Paraguay Table of Contents
Asunción skyline looking toward the main business and
Courtesy Inter-American Development Bank
Historically, Paraguay had been an overwhelmingly rural country. The 1950 census found only about one-third of the population to be city dwellers. The human landscape for most of the country east of the Río Paraguay -- where nearly all Paraguayans lived--was one of scattered homesteads interspersed with small towns of fewer than 1,000 inhabitants.
Most Paraguayan communities existed in varying degrees of isolation. In the late 1980s, only 20 percent of the country's roads were paved (see Transportation , ch. 3). For most people, travel was on foot or on horseback. The two-wheeled ox cart was the most common means of transport for agricultural produce.
The isolation of the countryside masked extensive migration, however. Despite rudimentary transportation facilities, the rural populace was mobile. Slash-and-burn agriculture required a lengthy fallow period, and farmers typically moved as yields declined on their plots. Rural-rural migration was the typical pattern, but the typical move was not over a long distance. According to the 1950 census, in most departments at least 70 percent of all Paraguayans were living in the department of their birth. In the densely settled departments of the central region, the proportion was 90 percent.
There were, however, several migration paths of longer distance and duration. In the first half of the twentieth century, for example, many peasants contracted to work on the yerba maté plantations along the eastern border. Working conditions were so wretched that few workers would willingly stay on past their contracted time. Others worked on the riverboats or in timber or logging operations.
There also was a long history of Paraguayan emigration to Argentina; the 1869 Argentine census enumerated several thousand Paraguayan emigrés. The numbers recorded rose steadily throughout the twentieth century. Estimates of Paraguayans resident in Argentina in the early 1970s ranged from 470,000 to 600,000, or 20 to 25 percent of Paraguay's total population at that time. Between 1950 and 1970, anywhere from 160,000 to 400,000 Paraguayans left their homeland for Argentina. Males predominated slightly, and male migrants tended to be younger than their female counterparts--there were few male Paraguayans over age thirty leaving for Argentina. Even low estimates suggested that approximately 55,000 women between 20 and 29 years of age emigrated between 1950 and 1972. The emigation was sufficient to have a significant impact on Paraguay's natural rate of population increase.
The majority of emigrants came from the central region--an indication of widespread underemployment in agriculture and artisanal industry in that area. Most men went to northeastern Argentina to seek better opportunities on that region's plantations as well as in the textile, tobacco, and lumber industries. The migrants generally were successful--at least they tended to find salaried employment rather than eke out an existence in selfemployment . Women, following a pattern typical of Latin American rural-urban migration for females, migrated to Buenos Aires more frequently and found employment in domestic service. Men who migrated to Buenos Aires gravitated to the construction trades.
The path to Argentina was sufficiently travelled to make the way easier for later migrants. Some Argentine companies recruited in Paraguay. Experienced emigrant workers brought friends and relatives with them when returning from visits home, thus sparing the new migrants a lengthy search for housing and employment.
From the early 1960s through the early 1980s, the departments along the country's eastern border also were a favored destination for longer-distance rural-rural migrants. Most came from the central region--an area that, as a result of out-migrations, grew in population at only half the rate for the nation as a whole during the 1972-82 intercensal period. In 1950 the central region accounted for half of Paraguay's total population, but by 1982 the proportion had declined to about 38 percent. Between 1967 and 1972, an estimated 40,000 peasants left the departments of Cordillera, Paraguarí, and Caazapá in search of better living and working conditions. These departments' share of total population declined from more than 21 percent in 1972 to less than 17 percent in 1982. During the same intercensal period, the population of the three departments grew at a scant 0.1 percent in contrast to the 2.7- percent growth rate for Paraguay as a whole.
By contrast, the eastern departments gained population dramatically during the 1972-82 period. The population of the eastern region as a whole grew at a rate more than 2.5 times the national average. The populations of both Alto Paraná and Caaguazú grew at a rate of roughly 10 percent annually. Between 1960 and 1973, the IBR resettled an estimated 250,000 rural Paraguayans in agricultural colonies in underpopulated regions with some potential for increased agricultural production.
Despite Paraguay's essentially rural character, Asunción already had a well-defined role by the end of the colonial era as the hub of government, commerce and industry. Goods flowed from the capital to the individual towns of the countryside--the towns themselves exchanged little with each other. Agricultural products were routed to Asunción; in return, manufactured goods went out to rural areas. Asunción's preeminence over other cities was made sharply evident by the 1950 census. That census enumerated 7 cities with more than 5,000 inhabitants, but only 1, Asunción (which had a population slightly more than 200,000) with more than 20,000 residents.
Yet even Asunción, political scientist Paul Lewis observed, had the air of a "sleepy tropical outpost." Until the 1960s, automobiles and telephones were rare; perhaps half of the capital's homes had electricity. The city was without a piped water supply and sewage disposal system. Most families bought drinking water from peddlers who sold it door-to-door by mule.
From the 1960s through the early 1980s, however, migrants flocked to the region surrounding and including Asunción. The capital experienced its fastest growth in the 1960s, when its population grew roughly 3 percent annually (see table 3, Appendix). Although Asunción itself lagged during the 1970s, growing at a mere 1.6 percent per year, the metropolitan region grew at rates well above the national average.
Most migrants to Asunción found employment in the service sector or in small artisanal enterprises calling primarily for unskilled laborers. Despite the low wages they offered, these jobs exerted a pull for potential migrants because they were marginally better than what was available in the countryside. The Asunción area had long attracted rural-urban migrants, which meant that many rural dwellers considering a move could find assistance from kin who had made the move earlier. The construction boom in the 1970s also drew substantially greater numbers from rural Paraguay to Asunción.
Urbanization in the 1970s and early 1980s also was fueled by economic expansion along the eastern border. Spurred by the Itaipú hydroelectric project, the urban population of Alto Paraná grew 20 percent annually during the intercensal period from 1972 to 1982. The population of Puerto Presidente Stroessner, the city nearest the project, expanded nearly sixfold during the 1970s, as did the population of nearby Hernandarias. Cities in Amambay also grew during the 1970s, although at a more modest annual rate of 6 percent.
As a result of growth along the eastern border, by 1982 Paraguay had more than 30 cities with at least 5,000 inhabitants. This eastern expansion helped balance the dramatic growth occurring in Asunción and spared Paraguay the "hyper-urbanization" characteristic of many Latin American capitals. In 1950 the metropolitan area had accounted for about 20 percent of total population; by the early 1980s, this proportion had increased modestly to 25 percent.
Data as of December 1988
Paraguay Table of Contents