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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).

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.

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.

Minority based and advocacy organisations


Amnesty International
Tel: + 595 21 604 329


Asociación de Parcialidades Indígenas (API)
Tel: + 595 21 493 737, 207 987

Coordinadora de Derechos Humanos de Paraguay (CODEHUPY)
Tel:  + 595 21 423 875, 201 481, 202 173

Grupo de Apoyo Para el Totobiesgosode
Tel: + 595 21 228 656

Maskoy and Enxet

Tierra Viva
Tel: + 595 21 202 039, 209 092


Federación de Asociaciones Japonesas en Paraguay
Tel: + 595 21 555213

Sources and further reading


Arens, R. (ed.) Genocide in Paraguay. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1976.

Bejarano, R. C., Solucionemos nuestro problema indígena con el INDI. Asunción: Toledo, 1977.

Gray, A., Amerindians of South America, London, MRG report, 1987.

Harder Horst, R., ‘Consciousness and Contradiction: Indigenous Peoples and Paraguay’s Transition to Democracy’, in Langer, E.D. and Muñoz, E. (eds.), Contemporary Indigenous Movements in Latin America. Wilmington, Delaware: SR Books, 2003.

Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, ‘Third Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Paraguay: The Rights of Indigenous Peoples’, March 2001 “retrieved 30 May 2007,

Munzel, M. The Ache: Genocide Continues in Paraguay. Copenhagen: IGWIA, 1974.

Pedro, J. ‘The Afro-Paraguayan Community of Cambucua’, 2000 “retrieved 30 May 2007,

Rubin, J., National Bilingualism in Paraguay. The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1968.

Santos Roland, E.M., ‘The condition of Afro-Americans: marginalisation, on the basis of race and poverty, attitudes towards cultural identity’. World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, Regional Seminar of Experts, Santiago, 27-29 October 2000.

Survival International, ‘Indigenous Issues’, Commission on Human Rights, 58th Session, United Nations Economic and Social Council, February 2002.

US Department of State, ‘Paraguayan Human Rights Practices’, 1993.

Coordinadora Derechos Humanos Paraguay [useful human rights reports] “retrieved 30 May 2007,

Online version of Handbook Series by US Dept of the Army [provides analysis of country’s geography, economy, political system and foreign policy]”retrieved 30 May 2007,

International Labour Organisation “retrieved 30 May 2007,


Bessire, L. ‘Isolated Ayoreo: will history repeat itself in the Gran Chaco?’ 2005 ‘retrieved 30 May 2007,

Dirección General de Estadística, Encuestas y Censos, Pueblos indígenas del Paraguay. Asunción: Dgee Publicaciones, 2003.

Survival International, ‘Indigenous Issues’, Commission on Human Rights, 58th Session, United Nations Economic and Social Council, February 2002.

Survival International NGO [helpful information on the major problems facing minority groups, particularly indigenous communities] “retrieved 30 May 2007,

Maskoy and Enxet

Kidd, S., ‘Land, politics and benevolent shamanism: the Enxet in a democratic Paraguay’, Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 17, part 1, 1995, pp. 43-76.

Kidd, S., ‘Indigenous Peoples’, in Lambert, P. and Nickson, A. (eds.), The Transition to Democracy in Paraguay. London: Macmillan, 1997.

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