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Assessment for Indigenous Peoples in Paraguay

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Indigenous Peoples in Paraguay, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 2 March 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Paraguay Facts
Area:    406,750 sq. km.
Capital:    Asuncion
Total Population:    4,890,000 (source: various, 1989, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

A new constitution recognizes indigenous rights, but political reality is proving to be quite different from the constitutional ideal; the problems facing Paraguay's indigenous people are not likely to go away anytime soon. The economics and politics of Paraguay make sustained

improvement unlikely. The main problems facing the indigenous people today are their economic plight and threat from land developers and squatters; the two problems clearly are not unrelated. It is not simply a matter of securing better wages which the farmers and developers pay indigenous workers, but of limiting development of indigenous lands so that the people themselves can secure their own well being. The claims of the indigenous peoples run directly against the business interests on whom Paraguay's politicians depend. Business interests have fought every land grant to indigenous people and can be expected to continue to fight any law that makes land grants to indigenous people easier. Because of this, improvement in the condition of the indigenous people of Paraguay will depend on international attention and the work of international organizations. However, there has thus far been relatively little international attention paid to the indigenous people of Paraguay; unless this changes, their economic situation will probably remain unimproved (though not necessarily unchanged).

Analytic Summary

The indigenous population of Paraguay consists of 17 ethnic groups who are divided into five linguistic groups: the Mascoi, Mataco, Zamuco, Guarani, and the Guaykuru. These peoples are located on either side of the Paraguayan River, in the sparsely populated Chaco region to the West, and along the Brazilian border to the east. (RACE = 2) (ETHDIFXX = 8). Most of the indigenous groups who remain in Paraguay are in the Chaco; only a few groups related to the Guarani remain in the east (GROUPCON = 3). The official language of Paraguay is Spanish; however, the majority of Paraguayans speak Guarani better than they speak Spanish. Spanish is used mainly in public speech, while Guarani is used in everyday speech. The 1992 Constitution declared that all government documents must be published on both Guarani and Spanish. Despite the general population's fluency with Guarani, Paraguayans do not consider themselves of Indian descent and their culture is thoroughly Hispanicized. Most of the indigenous groups of western Paraguay (known as the Chaco) remained independent of European domination until the late 19th century; those in the eastern portion largely succumbed a century earlier. As agriculture and grazing came to occupy larger and larger tracts of land, the traditional subsistence foraging and hunting of most of the groups could not support their numbers, and they were forced to take extremely low wage jobs.

Until the 1960s, only one law addressed the future of indigenous groups in Paraguay, and well into the 1970s it was not a crime to kill "Indians." The policy of the Paraguayan government since

at least 1909 was to convert the indigenous people to Christianity and assimilate them into society. Powerful agriculture and ranching interests have consistently resisted most attempts to grant land rights to the indigenous groups. The Constitution of 1992 recognized indigenous communities and their rights, emphasizing indigenous ethnic identity and their rights as peoples, as well as an explicit acceptance of cultural diversity (POLSTAT = 2).

Indigenous peoples throughout Paraguay are among the very poorest of society. Traditionally, the Paraguayan governments' policies toward these issues have been ones of benign neglect. Currently, the main threat for the indigenous groups throughout Paraguay is the continued encroachment on their lands by farmers, cattle ranchers and oil exploration expeditions (DEMSTR99 = 2; DMCOMP01-03 = 2; DMEVIC01-03 = 3). Though the government has recognized the legal right of the indigenous people, economic prosperity remains the first priority of Paraguayans and the primary threat to the survival of the indigenous people there (as in most of the rest of Latin America) (ECOSTR99 = 6). The indigenous face job insecurity, low wages, long hours, and lack of access to benefits under social security.

Beginning in the 1970s, indigenous leaders sought to establish a system of "autogestion," in which the indigenous groups themselves would represent their own interests and push their own demands. This increased tribal-level political organization and strengthened regional group identification (GOJPA00 = 2). A common indigenous group identity has been fostered most by the convergence of demands for all indigenous peoples – protection of their lands and heritage. Recent protests have focused on the land rights issue (PROT01 = 3). In 1981, indigenous groups won major legislative victories when the law of native communities (Law 901) recognized indigenous communities and their right to land. The legislation provided for the establishment of the Paraguayan Indigenous Institute (INDI) to implement these new laws. However, the legislation also allowed for their relocation and made no provision for the INDI to implement the new laws. As a result, the communities were not recognized, and encroachment onto ancestral lands continued largely unpunished. Since 2001, there have been not insignificant allegations of corruption and wrongdoing within INDI.

Indigenous peoples make up a large portion of the populations of rural areas and thus constitute a significant voting block (they make up 30% of the electorate in Chaco). This has been recognized by politicians who have responded by promising land and better educational and sanitation facilities, though many of these promises have not been fulfilled (POLDIS03 = 1; ECDIS03 = 3). Most of the indigenous are unassimilated and neglected. Lack of financial resources is a significant factor in limiting the degree of indigenous organization.


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