Last Updated: Monday, 05 October 2015, 08:59 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Argentina : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date May 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Argentina : Overview, May 2008, available at: [accessed 5 October 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.

Updated May 2008


Argentina is the second largest country in South America. It borders Chile to the west, Bolivia and Paraguay to the north, and Brazil and Uruguay to the east. Indigenous peoples live in many different regions throughout the country; in areas near international borders indigenous organisations proclaim a transnational identity (their own nations having been divided by the frontiers imposed by national states in the post-independence era).


Main languages: Spanish, indigenous languages

Main religions: Christianity (majority Roman Catholic), Judaism, indigenous religions

Approximately 400,000 people declare themselves to belong to or be a descendant of one of the country's nineteen indigenous peoples. These peoples include the Guaraní/Mbyá (4,000), Quechua and Aymara, Mapuche (105,000), Toba (60,000), Wichi/Mataco (36,000) and Chiriguano. They now live mainly on the country's northern and western fringes. (data: unless otherwise stated, Instituto Nacional de Estadistica, 2004-5)

Other minorities include Jews, who are largely based in Buenos Aires (250,000, according to, Japanese, Koreans, Welsh and small Arab and Asian populations. Argentina also has a small but politically aware Afro-Argentine community, living mainly in Buenos Aires.


Although Argentina was colonized by Spain, other European countries, including Britain, played an important role in its development after the conquest. Liberal governments of the mid- to late-nineteenth century greatly encouraged European immigration; by 1914 almost thirty percent of the Argentine population was foreign born (a great number of the immigrants were from Italy).

Indigenous communities were the victims of extermination campaigns in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries on the part of those wishing to claim their lands. The most renowned campaign was the Conquest of the Desert led by President Julio Roca in 1879 (via which La Pampa, Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego were definitively incorporated into the Argentine state).

Welsh immigration to the Chubut region in Patagonia took place mainly between 1865 and 1914. Historical conflict over linguistic and political autonomy led to an unsuccessful attempt at secession at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Large-scale Jewish immigration between 1890 and 1930 provoked disapproval from the Roman Catholic Church and led to a pogrom during the 'Tragic Week' in 1919. Anti-Semitism among Argentine elites, particularly the armed forces, derived from French rightwing, Falangist, Fascist and Nazi sources.

Afro-Argentines are descendants of the slaves brought from Africa during the colonial period. By the late eighteenth century, slaves and free blacks accounted for approximately 25-30 per cent of the population in Buenos Aires, Mendoza, Tucuman and other cities. Many of them died fighting for Argentina in the wars of Independence (1810-1816) and the Cisplatine War (1825-1828). Since independence the country's black population has decreased significantly.

The majority of some 2,000 Japanese who settled in Argentina prior to 1920 were immigrants who had re-emigrated from Brazil, Chile or Peru. Early migrants worked in a variety of occupations as unskilled labourers; they were subsequently employed in laundry and dry-cleaning businesses, or market gardening.


Historically, the Argentine state has been unwilling to define a systematic, enduring indigenous federal policy. During the twentieth century state policies swayed from tutelage to integration: they were erratic, continually changing as new governments took power. Between 1912 and 1980 the organisations in charge of indigenous matters received 21 different names and changes of administrative jurisdiction. The first indigenous political organisations (beyond the community) emerged during the 1970s, and became more visible and vocal in the 1980s.

In 1985, as part of the process, Raúl Alfonsín's government passed a new indigenous law, which stated that indigenous communities should receive sufficient land for their needs and that this land should be protected. It also created the Instituto Nacional de Asuntos Indígenas [National Institute of Indigenous Affairs, INAI] and allowed for bilingual education. In 1994 the Argentine constitution was amended, recognising for the first time the 'ethnic and cultural pre-existence of the Argentine indigenous peoples': it acknowledged the validity of Indian communities' claims to land; it also guaranteed the right of indigenous peoples to bilingual/intercultural education. Since then, Argentina has ratified the ILO Convention 169 (2000). It also created the Instituto Nacional contra la Discriminación, la Xenofobia y Racismo [National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism, INADI] in 1995.

Despite the existence of these constitutional and legal measures designed to protect their rights, indigenous peoples and their lands continue to be threatened by the constant intrusion of investors and private enterprises (encouraged by the state). For this reason, indigenous organisations have been involved in an increasing number of protests in recent years. In 2002 for example, a number of organisations occupied the INAI, denouncing the organisation's failure to represent indigenous peoples' interests.

Some past governments have encouraged non-Welsh settlement of the Chubut area; tax incentives brought many non-Welsh enterprises, with whom the still predominantly Welsh agricultural community, which previously functioned as a co-operative, was forced to compete. Break-up of the co-operatives and other community organisations, as well as the lack of Welsh teaching in schools, has meant fewer and fewer people speaking the language. Furthermore, since it is associated with low status Welsh has often been rejected by younger members of the community. However, Welsh people suffer minimal ethnic discrimination and token support is given to demonstrations of ethnicity such as their annual eisteddfod.

In the post-war period Argentina became an international centre for anti-Semitic publications and neo-Nazi activity. During the military dictatorship of 1976-83, a large number of the disappeared were Jews. In the 1990s Carlos Menem's government appeared committed to combating anti-Semitism. The car bombing of the Jewish Mutual Society of Argentina in 1994, in which 76 people were killed, provoked demonstrations of solidarity with the Jewish community. Just prior to this (1993), a holocaust museum was founded in Buenos Aires to remember the atrocities committed against Jews in the past.

Most of the 50,000 Japanese immigrants ( and their descendants are located in and around Buenos Aires. Japanese assimilation and acculturation has advanced considerably, while Koreans and other Asian groups are subject to the same kind of racial discrimination as indigenous groups. The Consejo de Representantes Nikkei, an organisation representing the Japanese population of Argentina, was created in 1988.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

Bilingual intercultural education is an issue which has united members of Toba, Wichi, Chiriguano, Mbyá Guarani, Mocoví, Mapuche, Quechua and Aymara nations, and one which is also relevant to non-indigenous linguistic minorities. Access to education is still a problem for many children, despite 6,000 scholarships being allocated to indigenous secondary school students in 2004. Indigenous organisations are actively engaged in debates about the content and methodology of bilingual/intercultural education programmes.

Conflict continues between indigenous peoples and the federal (and regional) state over the ownership of lands (particularly in reference to national parks). Despite new indigenous legislation, private interests in conjunction with the state's economic agenda are still prioritised over the demands of local communities. One of the most controversial and high profile disputes in 2006 is that being waged between the Italian company Benetton and Mapuche organisations in Patagonia.

Indigenous peoples have taken action both individually and collectively to protest against their lack of land titles and the damage caused to their environment by colonization and industrial interests. In the Chaco region (in the north east) Wichi, Toba and Mocova representatives took part in a month long hunger strike in July 2006, which resulted in a new agreement being signed by the provincial government and the Instituto Aborigen Chaqueño. This recognised local communities claims to 140,000 hectares (which they had occupied) and allowed for the revision of recent sales of fiscal lands to private companies.

A large percentage of Chaco's public land and jungles have already been cleared to grow genetically modified soy. Out of some 3.9 million hectares of Chaco public land, which should have been granted to indigenous groups, only 660,000 hectares remain. The rest has been distributed to individual entrepreneurs and companies. Seven percent of private land title owners now lay claim to 70 percent of land in Chaco. Companies in 2007 placed private security guards who are prepared to shoot at supposed intruders entering the former primary forestlands.

Genetically modified cultivation for bio-fuel is spreading. Indigenous and other small-scale peasant farmers are being forced from their land by aerial chemical spraying, top-soil erosion and pollution. The application of massive amounts of pesticides and fertilizers needed to grow genetically modified soybeans on otherwise low-fertility forest soil makes it impossible for communities to remain for health reasons.

In March 2007 seven small-scale farmers were arrested for resisting eviction from lands slated to be cleared for soy production in the Northern province of Santiago del Estero whose provincial government co-sponsored the Buenos Aires Biofuels Congress.

In 2007 all of this has increased the pressure on Argentina's indigenous populations and stronger protests are expected in 2008.

A positive development is the growing popularity of eco-friendly tourism in the southern regions, which local Mapuche people have often managed to turn to their advantage. This has involved the setting up of tours to communities, providing accommodation and food; it has also meant Mapuche people being able to publicise their 'cause' among foreign travelers visiting the area.

One of the major problems facing indigenous peoples is the co-existence of contradictory legislation: new laws have been introduced without prior ones being nullified; indigenous (provincial/local) state laws do not always concur with federal (national) regulations. Thus, while the authorities make many speeches about cultural and ethnic diversity, this often has little impact on everyday life.

Over the last couple of years the Argentine authorities have made several token gestures in support of the Afro-Argentine community. In August 2006 the government of Buenos Aires organised the 'Jornadas de Patrimonio Cultural Afro-Argentino'.

Copyright notice: © Minority Rights Group International. All rights reserved.

Search Refworld