Bolivia is a beautiful country with an extremely unique geographical perspective. The country has a hugely varied topography ranging to high mountains in the West called the Andes, middle lands that enjoy favorable weather and lowlands in the east that border the Amazonian Basin. As a result, the country has a huge range of biodiversity and planes which means that the state produces a range of crops and products. Ecological subunits are common with tropical rainforests, dry valley, flat lands, savannas and even low lying flood basins. Although this contributes to a huge range in ethnic population, cultures, food and cooking techniques; it inherently brings with it the problem of transport and road travel. It is very common to find trucks and expert truckers being the main route of transport for precious and agricultural commodities from the interiors to the outlands and beyond.
Current Political Condition and its Effect on Road Transportation and Trucking in Bolivia
Bolivia has always been fraught with political turmoil and civil wars. A large range of ethnic groups also added to the volatile mix resulting in flaring internal problems that plagued the state continuously from its inception to the early 1800s. The problem was compounded by locals who invested heavily in the coca or cocaine trade and a range of wars with neighboring states. This resulted in an almost defunct local roads, non existent truckers and a destroyed transport network during the early days of the state. However, the geographical diversity meant that most food transportation was done by road.
Most of Bolivia was isolated from its neighbors during the period of time. However, the economy picked up with the discovery of local silver deposits. During the establishment of General Hugo Banzer, economic growth in the state improved considerably. The General was deposed quickly and by late 1985, Pas Estenssor came into power and the state started improving. At the time of Pas, most of the roads were cobblestones but there were slowly converted into paved roads.
The state was devolved to form the nine segments that it is in now and this led to significant improvements in the internal transport system and trucker systems of the country. In recent years, the Bolivian economy has been improving with leaps and bounds but that has not really affected the internal logistics of the state. Bolivia’s GDP in 2011 was estimated to be about $23.4 billion. Economic growth was estimated to about 5.1% and inflation was about 6.9%. Despite its rich natural reserves, the country is still dependent on foreign aid due to is poor internal structure and truckers network. Even though the country is about 1,098,581 sq km in size, it has a railway system that just extends to about 3,652 km. This system is also completely outdated and just extends to neighboring countries.
There are only about twenty different stops on the train network and this is completely insufficient to deal with agricultural transport and mining product transportation. As compared to the rail, roadways are extensive over the country. Expert truckers on roads are also considered to be the only way to transport goods in the country effectively but they are in exceeding poor shape. At the time of writing, the country had over 62,479 km of roadway. Out of this, only 3,749 km (including 27 km of expressways) in paved while more than 58,730 km is unpaved resulting in considerable problems for truckers during land transport. This problem is compounded by the varied geography, different ethnic groups, flaring corruption, poor roads, uneducated truckers and civil unrest.
Condition of Truckers in Bolivia
The trucking profession is completely private in Bolivia. On an average, there were about 110,000 vehicles in the
country in the early 1980s driven by poorly educated truckers. This number tripled with an increasing focus on jeeps, motorbikes, trucks and buses being registered in the city. The poor condition of the roads also meant that most people, who could afford a car, would prefer to own a truck to transport food, people and goods. Bolivia does not have any indigenous manufacturing plants of cars and trucks and most models are imported 4WD or consumer cars which are very expensive. One advantage for truckers and locals is that gas costs are low at about US$0.45 to US$0.50 per liter. Most truckers in the state own their own truck or drive it as a part of a local transportation company. These truckers-based companies compete amongst each other for business and this can frequently result in cost-cutting measures like longer trips with lesser breaks in between for the truckers.
Truckers are usually uneducated and come from the highlands or the mountain regions of Bolivia. Most of them have just completed primary education and they have a commercial driving license issued by local authorities. Due to the poor condition of the roads, most truckers spent about 1-4 weeks on the road as compared to international average rates of about 4 days. About 14% of the drivers spent about 1- 4 months away from the families and they went on trips all over the country. More than 18% also went on longer trips to neighboring countries carrying goods for transport. Due to the poor road conditions, most drivers also had to lower speeds to about 20 km per hour which was considerably lower than the 60 km per hour speed seen in the US and Europe. This slow speed and extended period of delivery also results in a national backlog in transportation of agricultural products and necessary products.
Most drivers also carry out a high risk lifestyle where they are frequently exposed to HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. Due to the slow speed, truckers were also paid abysmal amounts ranging from 1001–2000 Bolivianos (Bs.) per month which amounted to roughly $143–$286 depending on the distance covered and the goods transported. Younger inexperienced drivers got paid even less ranging to about $143 per month.
Road Conditions Which Affect Truckers and Truck Transportation in Bolivia
In 1964, the National Road Service or SENAC was established to convert paved roads into concrete roads along with pavements. The Service was also entrusted with maintenance of the roads but it was not able to keep up with modern standards. In late 1980s, it was funded by the IDB to repave the Cochabamba-Santa Cruz which is the main nodal pathway for trucks to carry agricultural produce. Although this road was improved, it did not help. Most roadways on mountain tops were winding and less than 4 feet in width with no guard rails to protect drivers. Low land roads were often flooded and impossible to cross and had no safety features. In fact, accidents and deaths were very common and heavy goods-laden trucks on the thin roadways damaged them even further.
The Road of Death: Synonymous with Road Condition in Bolivia
The roads are in such bad condition that one road is called the Road of Death. This road in divided into the North Yungas Road and the Yungas Road has been christened as the world’s most dangerous road and it extends from Paz to Coroico being 56 kms long. This road symbolizes the average condition of roads in Bolivia but it is particularly dangerous due to its height. The road is unpaved and is only about 3.2 meters in width with no guard rail. Rain and fog at the altitude can decrease visibility and make the road dirty and muddy and difficult to traverse. One of the most well-known local rules for traversing the road include that downhill truckers have to move to the right or the outer edge of the road while the uphill truckers move to the inside getting a better view for passenger safety. However, this has not helped, with more than 200 casualties being reported on the same road every year.
On an average, one vehicle falls off the road every week on the same road leading to very scary statistics. This same riskiness has made the road very popular with international tourists though. Mountain bikers use this road to race downwards from the top to the bottom and several tour operators have set up special runs for the cycling enthusiasts but even then there have been at least 20 reported deaths of motorcyclists on the route. In recent years, several international road crews have also come down to film on the road. For example, world-famous TOP GEAR was the first to film a road series on the country. The hosts traveled 1,610 kms on the shaky Bolivian roads with the last part of the trip concentrated on the Death Road. Host Jeremy Clarkson had a serious fright when the road started crumbling under the tires of his car while he was forced to the edge to allow another car to pass. Another program was hosted by the History Channel called the ‘IRT Deadliest Roads’ as a kind of exciting reality documentary. Drivers curse their way through their road on a heart-stopping trip that is difficult to watch even on TV.
Bolivia has free port privileges with port access in Peru Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. As a result, its local port has considerable trade but this trade is backlogged most of the time due to the poor local transport and logistical support.