From Indigenous Peoples in Brazil
Photo: Joana A. Fernandes Silva


Where they are How many
Bolivia 87885 (Censo Nacional de Poblacion y Viviendas, 2012)
MT 473 (Siasi/Funasa, 2012)
Linguistic family

The Chiquitano people was formed by the amalgamation of different Indigenous groups put together in villages of Jesuit missions in the 17th Century. Living in the region of the border between Brazil and Bolivia, they were compulsorily dragged into political conflicts and cultural differences caused by a territorial division they had nothing to do with. The large majority of this people is in Bolivia. Those who live in Brazil have been exploited as cheap labor by landowners, who also represent a constant threat of invasion of the few territories left to them. But the Chiquitano have been struggling for the right for an Indigenous Land of their own, which is in the process of being identified by Funai, and that may ensure the continuity of their cultural identity.


The word chiquito means 'small' in Spanish and is used to designate various Indigenous groups the inhabit the transition zone between the Chaco Boreal, in Bolivia, and the swampy forests that stretch from the Amazon. Living in the plateaus, the Chiquitos got their name because at first they were believed to be short. This belief came from the fact that their houses' front doors were very low - but this was not because their inhabitants were not tall but rather in order to prevent mosquitoes from coming in.


In Bolivia, Chiquito is probably the fourth most widely spoken Indigenous tongue (after Quechua, Aymara and Chiriguano), with estimates varying from 40,000 to 60,000 speakers depending on the source. The Chiquito language is the result of a complex historical process in which speakers of various Indigenous tongues lived side by side in the Jesuit 'reducciones' between 1680 and 1787 (Albó,1991).

Several authors have studied the Chiquito linguistic family and in Bolivia there are several grammars for the language. Meétraux (1948), based on Hervás, affirms that Chiquito is divided into four dialects: Tao, Manasi, Peñoqui and Piñoco.

There are still no linguistic studies made among the Chiquitano that live on the Brazilian side of the border. However, from a sample of words that were compared with Chiquitano words in Bolivia, it is possible to say that the Chiquitano in Brazil speak the same language, possibly the Tao dialect. In Brazil this language is also known as língua, or linguará, or anenho.

History of contact

The Chiquitano people is the result of a number of peoples - Samucos, Paikoneka, Saraveka, Otuke, Kuruminaka, Kuravé, Koraveka, Tapiis, Korokaneka, Manacica and Paunaka, among others - that were put together in villages in Bolivia, in Jesuit missions, in the 17th and 18th centuries. Several villages were part of the Chiquitano Missions: San Xavier, San Rafael, San José, Miguel, San Ignacio de Zamucos, Santa Ana, Santo Corazón de Jesús, Santiago de Chiquitos, San Juan Bautista and Concepción de Chiquitos (Créqui-Monfort and Paul Rivet, 1913; Meireles, 1989).

In Brazil, part of the area where the Chiquitano live used to belong to the Spanish Crown. As a consequence, this people frequently was - and still is - regarded as Bolivian (or castelhano, Castilian). This border region was disputed for a long time, and the documentation that exists in the State of Mato Grosso public archives is abundant with reports of the frequent dislocations of the Chiquitano and their poor living conditions. For example, there are documents about a group of some 200 Chiquitano families from Bolivia that migrated to the region of Vila Bela, in the State of Mato Grosso, to escape from the Chaco War, between Bolivia and Paraguay, in the 1920s.

The Chiquitano were already living in the Cáceres region when Vila Maria do Paraguai was founded in the 18th Century. This village had a military fortress that protected it of the attacks from the Spanish. In its founding minute, Luiz de Albuquerque refers to "some sixty Castilian Indians of both sexes who three months earlier had deserted the mission of San Juan de Chiquitos" (NDHIR, microfiche 273 - AHU).

The Chiquitano were popular among Brazilian landowners because, due to their experience in the Jesuit missions, they were considered excellent agricultural laborers and cowboys. Landowner Marcelino Prado, for instance, employed many Chiquitano. He owned a 'chalana' (a type of boat) that transported his products from the Paraguay River to Corumbá and was named Capitão dos Índios (Captain of Indians) by the Marcumtinho (sic) government, which gave him four 'sesmarias' (land grants) "of rich forest and rubber" (Badarioti, 1898:60). In the words of chronicler Badarioti:

When entering the vast court, our first action was to calm down the dogs, which had gotten into a fight. The tremendous noise attracted many people from the huts, old people, women, children that looked somewhat strange to me: they were peaceful Chiquitano Indians from Bolivia, used as colonists by Dr. Marcellino Prado, one of the State's most distinguished men. (Dr. Marcelino Prado) ... has had friendly relations with the neighboring Parecis Indians, who today still respect and like him. He went to Bolivia and hired colonists of the peaceful and Christian tribe of the Chiquito. Of this very race are almost all the men Dr. Marcellino employs in the extraction of rubber and 'poaia' (a medicinal plant), as well as in sugarcane, which, pressed in a powerful 'engenho' (sugarcane mill), produces sugar and 'aguardente' (firewater) (1898: 59-60).

This race (the chiquitos) is originally from Bolivia, where it constitutes a respectable element and is considered civilized. The Chiquitos are relatively catechized, although they still mix to Christianity some superstitious practices, which is not surprising. They are good agricultural laborers, discrete, hardworking and intelligent... They speak their own language and understand Guarany. Those who are closest to civilization, the chiefs in special, speak regularly Castilian, Bolivia's official language, and it was through that language that I dealt with Affonso's Chiquitos (idem, 62).

In the beginning of the 20th Century there are precise and sure references to the Chiquitano in Brazil (Album Graphico, 1914; Rondon, 1936; Rondon, 1949; D'Alincourt, 1975 etc.). Dom Galibert, a Franciscan bishop who visited the border of Brazil and Bolivia in the first years of the 20th Century, made references to the Chiquitano, such as:

The border population, from Cáceres to Vila Bela, is made up in general of Chiquitos, usually very ignorant, but always ready to the receive the sacraments (apud Biennes 1987:109). In the entire border, there is an immigration of Chiquito Indians (Chiquitos, Moxos) coming from Bolivia. They are baptized and filled with an excellent religious spirit: simple and obedient like children, they are a very useful element, were it not for the language, which makes it impossible, for the moment, to instruct them. They looked in Brazil for better opportunities to work and a less miserable life than in Bolivia (idem,108-109).

Rubber extraction in the first two decades of the 20th Century in Bolivia (and probably in Brazil as well) was a factor of de-population for the Chiquitano, because, in addition to being mistreated, they died of malaria or hunger. Writes Dom Galibert:

When the men were no longer enough, women and children were taken. In 1913, in the city of Mato Grosso, one of our priests saw going down the Guaporé River a caravan of some 60 people, a few men, many women, some of them old, some children between 12 and 14 years old. (...). Such hirings and deportations took place everywhere, often several times in a single year. The villages became empty. Despite their innocence, the Chiquitos ended up noticing that those who departed never came back. They understood the terrible reality. So they started to run away to Brazil, through the Mato Grosso border, where they were usually better treated. And even if today those degrading scenes of deportation no longer take place, the Chiquitos continue to come to Brazilian lands: there are thousands of them in the Diocese of São Luiz de Cáceres (apud Biennes,1987:116-7, my emphasis).

More recently Maldi (1995), in her Vistoria na Fazenda Nacional de Casalvasco, refers to the Chiquitano through the identification made by the inhabitants of the visited region. The author left important clues for the location of 11 communities with a predominantly Chiquitano population, and for obtaining the location of the possible existence of 14 other communities, all of them in the municipalities of Cáceres, Porto Esperidião and Vila Bela.

In synthesis, this people was amalgamated in the Jesuit 'reducciones'; later many Chiquitano were enslaved by large landowners, participated compulsorily in wars and border quarrels and even today are used as labor force in 'fazendas' (farms), 'seringais' (rubber plantations) and 'poaia' woods.


The chiquitano people is probably the most numerous Indigenous people of Eastern Bolivia, with estimated 40,000 and 60,000 individuals. Studies about the Chiquitano in Brazil are incipient and were carried out in the specific context of a survey carried out because of the construction of the Brazil-Bolivia Gas Pipeline through their area. Indications are that the Chiquitano in Brazil are some 2,000, not counting those who live in the urban areas of the municipalities mentioned above, who have not been counted.

Location and land status

In Brazil, the Chiquitano live in the State of Mato Grosso, on the border with Bolivia, in the municipalities of Vila Bela, Cáceres and Porto Espiridião. In Bolivia, they are in the Department of Santa Cruz, in the Provinces of Nuflo de Chávez, Velasco, Chiquitos and Sandoval.

In Brazil there are a few small communities, between five and eight families, established along the road that connects Cáceres to San Matías. There are also larger communities, with ten to thirty families, whose lands have been sold by the Incra (the Brazilian Government organ for Agrarian Reform) and are considered 'assentamentos' (settlements). There are also groups that live in the military garrisons on the Brazilian side of the border, with thirty to forty nuclear families, who have 'permits' for living and planting in these areas. Finally, there are a few families that live in 'fazendas', with the apparent approval of the owner (Silva et all,1998).

The communities are spread along a vast border area, numbering 29 establishments organized in seven axis or main nuclei according to the distance between them, kinship, exchanges and ceremonies:

  1. Núcleo Limão: with four establishments, of which two are along the road and one is in the area of a military garrison;
  2. Núcleo de Fortuna: with three establishments, all of them in areas of military garrisons;
  3. Núcleo de Osbi: with four establishments, one of them near a military garrison;
  4. Núcleo de Palmarito: with five establishments, two of them in areas of military garrisons;
  5. Núcleo Roça Velha: with two establishments, with no relation with the Army but already quite de-populated, with many families living in Porto Espiridião and/or Cáceres;
  6. Núcleo de San Fabiano: with five establishments, of which only one has direct relation with the Army, it is considered the most traditional nucleus and the least opened to the exterior world;
  7. Núcleo de Bocaina: with three establishments very close to one another.

These lands have been frequently invaded b large landowners. Dona Trinidad, who lives in one of the establishments, expressed her people's situation like this:

Are you familiar with that pressed flour? Such are we on this road. Increasingly pressed against each other. Before we used to live all spread out. You get to a place and there is nothing. Later someone else comes and says he is the owner (testimony taken in 2000).

With this, she summarized a widespread process that affected almost all the Chiquitano who had independent lands. Since the 1970s, when Incra opened an office in the city of Cáceres, there began a process of registration of the region's large landowners and of creation of the so-called 'loteamentos' (division in lots). The landowners would inform the Incra the limits of their properties and, according to several witnesses, the organ officials would go to the communities in order to demarcate the lots left to them, which were tiny fractions of the lands they owned before. In this process, many chiquitano families and communities ended up living in very small areas, which jeopardized their traditional economic organization.

Pressed by large landowners, many families moved to the cities and only a few communities resisted. The fact that the Incra kept apart the communities' lands, now called 'assentamentos' (settlements), suggests that the movement for the regularization of titles has created small pockets of labor force in order to ensure the continuity of work in the 'fazendas' (Silva et all, 1998).

Funai is in the process of recognizing some of the Chiquitano lands. There is a preliminary survey and a Development Plan prepared for this people, but up to the moment no effective actions towards the demarcation of the Chiquitano Indigenous Lands were taken. It is expected that this may happen soon. The Development Plan for Indigenous Peoples points out to the need to identify four areas for the Chiquitano, and is currently under study by Gasocidente. Some of these areas have suffered intervention by the Incra, with individual or community 'loteamentos', and need to be revised.


Economic activities

An important source of revenue for the Chiquitano in Brazil are the wage earning jobs in the 'fazendas', especially in activities connected to cattle raising. Women may also work as maids in nearby towns; those who already live in urban areas usually have that profession. Some of the men in the communities also do sporadic work for the military garrisons, such as weeding, cattle slaughtering and cleaning up.

The Chiquitano main economic activity is agriculture; it feeds them and occasionally can bring in some money when excess production is sold. In a vast region, especially on the Barbados River Valley, in the municipality of Vila Bela, where big cattle ranches reign, the Chiquitano 'roças' (planting fields) are fertile islands amidst a sea of pastures. Paradoxically, however, despite being the region's sole farmers, the Chiquitano are regarded as being lazy. In the area, the word bugre (Indian) is an attribute of evil, laziness, indolence and lack of character, since, according to reports of regional inhabitants, conflicts with Indians were frequent due to the occupation of the region by the 'fazendas'.

The Chiquitano are so fond of agriculture that, even when they live by a road, they plant their 'roças' of maize, manioc, beans, pumpkins, sweet potatoes etc. In some backyards there are chicken and, occasionally, pigs. A few families manage to own a milking cow.

In spite of the poverty in which they live, the Chiquitano who still have land maintain their independence from public power and survive with dignity. The most serious problems they complain of are the pressure over their lands and the difficulties to have access to health services.

Cultural identity and the national border

In the Cáceres region and in Bolivia there are gangs of truck robbers and of drug traffickers, whose actions the military are unable to prevent. In general, these gangs are regarded by the regional population as bolivianos (Bolivians) and are object of fear and repulsion. Occasionally the fact that the Chiquitano are considered Bolivian as well can put them in the position of suspects of crimes committed in this border.

Despite their cultural diversity, the language spoken by all the Chiquitano is clearly the same - although hidden (maybe disappearing) -, from the margins of the road, near the city of Cáceres, to Casalvasco, in Vila Bela, and, evidently, inside Bolivian territory. Another common trait among them are the family relations they have with Bolivian villages near the border, or with mission cities such as San Ignacio, Santa Ana, San Miguel and others.

There is a kinship network among the various nuclei mentioned above, and among those and localities in Bolivia. Every Chiquitano always have a close relative who lives in Bolivia, whom is occasionally visited or who may come for a visit. Until a few years ago it is told that a Catholic procession left Santa Ana, in Bolivia, and passed through all the Bolivian and Brazilian localities along the border. Such processions honored Saint Ann and were broadcast beforehand by local radio stations, which announced the date in which it would arrive in each locality.

It is important to observe that, under a cultural point of view, the Brazil-Bolivia border is practically indistinguishable. Surely there is a Chiquitano territory that preceded the political division of both countries and that continued to exist in spite of the most recent definitions of political markings. Thus, is what refers to the Chiquitano, the relations between Brazilians and Bolivians transcend nationality and encompass kinship ties and a shared culture.

In the region of the military fortress of Casalvasco there is an old Chiquitano population that, until 1975 approximately, had Bolivian papers. When the military garrison was rebuilt (a little distant from the ruins of the original fortress), a captain of the Brazilian Army, according to several witnesses, destroyed the old papers and forced new ones upon them, saying that they now were Brazilians.

What can be observed in this region is that, beyond the condition of being Brazilian or Bolivian, there is a more complex identity situation of a people that lives on the border of two countries but on the edge of a cultural and economic system, and thus constitutes its own cultural system. A people that is the heir of several historical processes - upon which the Jesuits have left ever-present marks on their language, their beliefs and the very history lived by them -, which has inhabited this region for centuries and that, for reasons beyond their control, was forced to be called Bolivian or Brazilian, even though such names did not make much sense until very recently.

Cultural aspects

Cultural elements that allow one to consider the Chiquitano a single people are the use and the manufacture of hammocks and ceramic pots, the use of wooden troughs, recipients for 'chicha' - a fermented beverage made from manioc or corn -, the structure and the material used for building houses - usually with a central porch that divides the house in two, that can also be seen in Bolivian localities across the border - and ceremonies in honor of the saints of the missionary. An important ritual for the Chiquitano is the 'carnavalito', which is performed on Fat Tuesday, with songs played with a 'caixa' (drum) and flutes. On that day, a procession carrying color flags go from house to house and throwing mud, paint and excrement on the men is allowed. At night, there is a flagellation rite for the men, in which women hold whips and may use them on close male relatives, such as sons and brothers. In certain places, only those of ascending generations may be whipped. In others, anyone who has offended someone during the past year can be whipped, independently of blood relations

Notes on the sources

A large number of the sources about the Chiquitano can be found in Bolivia. D'Orbigny is the author who has left most details about the Chiquitano of the Jesuit Missions. Alfred Meétraux, who wrote an important article for the Handbook of South American Indians, based his writing on D'Orbigny, but brought in additional information. Major Federico Rondon and Badariotti bring important, secure information about the inhabitants of the border region with Bolivia. Dom Máximo Biennès presents rich documentation about bishop Galibert, who left observations about the Chiquitano. More recently, Denise Maldi, in the book Guardiães da Fronteira, discusses the occupation of this part of Brazil and brings precious information about the missions of Chiquitano and of Mojo. In Brazil there are interesting information regarding the Chiquitano in the Arquivo Público de Mato Grosso (Mato Grosso Public Archives) and in the Núcleo de Documentação em História Regional (Regional History Documentation Nucleus). From 1998 on, there are several travel reports of field trips by Joana Silva - who deals with more general aspects - and Soraya Almeida - who studies aspects related to land questions.

Sources of information

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  • ALMEIDA, Soraya C. Relatório de viagem de campo à comunidades indígenas Chiquitano - região de fronteira entre o Brasil (Estado de Mato Grosso) e a Bolívia : 19 a 30/04 de 2000. Brasília : Funai, jun. de 2000. (paper).
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. Os jesuítas e seus sucessores (II). (Moxos e Chiquitos - 1767-1830). Rev. de História, São Paulo : USP, v. 23, n. 44, p. 111-23, 1972.

. Os jesuítas e seus sucessores (III). (Moxos e Chiquitos - 1767-1830). Rev. de História, São Paulo : USP, v. 24, n. 47, p. 121-50, 1973.

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; MELO, Juscelino; SOEIRO, Gilmar Campos. Vistoria na Fazenda Nacional de Casalvasco (Ordem de serviço n. 134/95, Administração Regional de Cuiabá). Brasília : Funai, 1995. 19 p. (paper)

  • METRAUX, Alfred. The Chiquitoans and other tribes of the Province of Chiquitos - tribes of Eastern Bolivia and the Madeira Headwaters. In: STEWARD, Julian H. (Ed.). Handbook of South American Indians. v. 3. New York : Cooper Square Publishers, 1963.
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  • RIESTER, Jürgen . La Chiquitania : Visión Antropológica de uma región em desarrollo. v. 1, Vocabulario Español-Chiquito y Chiquito-Español. La Paz : Editorial Los Amigos del Libro, 1986

. Los Chiquitanos. In: -------- (Ed.). Em busca de la Loma Santa. La Paz : Editorial Los Amigos del Libro, 1976. p. 119-84.

  • RONDON, Cândido Mariano da Silva. Relatório dos Trabalhos de 1900-1906. Rio de Janeiro : Departamento de Imprensa Nacional, 1949. (Publicação nº 69-70)
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  • RONDON, Frederico Augusto. Na Rondônia Ocidental. São Paulo : Cia. Ed. Nacional, 1936. 280 p.
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  • SILVA, Joana Aparecida Fernandes. Breve notícia sobre os Chiquitanos no Brasil. Cuiabá : s.ed., ago. 1999. (paper)

. Os Chiquitano na rota do gasoduto Bolívia-Brasil. In: RICARDO, Carlos Alberto (Ed.). Povos Indígenas no Brasil 1996/2000. São Paulo : ISA, 2001. p.611-3.

; Anzai, Leny C.; et al. Estudo das Comunidades Indígenas na Área de Influência do Gasoduto Bolívia-Mato Grosso. Cuiabá : s.ed., 03/12/1998.

  • SILVA, Joana Aparecida Fernandes; Costa, José Eduardo Moreira da; Almeida, Soraya. Plano de Desenvolvimento para Povos Indígenas - Chiquitanos (contrato de trabalho 008/2000). Brasília : Funai, 2000. (paper)