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Revista INVI

versión On-line ISSN 0718-8358

Revista INVI vol.34 no.95 Santiago mayo 2019 


Popular urbanization in Asuncion, Paraguay1

Marta Isabel Canese de Estigarribia1

Cecilia María Vuyk Espínola2

Néstor Javier Sagüi3

Gustavo Alberto Ibarra Díaz4

Roque Marcelino Pignata5

Nery Andrés Velázquez Gauto6

Gabriel Reinaldo Villalba Medina7

Diego Federico Laterra8

Javier Allende Chamorro9

Perla Primitiva Godoy Giménez10

Víctor Duré Bañuelos11

1 Paraguay. Universidad Nacional de Asunción, Correo electrónico:

2 Paraguay. ONG Cultura y Participación. Correo electrónico:

3 Paraguay. Universidad Nacional de Asunción. Correo electrónico:

4 Paraguay. Facultad de Filosofía, Universidad Nacional de Asunción. Correo electrónico:

5 Paraguay. Universidad Nacional de Asunción. Correo electrónico:

6 Paraguay. Universidad Nacional de Asunción. Correo electrónico:

7 Paraguay. Universidad Nacional de Asunción. Correo electrónico:

8 Paraguay. Universidad Nacional de Asunción. Correo electrónico:

9 Paraguay. Universidad Nacional de Asunción. Correo electrónico:

10 Paraguay. Universidad Nacional de Asunción. Correo electrónico:

11 Paraguay. Universidad Nacional de Asunción. Correo electrónico:


This paper analyzes the processes of urbanization, organization and resistance taking place in urban areas developed through popular intervention in Asuncion, Paraguay. To this end, this study collected data from official institutions and conducted qualitative research through observation and in-depth interviews with 30 local community leaders. According to those surveyed, the popular urbanization process dates back to the colonial period, focusing on the riverside area of Asuncion, then expanded to other municipalities within the metropolitan region of the city. Local communities built these popular neighborhoods through the elaboration of organizational networks and solidarity initiatives. While mechanisms of occupation and resistance included street mobilization, community organizations still rely on institutional management to achieve better citizen participation.

Keywords: urban development; inclusion; occupation; organizational network; citizen rights


Informal popular urbanization is found to be under development in major Latin American cities through the occupation of peri-urban, reserved or disputed land by people with no access to formal real estate markets or State-run urban development and home construction programs. This broad and complex issue, including its multiple dimensions and conflictive situations, has been explored over the last decades (by Azuela, 1984, 1993; Cruz, 2015; Duhau, 2015; Feinstein and Navarro, 2014; Godley, 2017; Moctezuma, 1999; Navarro and Moctezuma, 1989; Pírez, 2013). Such a phenomenon is not only exclusive to the region, according to Manzano and Castrillo (2018), this issue can also be observed in European cities such as Paris, Madrid, London, Dublin, Berlin, Lisbon, Rome, Barcelona, Tirana and Belgrade. These processes are defined in terms of the occupation of land and construction of neighborhoods through popular intervention by low-income individuals with little access to formal urban land. Issues such as lack of foresight, poor provision of key services on the part of public institutions and the absence of planning initiatives are common to these processes, which are not governed by urban regulations. In this sense, community-based organization plays a key role as it channels actions of resistance and humanization of the new civic neighborhood (Castells, 1983, 2003; Harvey, 2013; Lefebvre, 1972).

This research addresses the issue of popular urban development according to the perspectives of relevant actors in the city or Asuncion. Paraguay is a landlocked country located in central South America with an estimated population of 7,052,983 inhabitants -61.7 and 38.3 percent of which living urban and rural areas, respectively. The city of Asuncion straddles the banks of the Paraguay River which meanders through a gently sloped lowland that floods neighboring areas on a cyclical basis. The city and its metropolitan area, which is composed of 12 municipalities, is home to 37 percent of the total Paraguayan population -about 2,638,358 inhabitants (Dirección General de Estadísticas, Encuestas y Censos, 2018).

The main goal of this research is to analyze the processes of urban development, organization and resistance in urban areas developed through popular intervention in Asuncion, Paraguay. As for specific goals, this study contextualizes the urban development processes experienced in the city of Asuncion and its municipalities within the metropolitan area; identifies the organizational and resistance dynamics of relevant communities; and provides details about prospects for change according to the opinions of local community leaders.

Main issues and state of the art

Different social actors play a key role in urban development process, with each of them having opposing interests when it comes to building urban sense. As for the Latin American case, Castells (1983) identifies two positions: the first refers to the city from an exclusionary, rent-based perspective that favors the development of urban processes according to real estate speculation; the second acknowledges the value of collective, cultural and social action within the city-building process. The second position, which is based on inclusionary, humanist and environmentalist principles, promotes urban change for life and citizen construction. In this sense, urban social movements play a key role as they aim to achieve citizen rights and better quality of life for local communities (Estigarribia, 2018). This is what Lefebvre (1972) and Harvey (2013) refer to as the right to the city, which does not only involve living, building and enjoying the urban space but also taking part in citizen-related dynamics and city management activities.

The analysis of social conflicts generated by the occupation of urban land in Paraguay can be traced back to the 1980s when research was conducted by Christian church organizations (Comité de Iglesias Para Ayudas de Emergencia, 1996; Coronel, 1994; Galeano, 1985; Morínigo, 1984, 1989). These studies provide details about the historical process and scale of this issue, which dates back to the colonial period. Since the 1980s, popular developments became increasingly dense with an approximate population of 100,000 inhabitants (Equipo Arquidiocesano de Pastoral Social, 1986). The advent of democratic transition in 1989 meant a further increase in density as popular sectors saw an opportunity for creating new participatory models to access urban land. The latter led to the massive occupation of urban and rural lands, which rose to unprecedented levels over the 1989-1990 period until the reemergence of repression mechanisms (Coronel, 1994; Morínigo, 1989). It was not until 2008 that urban movements for access to land and housing became fully consolidated, partly due to the flood of the Paraguay River resulting in the displacement of communities based in the bañado2 area (Canese and Canese, 2015; Estigarribia et al., 2018).

As laid out in the National Constitution, Paraguayan housing policies are focused on the construction of a Social Rule of Law (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos [CONADEH], s.f). . However, they fail to fully address the housing issue affecting Asuncion (Flores, 2007). From a public management perspective, different studies aim to tackle this problem through international cooperation, such as the joint development of a method to identify precarious urban settlements conducted by the National Secretariat for Housing and the Chilean Ministry of Housing and Urban Development (“Metodología para identificar asentamientos precarios”, 2011) or Morris (2014), who analyzes the Paraguayan housing sector upon a request made by the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB). A recent study jointly conducted by TECHO and the Technical Secretariat for Planning (TECHO, 2016) identifies, quantifies and locates all poor settlements found in the Central Department and metropolitan area of Asuncion.

Recent studies on popular developments in Asuncion include those conducted by Barrios, Chávez, Díaz and Miño (2015), Canese and Canese (2015), Galeano (2017) and Pereira (2018).


This research is based on non-experimental, observational, quantitative and qualitative, sequential and cross-cutting approaches. It was conducted during 2018 in the city of Asuncion, Paraguay. The first phase of this study, which is exploratory in nature, focuses on the collection of data from public and private entities holding information on informal urban settlements located in the city of Asuncion and its metropolitan area. The data were provided by the Statistics, Survey and Census Bureau (DGEEC, 2018), the National Secretariat for Housing and Habitat (SENAVITAT), the Secretariat for Social Action (SAS), the Technical Secretariat for Planning (STP), the Empresa de Servicios Sanitarios del Paraguay (ESSAP), the National Electricity Administration (ANDE) and the municipalities of Asuncion, Capiata, Itaugua and Lambare. All maps presented in this study are based on data collected from these entities.

The second phase of this research consists of 20 non-participant field observations and 30 in-depth interviews with local community leaders. Observations were monitored through record sheets and interviews were based on protocols designed for the purposes of this study. Fieldwork was based on a participatory approach as the result of the conversational nature of this work (Montañez, 2011).

The target population of this research includes the leaders of popular developments in Asuncion and neighboring municipalities, which are estimated at about 440 according to data provided by ESSAP (2017), SAS (2017) and TECHO (2016).

This study includes samples provided by experts (Hernández, Fernández and Baptista, 2010, p. 397) as there was a need to collect data that only some individuals of the focus group would know. Network sampling was used to identify and reach study subjects: each respondent was given all necessary references to identify and find other target individuals. Thirty leaders of local communities experiencing popular urbanization processes were selected for the purposes of this research. Selecting criteria are listed as follows: a) living in communities experiencing popular urbanization processes; b) being actively or formerly involved in neighborhood or social care organizations, local committees or councils based on popular developments; and c) holding the position of president or vice-president of community organizations, local committees, councils or social movements based on popular developments. Exclusion criteria included: a) being under the age of 18; and b) not having taken part in occupation, organization, resistance and community development processes.

This research paid close attention to relevant principles and guidelines referring to individual-based studies. Study subjects were duly informed about the purpose, objectives, risks and benefits of this research before expressing their willingness to take part in this study. The identity of each subject was kept confidential through the coding of research results.

The expressions recorded through interviews and observations were divided into different categories according to the content analysis method developed by Lawrence Bardin (2009). The analysis of results was shared with participants during a consultation workshop.


In order to contextualize the popular urbanization phenomenon taking place in Asuncion and its metropolitan region this study requested official information from institutions providing basic services to these communities through the Public Information Portal. Data were compared to information from previous censuses and national surveys, which had a low level of coverage of these areas. As presented in Table 1, the comparative analysis reveals considerable differences in terms of coverage as the result of the informal situation of communities and poor inclusion of relevant data. According to this comparative analysis, the number of informal urban settlements in Asuncion and its metropolitan region is estimated at 439.

Table 1 Number of informal urban settlements in Asuncion and its metropolitan region. 

Institution Central Asuncion Asuncion y Central
SENAVITAT 159 3 162
SAS 203 1 204
ESSAP 104 34 138
ANDE 344 26 370
TECHO/STP 405 sd -
DGEEC 196 sd -

Source: Elaborated by the authors.

The accounts and identity of participants were kept confidential through the use of codes, which include letters to refer to the type of organization respondents are involved in and numbers to identify individuals: M - movement; C - local committee or council; V - neighborhood organization.

Contextualization and dimensions

According to qualitative data collected from interviews and observations, the popular urbanization process experienced by Asuncion dates from the colonial period. As local dwellers pointed out, the origin of this phenomenon can be traced back to the colonial administration of the city, when different indigenous and mestizo groups lived around Asuncion in popular neighborhoods. The banks of the Paraguay River have always been home to fishing communities:

This neighborhood (San Geronimo) was already inhabited before the foundation of Asuncion, there were indigenous people living here (V1).

If I am right, this place (Chacarita) is the first settlement that I know from the time of the colonial period (V2).

However, it is worth noting the population density of the fishing and indigenous communities was very low. They had a simple and natural lifestyle which had little effect on the environmental system. Today the high density of popular developments and the lack of basic services such as sewage systems and waste collection are contributing to the further deterioration of the environment, as noted by this research.

Topographic relief varies according to the location of each popular development, especially in Asuncion, where most of these places are located in flood-prone areas, ravines, trenches and creeks. This seriously affects local dwellers:

When it rains, most of houses are affected by water torrents due to their location in low areas (V3).

Pollution is also exacerbated as the result of the presence of drainage systems, which transport water to these territories:

A canal made of concrete coming from Cementerio Sur flows into the streets, which end up completely flooded (V4).

To counter this, local dwellers added extra land to raise the level of the area:

It gets flooded every time it rains. We have to add extra land to prevent this from happening (V5).

However, some individuals are forced to find temporary shelter when the Paraguay River floods:

We have always suffered from this issue. There used to be lakes and swamps that absorbed enormous amount of water, delaying the flood. Today, however, flood events occur more rapidly (V6).

Reaffirming the above, Figure 1 shows the incidence of floods in areas occupied with poor dwellings in the city of Asuncion.

Source: Elaborated by the authors.

Figure 1 Flood-prone areas map.  

Due to these difficulties, in the last two decades the popular urbanization process has expanded towards non-floodable areas in Asuncion and its neighboring municipalities as periodic flood events force local dwellers to relocate themselves in higher grounds:

This territory became inhabited during the 1970s. It was a large private estate. Settlements were established during the 1980s after a historic massive flood, thus triggering the fight for the purchase of land (V7).

In other cases, those living in flooded areas were permanently relocated in spaces intended for temporary accommodation.

People came here in search of higher ground during flood events, they asked the priest of the parish of St Peter and St Paul for help. This was private land but the priest talked to the owners of this space and people living in flood-prone areas came here. It gradually became populated (V8).

This cyclical environmental issue is further complemented by the vulnerability to pollution generated by solid waste and urban effluents. The comparison between the flood-prone areas map and the sewage cover map, which is shown in Figure 2, allows us to observe that neighborhoods located along the river have no access to sewage networks. This is further aggravated by the fact that urban effluents are thrown into these neighborhoods.

Source: Elaborated by the authors

Figure 2 Sewage coverage map.  

This area is also excluded from the domestic waste collection system, which results in the emergence of a considerable number of informal dumps. For many local residents the recycling of solid urban waste is a source of income; however, since this activity is not always conducted with the care necessary so that it does not convert into a source of pollution and environmental degradation. This is the case of Santa Ana and its Cateura municipal dump, which took in 800-1200 tons of rubbish from Asuncion for decades.

Figure 3 shows a map identifying dwellings with no access to waste collection services in each neighborhood within Asuncion. The largest percentage of dwellings lacking this service was found in popular developments.

Source: Elaborated by the authors.

Figure 3 Dwellings lacking waste collection services.  

The comparison between Figures 2 and 3 clearly reveals social exclusion in terms of the provision of sewage and waste collection services. Though the height of these territories, which is below the periodic flood level of the Paraguay River, prevents waste collection and sewage services from being implemented, nothing has been done to find alternative solutions.

This environmental issue is further complemented with other shortcomings. Figure 4 shows the percentage of people with Unsatisfied Basic Needs (UBN) in popular developments located in Asuncion.

Source: Elaborated by the authors.

Figure 4 Households with Unsatisfied Basic Needs (UBN)  

Despite the lack of information from municipalities and public institutions, the observations and interviews conducted during this research allow us to note that municipalities located around Asuncion are currently experiencing a widespread and dynamic popular urbanization process. Figure 5 shows a population density analysis of popular developments distributed per municipality. According to this map, the municipality of Ñemby has the highest density, thus confirming the expansion of the popular urbanization process within this area. Ñemby is followed by the municipalities of Lambare, Villa Elisa and San Antonio, all of them located south of Asuncion. As for the northern part of the city, Mariano Roque Alonso is the most densely populated municipality of Asuncion.

Source: Elaborated by the authors

Figure 5.  Populationdensity of precarious settlements, distributed per municipality 

Figure 6 shows the percentage of people living in poor settlements in relation to the total population of each municipality. According to this map, up to 20 percent of the population of some municipalities belongs to this segment, with Ñemby leading this list. As for the northern part of Asuncion, with nearly 15 percent in both cases, Mariano Roque Alonso and Limpio account for the largest share of the local population living in poor settlements. These findings reveal the current state of popular urbanization processes in each municipality; however, they cannot be regarded as conclusive due to the weakness of institutional systems when it comes to compiling data on this population.

Source: Elaborated by the authors

Figure 6 Percentage of the population living in precarious settlements, distributed per municipality 

Organization and resistance

As for the emergence of organizations within popular developments, collected qualitative data suggest that it took place before or shortly after the occupation of land. The need to defend the position of the community is the main reason behind the creation of neighborhood committees, which aim to gain recognition from institutions that may support them in their quest for rights. There is a dynamic process governing the organization of communities, which may range from small, short-lived neighborhood committees with limited objectives that emerge to achieve some rights or solve specific problems to large movements composed of different neighborhood committees forming coordinated social organization networks with shared objectives. These organizations are practically non-existent in oldest developments such as Kambala, Añareta’i, Chacarita’i and Itapytapunta. According to local dwellers, these traditional neighborhoods have no active committees and communities are not engaged in local organizations. The lack of organization is reflected in the prospects for a solution to issues such as drug trafficking and violence. While organized communities tackle these and other types of problems from their respective commissions and mutual assistance centers, non-organized communities are left vulnerable to these problems.

The first objective of organizations based on popular developments is to resist and defend the right to land and housing: “Fight for the right to land and housing of all Paraguayan families” (M1). This first goal is complemented with other objectives such as gaining recognition from municipalities and the management of basic services such as drinking water, electricity, public lighting, access roads and transport: “Basic services, we got our own artesian well to obtain water” (M2). In some cases, education was referred to as a primary goal: “Education, basic services, neighborhood improvement, employment. To achieve these objectives we visited different institutions. Now we have a school, access to water, paved streets and a contract manufacturing company” (M3). In others, neighborhood security was regarded as a primary goal: “Security, we asked the police for more human resources, amenities and infrastructure to improve security. They cannot prevent crime if they do not have enough staff” (V9). Other people mentioned the development of training opportunities and financial autonomy: “We have our own credit cooperative from which to obtain resources. We have a program supported by the National Service for Professional Promotion (SNPP) for technical vocational training” (C1).

As for organizational autonomy, respondents referred to the construction of solidarity from an independent perspective: “Unity, organization, struggle and an independent and combative position” (M2). ; “Resistance, the fight for the defense of territories and organization” (M1); “I think our organization is solid and consolidated” (M3). However, they also expressed their concerns about the threats that may affect organizations: “There are always political groups trying to infiltrate our organization” (M2). Respondents also suggested the need to pursue organizational integration. Likewise, they stressed the importance of establishing a participatory relationship with the State. In their words, the presence of the State does not always involve the satisfaction of demands and if so, they are partially met: “We are the ones who ask institutions for help and support, they do not come here and talk to us” (V11).

Prospects for change

The testimonies of the community leaders indicate that they have a transformative vision for their communities that guides their actions with hope for the wellbeing of the community: “Together and well organized. Political parties cannot influence our actions; however, we welcome the politics of the common good” (C3). They also expressed their willingness to maintain their organizational autonomy and independence from political parties:

“Our movement was conceived as a classist, combatant, politically independent and revolutionary organization. It always aimed to generate local interactions among the different sectors that supported the fight for land and national interactions among organizations focused on achieving social transformation. At its peak, this movement brought together 600 settlements, about 20,000 people” (M3).

According to this leader, the main problem of communities without housing is the lack of response from the State when it comes to solving land and urban housing issues and the increasing number of homeless families. This is complemented with the weakness and fractioning of organizations standing for land and housing and government and political intervention, which eventually weakened their autonomy.

The achievement of citizen rights is regarded as a political objective: “Constant mobilization and raise sensitization on citizen rights” (C1). Leaders also expressed their concerns about promoting democratic and solidary awareness among young people: “Fighting for youth awareness and the strengthening of democracy” (M2). The formalization of the organizational process and its integration as a social movement is regarded as the first step to be taken or the first weakness to be overcome: “It is difficult for us to coordinate with State institutions since we are not officially recognized by the municipality. This prevents us from accessing the basic rights outlined in the National Constitution” (V12).


Despite its precariousness, the popular urbanization process experienced in Asuncion and its metropolitan area emerges as an example of popular sovereignty against exclusion, denial, repression and constraints faced by these communities. This is an alternative urbanization process that deeply challenges the current urban development model. The latter is corroborated by the maps elaborated by this research, which show the location of poor dwellings along the floodable area of Asuncion, a space characterized by the lack of basic services for environmental sanitation and the presence of unmet needs.

As for the current situation of popular urbanization processes experienced by municipalities within the metropolitan area of Asuncion, our maps reveal high population density rates in poor urban settlements located in the municipalities within the metropolitan region of Asuncion, reaching as much as 646 inhabitants per square kilometer in some municipalities, representing 19.6 percent of the population. This situation suggests, on the one hand, the failure of the national development model, which concentrates people in large cities thus affecting bonds and labor opportunities in rural areas and smaller cities. It also reveals the lack of urban opportunities for a low income segment that cannot access the formal dwellings offered by the real estate market or State housing programs. Despite dating back to the colonial period, popular developments pose a major challenge to urban development within Asuncion and its metropolitan area. Their dimensions, increased population density, lack of services and basic sanitation have worsened the living conditions of local communities. The flood cycle of the Paraguay River, which affects riverside areas, constantly led to the precarious occupation of squares, streets, sidewalks and public areas with no space, security, privacy, and sanitation conditions.

The popular urbanization process within the metropolitan area of Asuncion includes the presence of a network of organizations consisting of different commissions, associations and mutual assistance centers which in turn are composed of local committees, councils and movements. These organizations are key players within the popular urbanization process as they manage the infrastructure, services, solidarity networks and coexistence in order to incorporate their territories and communities into the city. Apart from promoting territorial resistance, this managerial activity includes the administration of basic transport, water, lighting, security, education, culture, sport and health services, amongst others. Their strategies also involve bureaucratic management and organized mobilization to pursue their rights. This network of organizations emerges as a critical social movement that challenges the current urban development model, generating territorial inclusion alternatives for their communities.

The results of this research reveal that perspectives of change are present in the processes of organization in the popular urban development, and look to tackle the persistent traditional clientelism model of their organizations. The construction of inclusive citizenship, the achievement of citizen rights and the search for humanist urban development as an alternative to the current speculative and rent-based model are the main objectives pursued by community leaders.

The results of this research allow us to propose some recommendations for the design of public policies at national and municipal level. First, priority should be given to the strengthening and autonomy of organizational networks to promote the development of participatory urban public policies both in Asuncion and other municipalities. The popular urbanization issue cannot be resolved through the implementation of housing policies and programs as these developments provide an outlet for an even greater problem that should be tackled from the planning of nationwide territorial, economic and social development models. The concentration of population around Asuncion and the lack of integration opportunities should be addressed to improve the social, environmental, economic and cultural conditions of inhabitants and thus sustainably optimize the use of land and natural resources.

The results of this study allow us to think of new topics and questions for further research such as: the influence of community organizations on the development of public policies and programs for the regularization of occupied land, the relationship between community-based organizational management and citizen security in popular developments, the new meanings given to identity and cultural values in these territories and strategies for the implementation of educational and cultural programs in these communities.

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Received: October 12, 2018; Accepted: March 20, 2019

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