Development & Aid, Environment, Tierramerica

Paraguayan Indigenous Minister Asks for Patience

MEXICO CITY, Dec 15 2008 (IPS) - Margarita Mbyvângi faces the challenge of becoming the first woman and first indigenous person to head Paraguay's indigenous policy.

Margarita Mbyvângi - Instituto Paraguayo del Indígena

Margarita Mbyvângi - Instituto Paraguayo del Indígena

Margarita Mbyvângi, the first indigenous woman to hold a ministerial post in Paraguay, is dealing with charges of ineffectiveness from among her own ranks. But she is asking for time to achieve her goal: that nobody will return to suffering the slavery and rootlessness that she lived for nearly 20 years.

Mbyvângi, 47 and a member of the Aché indigenous community, in August became president of the Paraguayan Indigenous Institute, entrusted by President Fernando Lugo's administration to fight the poverty and exclusion of more than 100,000 indigenous people in her country.

Her dream is that her “community of brothers and sisters” obtains the property rights to their lands, receives orientation about their rights, and becomes familiar with the international laws that affect them.

In a phone interview with Tierramérica from Asunción, Mbyvângi said she can count on the complete support of the president and is confident she will be able to resolve the protests of indigenous groups.

Since mid-November, some indigenous groups have mobilized in the Paraguayan capital to demand her resignation, because they claim that Mbyvângi has not responded to their claims.

“I want us to be truly free,” said the official, who is also working to complete her studies. At age five she was taken from her land and sold as a domestic worker. At 20, she decided to return to the jungle and to her town. Years later she became the chief of her people, and in the last elections was a candidate for senator.

TIERRAMÉRICA: There are more and more indigenous groups that accuse you of being ineffective. How do you respond to the opposition?

MARGARITA MBYVÂNGI: I am the first indigenous woman minister in Paraguay and the first women in this post. I will continue as long as I have the backing of President Fernando (Lugo). I was never involved in party politics, in the politics of dirty games, and now I ask for patience from those who protest so that I can meet the goals we have.

TIERRAMÉRICA: What are those goals? What do you imagine the situation of Paraguay's indigenous peoples to be when you finish your term?

MM: I hope to reach my people, that we can obtain all the land documentation that my people don't have, and obtain orientation and training on indigenous policy issues, to have knowledge about international laws that we didn't know about.

I want to fight until the end for our rights. In other governments we never had participation, the right to enter a university, the right to health or the right to organize ourselves.

I will also fight for the environment, which is the main problem confronting the native peoples. When the environment is devastated, we are the ones most harmed. I want to help my people organize, to defend their rights and to know about international conventions so that they are not manipulated by non-governmental organizations. We want to be truly free.

TIERRAMÉRICA: Do you feel you are part of that current of indigenous people in the forefront, such as the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, the native Colombians with their recent mobilizations and the political force of the Ecuadorian Indians?

MM: I feel part of that Latin American struggle that we are winning, because it is the moment to stand up and say that we, too, are capable of governing and of demonstrating our intelligence.

The indigenous peoples of Latin America are honest and we are always going to carry that banner. Now that we are in the institutions of government we have to show that we are different.

TIERRAMÉRICA: Do you think the protagonist role that indigenous peoples have had in recent years has changed the general situation of exclusion?

MM: No, I believe that in this era we continue to be the worst off. I know that our ancestors did not feel hunger or cold, they didn't have diseases, the didn't have need for anything. Now we are sleeping in the street: we don't have homes or land. We have been dispossessed of our natural environment.

They are contaminating the water and air, and my brothers and sisters are dying from this. If we don't fight now for our lives, for the water and the environment, everything is going to get worse.

TIERRAMÉRICA: You yourself lived in a situation of exclusion. What was your experience like?

MM: In the year 1960 and 70, my Aché people were persecuted. The killed many because we lived in isolation. The children grew up in the forest, forgotten. They were grabbed and sold to other people. Among those girls who were sold was me. I was five when the sold me.

It went on until I was 20, without communication with my family, without knowing anything about my Aché people, but after that I decided to look for them and I returned to my community. Now I am the leader of one of my communities and that is how I began the fight of my people. My life was difficult. I was like a slave.

TIERRAMÉRICA: What importance do you place on the approval of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the existence, for nearly two decades of the Convention 169 (concerning indigenous and tribal peoples) of the International Labor Organization?

MM: We don't know much about those conventions. We were never able to give our opinions about them. With those agreements we see that the government never took action. For example, here we never had land rights. Nor do we know who made those agreements. We weren't asked for our opinions. I never saw the conventions beforehand. But now we will evaluate them and we will see.

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