Main languages: Spanish, Guaraní, other indigenous languages
Main religions: Christianity (majority Roman Catholic), indigenous religions
Indigenous peoples include Guaraní, Ayoreo, Toba-Maskoy, Aché and Sanapan and number some 86,000 or approximately 2 per cent of the total population, according to the 2002 national census. Other minorities include Germans (Mennonites), Japanese and Afro-Paraguayans.
Paraguay has seventeen indigenous peoples in total. The Guaraní language is spoken by around 90 per cent of the population; it is the second official language.
Mennonites are a group of German-speaking Anabaptists who migrated to the Chaco region in 1928-31 and 1946-7 to escape religious persecution. The Paraguayan government was keen to develop the Chaco, so allowed this group to have their own schools (where children were taught in German) and exempted them from military service. They own more than 1,000,000 hectares of Chaco land and their economy is based on cattle ranching and commercial agriculture. Mennonites have been accused of employing indigenous (Enxet and Ayoreo) workers and paying them less than the minimum wage or obliging them to accept notes of credit which can only be exchanged for goods in Mennonite stores, thus drawing them into debt peonage.
Paraguay’s 1903 immigration law banning ‘persons of the yellow race’ was modified in 1924. From 1935 four colonies were set up with Japanese from northern and central Japan as well as Brazil; cotton has been the principal crop. In 1959 a migration agreement with Paraguay provided for 85,000 Japanese immigrants over a 30-year period; however, many of the original immigrants have returned to Japan. Of those remaining, a large number have migrated to cities such as Asunción and Ciudad del Este, where they are employed in the local business and industrial sectors.
The exact number of Afro-Paraguayans is not known, as they are not counted separately in the census. Many people incorrectly assume that black people in Paraguay are of Brazilian descent. They are among the most impoverished groups in the country.
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Paraguay is a landlocked country, which shares borders with Argentina (to the west and south-west), Bolivia (to the north-west) and Brazil (to the north-east). Geographically, Paraguay is divided into forests to the east and the vast Gran Chaco scrubland plain to the west. The majority of the country’s 17 different indigenous peoples live in the Chaco region.
Since independence in 1811 Paraguayans have lived under many different authoritarian regimes. Spanish has remained the dominant language but Guaraní has been esteemed by most governments and almost all presidents have been able to speak Guaraní. Following the Chaco war (1932-1935) Guaraní became a key symbol of Paraguayan nationalism, although such developments neither implied nor led to any official recognition of indigenous rights; the government became more committed to developing and settling the Chaco, which was greatly detrimental to the indigenous peoples living there.
From 1954 to 1989, Paraguay was ruled by the military dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner. During this period the indigenous population was deprived of more land than at any other period in Paraguay’s history, and they suffered appalling human rights abuses. Indeed, in the early 1970s international organisations charged Stroessner’s government with complicity in genocide. (These charges referred specifically to the Ache people: the theft and sale of their children, the denial of food and medicine, and torture, enslavement and murder.). Despite – although also as a result of – such repressive measures indigenous peoples began to become more politically organised. As noted by several studies, they played an important role in Paraguay’s transition to democracy.
The small Afro-Paraguayan population also suffered harsh treatment under Stroessner’s regime. In the 1960s the community of Cambacuá (made up of 2,000 individuals) was violently dispossessed of 90 per cent of its lands.
As part of the democratisation process post-1989, important constitutional reforms recognising the rights of the country’s indigenous peoples were enacted (see below).
Legislation in Paraguay has long since made reference to indigenous peoples and governments have created numerous institutions (the Patronato Nacional de Indígenas in 1936, the Asociación Indigenista del Paraguay in 1942, and the Departamento de Asuntos Indígenas in 1958) to protect indigenous rights, but these have all been integrationist and paternalist in outlook.
The constitution of 1992 marked a significant turning point; it recognised Paraguay as a ‘pluricultural and bilingual’ nation, recognised the state’s duty to protect (and provide legal title to) indigenous communal lands and acknowledged the validity of customary law. In 1994 the government ratified ILO Convention 169. However, governments have generally failed to transform official discourses of multiculturalism into practical reforms. Some land claims have been acted upon by the authorities – such as those of Lamenxay and Riachito communities (of the Enxet-Sanapaná people), which were mediated by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights in 1998 – but many are still unresolved after years of struggle. Additionally, the 1992 constitution did not specify indigenous rights as regards health and education.
Rejecting government-run indigenista institutions, individual groups such as the Mbyá began to form their own political organizations in the 1970s. These organisations have tended to be rather weak, although since the 1990s there has been a slight shift with groups such as the Asocación de Parcialidades Indígenas (API) managing to exert more pressure for change in the country’s Constituent Assembly.
For much of the twentieth century (and still in the twenty first century) indigenous communities were/are threatened by logging and cattle ranching, by hydroelectric projects, by diseases and by the activities of missionary groups such as the New Tribes Mission. Another problem has been the invasion of indigenous lands by landless mestizo farmers.
Tel: + 595 21 604 329
Asociación de Parcialidades Indígenas (API)
Tel: + 595 21 493 737, 207 987
Maskoy and Enxet
Tel: + 595 21 202 039, 209 092
Federación de Asociaciones Japonesas en Paraguay
Tel: + 595 21 555213
- Paraguay: Lack of drinking water in the country that holds the world’s largest freshwater reserve (2023)
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