Paraguay grappling with racial discrimination

Although artists in Asuncion recently painted murals honoring Paraguay’s indigenous communities, natural resources, history and cultures, a new UN report says the minority groups depicted in those paintings face pervasive, systemic racism. Photo by Caleb O’Brien.

Minority groups in Paraguay face pervasive “structural discrimination,” marginalization and neglect, which contributes to their unequal access to basic human rights.

On Friday, August 26, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination highlighted three key recommendations for combating racial discrimination in Paraguay: The country should establish national policies against racial discrimination; take further steps to safeguard indigenous lands, territories and resources; and strengthen indigenous access to the justice system. The recommendations came in the preliminary version of the committee’s final observations on Paraguay’s combined fourth to sixth periodic reports.

Paraguay’s most vulnerable minority groups, its indigenous peoples and citizens of Afro-Paraguayan ancestry, comprise a small fraction of the country’s 6.8 million inhabitant — according to a 2012 census, indigenous and Afro-Paraguayan communities contain roughly 117,000 and 4,000 members, respectively, or less than 2 percent of the total population. Although Paraguay has made some progress over the years, these groups have been largely marginalized and ignored by a government historically dominated by political and industrial elites.

A few of the committee’s observations and recommendations:

• The committee advocated “the adoption of an integral national policy against racism and racial discrimination that promotes social inclusion and reduces the high levels of inequality and poverty affecting indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants.” Because Paraguay lacks even an official definition of racial discrimination and fails to address racial discrimination in its penal code, there’s a lot of room for improvement.

• Although the Paraguayan constitution recognizes indigenous groups’ rights to their ancestral lands, many groups lack territory or title to the lands they possess, and the State doesn’t have an effective mechanism for the “reclamation and restitution” of ancestral lands. The committee recommended the establishment of such a mechanism, as well as the creation of an early-alert system to protect indigenous communities in the event of incursions.

• The committee urged Paraguay to find means of guaranteeing indigenous peoples access to justice, to eliminate racial discrimination within the justice system, and to recognize and respect traditional indigenous justice systems.

• The exploitation of natural resources in Paraguay, deforestation and the advance of industrialized soy farming in the country, has had a negative impact on indigenous groups, and the committee urged the state to conduct social and environmental impact evaluations and take steps to safeguard livelihoods and quality of life of indigenous peoples, especially those groups living in voluntary isolation or in the period of initial contact.

During a meeting between the committee and the Paraguay delegation in Geneva on August 9, members of the delegation highlighted areas of progress. A food-security cash-transfer program, Tekoporã, expanded to cover much more of the indigenous population — from 3 percent in 2013 up to nearly 70 percent today. Social spending increased from 30 percent of public expenditures in 2003 to 55 percent in 2015. And the delegation pointed out that “While the Gini coefficient showed South America to be one of the most unequal regions of the world with respect to the concentration of land, for the first time the indicator had placed Paraguay above the Latin American average with respect to income distribution,” according to a summary record of the meeting.