once again. In 2000 foreign investors contributed US$736 million to the Bolivian economy. In 2002 this total fell to US$676 million.
In 2007, India's third largest steel manufacturer, Jindal Steel and Power Limited, signed a contract with the Bolivian government to exploit the Mutun iron ore depoist, considered to be one of the largest in the world. According to the contract, Jindal would invest US$ 1.5 billion initially and an additional US$ 2.5 billion over the next eight years. This is the single largest investment by an Indian firm in Latin America. The mining is expected to create 6,000 jobs directly and another 15,000 indirectly. The Indian company projects handling 25 million tonnes of minerals per day. Through this deal, Bolivian government has shown its intent to decrease its economic reliance on Brazil and United States and develop closer ties with other emerging major economic powers, like China and India.