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State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2010 - Paraguay

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 1 July 2010
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2010 - Paraguay, 1 July 2010, available at: [accessed 22 November 2017]
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.

According to government estimates, there are around 108,600 people in Paraguay who identify themselves as indigenous. This is thought to be an under-estimate, given the fact that many Paraguayans of identifiable indigenous ancestry prefer not to be officially classified as such. Indeed, 90 per cent of the country's population speaks Guarani, the indigenous lingua franca. This reluctance reflects perhaps the ongoing social and economic marginalization, and the long record of systematic abuses to which Paraguay's indigenous peoples have been subjected. These have included enslavement, extra-judicial executions, sexual violence and also child-trafficking.

According to the US State Department, Paraguay ranks as the second poorest country in South America, with just 10 per cent of the population controlling 66 per cent of the land and 30 per cent of rural people being landless. In 2009, state neglect and ongoing tensions between notions of traditional communal land ownership and private property interests continued to affect the lives of the country's various indigenous cultures.

Human rights violations affecting indigenous communities

Although the political climate has changed significantly since the era of dictatorships, human rights violations against indigenous people are still prevalent. The IACHR found that some two decades since the end of military dictatorship, indigenous communities continue to face considerable obstacles, affecting their access to land and ability to express their cultures. In 2009, the levels of poverty and illiteracy of Paraguayan indigenous people continue to be significantly higher than among the rest of the population, and in some cases 20-year-old land claims cases are yet to be settled.

While the Paraguayan Constitution recognizes the right of indigenous peoples to hold communal property and requires the state to provide these lands to them free of charge, this is no stipulation for compliance. The 2002 Census of indigenous people calculated that 45 per cent of Paraguay's indigenous people did not enjoy definitive legal ownership of their land.

Yakye Axa and Sawhoyamaxa

According to an AI report, during 2009 the Yakye Axa and Sawhoyamaxa, who belong to the Enxet indigenous people, continued to live in decade-old temporary homes alongside the Pozo Colorado-Concepción Highway, having been deprived of their traditional communal lands nearly two decades ago, when these were taken over by private owners. After 10 years of litigation, around 90 families of the dispossessed Yakye Axa (Island of Palms) indigenous community are still forced to live on a narrow strip of land between the Pozo Colorado-Concepción highway and the wire fence that marks the edge of the large cattle ranch that absorbed their ancestral land. Similarly, up to 500 Sawhoyamax (meaning 'From the place where the coconuts have run out') have also been existing on the edge of the highway, because their lands in the heavily forested area on the eastern edge of the Chaco region are also now in the hands of private owners, who have already deforested large areas for beef production.

When their lands were seized in the 1970s, members of these indigenous communities remained as workers on the same private estates that had expropriated their ancestral territories. They suffered years of exploitation and mistreatment before being evicted in the early 1990s, when they started litigation against the estates aimed at reclaiming a limited portion of their original holdings. Since then, they have been living on the highway.

After much legal wrangling in 2005 and 2006, the IACtHR found that the rights of the Yakye Axa and Sawhoyamaxa to judicial protection, to property and to life had been violated. Among other measures, the IACtHR ordered the return of the traditional lands. They gave Paraguayan authorities three years to implement this. The Court required the authorities to provide resources to purchase the land from the current owners and to help the Yakye Axa and Sawhoyamaxa re-establish themselves there. However, at the end of 2009, the settlers are still in place and no measures to enforce the ruling have been taken.

After nearly a generation as squatters, AI reported that many traditional practices have almost vanished and community cohesion and food sovereignty through hunting and fishing are also no longer possible due to lack of access to ancestral lands and deforestation. Employment opportunities are also limited, which means that the communities now increasingly depend on food handouts from state agencies and private institutions.

New hopes

The August 2008 swearing-in of President Fernando Lugo, a former Catholic bishop, initially offered some hope to Paraguay's indigenous communities, after 61 years of one-party rule. Lugo had made campaign promises to initiate widespread structural, social and cultural changes, including land reform and respect for indigenous land rights.

In the case of the Yakye Axa, at the end of 2008 President Lugo signed a bill declaring the 15,963 hectares of the disputed land to be 'of social interest' and ordered it to be expropriated from the current owner and handed over to INDI for restoration to the Yakye Axa. The bill was tabled with four Senate commissions and discussed in the session that began in March 2009. However, members of a congressional committee voted against the return of indigenous lands to the Yakye Axa community, thereby undermining the supposedly binding decision made by the IACtHR and dealing a fatal blow to community attempts to regain their ancestral territories.

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