MIGRATION AND URBANIZATION
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
Most Paraguayan communities existed in varying degrees of
isolation. In the late 1980s, only 20 percent of the country's
roads were paved
, 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
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
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
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
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