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  • Main languages: Spanish (official), Guaraní (official) and other indigenous languages

    Main religions: Christianity (majority Roman Catholic), indigenous belief systems and ritual practices.
    There are a total of 19 indigenous peoples inhabiting Paraguayan territory; they are divided into five linguistic families. These are: Guaraní (Aché, Ava Guaraní, Mbya Guaraní, Guaraní Ñandéva, Guaraní Occidental y Paĩ Tavyterã); Mataco-Mataguayo (Nivaclé, Maka, Manjui); Zamuco (Ayoreos, Ishir, Tomárãho); Lengua Maskoy (Enlhet Norte, Enxet Sur, Angaité, Sanapaná, Guana and Toba); and Guaicurú (Toba Qom).

    The latest National Census was carried out in 2022; according to the first official counts, the number of indigenous people amounted to 140,206, representing 2.3 per cent of the Paraguayan population.

    Paraguay has two official languages, Spanish and Guaraní, of which almost 35 per cent of the inhabitants use both. Thirty-three per cent speak only in Guaraní and 29 per cent in Spanish. Two per cent of the population speak in other non-official languages.

    There are other minorities in Paraguay, mainly ethnic and socio-cultural groups that were transported or migrated in the past: Afro-descendants, Arabs, Brazilians, Japanese, Koreans and Mennonites.

    Mennonites are a community 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 community to have their own schools (where children were taught in German) and exempted them from military service. They count as one of the most powerful groups in this country, owning more than 1,000,000 hectares of Chaco land. Their economy is based on cattle ranching and commercial agriculture. Some Mennonite landowners 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 settlements 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 of Japanese Paraguayans have migrated to cities such as Asunción and Ciudad del Este, where they are employed in the local business and industrial sectors.

    Afro-descendant communities were established much earlier. African slaves were first brought to the Province of Paraguay in 1556. By 1785, persons of African origin or descent comprised approximately 11 per cent of the population. In 1820, during the government of José Gaspar Rodríguez, a regiment of 250 men and women belonging to the Kamba people accompanied the Uruguayan caudillo José Gervasio Artigas in his exile to Paraguay. They established the settlement of Cambacuá. Although subsequently forced to relinquish much of their land, the community continues to practice and celebrate its cultural heritage. In 2012 the population of Afro-Paraguayans was 3,867 people, according to that year’s census. Other estimates are far higher. Unfortunately, ahead of the 2022 National Census, the category of ‘Afro-descendants’ was removed, so it is not known how many there are to date.

  • Environment

    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 19 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 organizations charged Stroessner’s government with complicity in genocide. These charges referred specifically to the Aché 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 organized. 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. Police and military were sent into the community and used arrests, beatings and the threat of further violence to force residents from their homes.

    As part of the democratization process post-1989, important constitutional reforms recognizing the rights of the country’s indigenous peoples were enacted (see below).


    Legislation in Paraguay has long made reference to the country’s indigenous peoples, and governments have created numerous institutions (the Patronato Nacional de Indígenas in 1936, the Asociación Indígenista del Paraguay in 1942, and the Departamento de Asuntos Indígenas in 1958) to protect indigenous rights, but these have all been integrationist and paternalistic in outlook.

    The Constitution of 1992 marked a significant turning point, recognizing Paraguay as a ‘pluricultural and bilingual’ nation. Article 62 recognizes the pre-existence of indigenous peoples at the time of the country’s founding. Article 63 affirms the right of indigenous peoples to nurture their identities and follow their own norms and acknowledges the validity of customary law. Article 64 recognizes indigenous customary land rights and the state’s duty to protect (and provide legal title to) indigenous communal lands. The right to participation in the country’s economic, social, political and cultural life is guaranteed in Article 65. In addition, in 1994 the government ratified the International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention No. 169.

    Despite this promising normative framework, successive Paraguayan 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 provide for indigenous rights as regards health and education – where indigenous peoples fall within the more general provisions of the text.

    Rejecting government-run indigenista institutions, individual peoples such as the Mbyá began to form their own political organizations in the 1970s. These organizations tended to be rather weak, although since the 1990s there has been a 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, hydroelectric projects, diseases and the activities of missionary groups such as the New Tribes Mission. Another issue has been the invasion of indigenous lands by landless mestizo farmers. In more forested areas, protected areas and even indigenous lands, the illegal planting of marijuana is a major problem.

  • Land ownership is the main issue facing the indigenous peoples of Paraguay. Between 2005 and 2010, the government was condemned by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) for having violated the rights to the traditional territories, cultural identity and a dignified life of the Sawhoyamaxa, Xámok Kásek, Yakye Axa and Kelyenmagategma indigenous peoples. In the Sawhoyamaxa case, the Court determined in 2006 that the Paraguayan state was guilty of causing the deaths of some thirty indigenous people belonging to the community, most of them children, because of the circumstances in which their rights were violated. The Sawhoyamaxa people had been forced to live for decades on a roadside as their lands had been taken by private owners. The lack of access to their land meant that the community had to survive in very poor conditions, leading to ill health compounded by a lack of medical care. In 2014, a law was finally enacted, granting the Sawhoyamaxa people 14,400 hectares of land in the Chaco region; however, the government did not enforce the expropriation order necessary for the restitution of the lands. The Yakye Axa people also ended up having to live alongside a road near their traditional lands. They had previously been moved as part of a development initiative. They were prevented from returning to their territory and turned to the IACtHR, which ruled in their favour in 2005. Although the state purchased land for the Yakye Axa community in 2012, access was not secured. The IACtHR announced in 2022 that it would commence enhanced monitoring of the implementation of its decisions.

    In this sense, the indigenous peoples of Paraguay are in a permanent struggle for their ancestral lands, which according to the 1992 Constitution are provided to them free of charge, are non-seizeable, indivisible, non-transferable, imprescriptible and cannot be sold or leased. They are also exempt from taxation. However, in the last decade, the dispossession of indigenous territories has increased in the face of the advance of agribusiness, which in most cases causes an overlapping of titles. It is common that several owners exist for the same property in many areas of Paraguay.

    The Paraguayan government was also sanctioned in 2021 by the UN Human Rights Committee following a complaint filed against the state by the Campo Agua’ê indigenous community for failing to protect the population from illegal fumigation with agrotoxics, which severely affected families. The decision called for comprehensive reparations to the population and measures to ensure that the same does not happen to other communities.

    In Paraguay, there are 140,206 indigenous people living in 853 communities, of which at least 30 per cent face the dispossession of their lands, according to data provided by Base Investigaciones Sociales. This situation has triggered many episodes of violence, especially in recent years, where indigenous and other rural communities have been evicted from their own lands.

    The government’s crackdown on the struggle for land intensified in 2021 with the adoption of the Law 6.830/2021, known as the Ley Zavala-Riera. The legislation introduced amendments to the Penal Code, criminalizing land occupations and increasing penalties from two to six years with a maximum of 10 years in prison. The legislative changes triggered several months of mass protests. The Observatory of Land, Agribusiness and Human Rights (Base IS) points out that from 2021 to 2023, 23 indigenous communities suffered attempted evictions, evictions and other violations involving the use of force.

    Indigenous peoples experience the highest levels of poverty, malnutrition, displacement, lack of access to sanitation and education, as well as challenges related to adapting to climate change and defending their lands.

    While the 1992 Constitution formally recognizes indigenous peoples and sets out a range of rights, no indigenous representatives have secured a seat in Congress or at the level of departmental governments. In the national elections in 2023, only 19 indigenous people out of 9,129 candidates, representing 0.2 per cent of the total, ran for elected office.

    Another community that is discriminated against and does not have state protection or laws of its own are Afro-descendants. Afro-Paraguayans face significant rates of racial profiling and violence at the hands of the police and are discriminated against in the justice system. The community also faces barriers when it comes to accessing essential services, including housing, healthcare and education.

    A decision to remove the Afro-descendant category from the 2022 Census has been strongly criticized by community leaders as well as international experts, including the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues at the end of his visit in November 2022. Afro-descendant activists pointed to the removal as yet another instance of invisibilization, whereby both their community and the issues they face are ignored by the authorities and the wider population. A bill has been stranded in Congress since 2022, by which Afro-descendants would be recognized as an ethnic minority in Paraguay and would establish procedures to prevent and punish acts of racism. In 2021, the lower house of Congress had rejected the draft legislation on the grounds that it was not convinced that Afro-descendants face discrimination in Paraguay.

  • General

    Indigenous peoples

    Japanese Paraguayans

Updated March 2024

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