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Q&A: Paraguayan Indigenous Minister Calls for Patience

Diego Cevallos interviews MARGARITA MBYVANGI* - Tierramérica

MEXICO CITY, Dec 20 2008 (IPS) - Margarita Mbyvângi, the first indigenous woman to hold a ministerial post in Paraguay, is facing charges of ineffectiveness from among her own ranks. But she is asking for time to achieve her goal: that no one will suffer the slavery and rootlessness that she experienced for nearly 20 years.

Margarita Mbyvângi  Credit: Instituto Paraguayo del Indígena

Margarita Mbyvângi Credit: Instituto Paraguayo del Indígena

Mbyvângi, who is a member of the Aché indigenous community, was named president of the Paraguayan Indigenous Institute in August, when President Fernando Lugo took office, and entrusted to fight the poverty and exclusion suffered by the more than 100,000 indigenous people in her country.

Her dream is for her “community of brothers and sisters” to obtain formal property rights to their land, learn about their rights, and become familiar with the international conventions and laws that affect them.

In a telephone interview with Tierramérica from Asunción, Mbyvângi, 47, 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, indigenous groups have held demonstrations in the Paraguayan capital to demand her resignation, because they claim that she has not responded to their demands.

“I want us to be truly free,” said the official, who is also working to complete her studies.

At age five, Mbyvângi was taken from her land and sold as a domestic worker. At 20, she decided to return to the jungle and to her people. Years later she became a tribal chief, 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 woman 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 our goals.

TIERRAMÉRICA: What are those goals? How do you envision the situation of Paraguay’s indigenous people when you finish your term? MM: I hope to reach my people. I hope we can obtain the land titles that they lack, and provide them with orientation and training on indigenous policy issues, to gain knowledge about international laws that we didn’t know about.

I want to fight to the very last for our rights. Under other governments we never had participation, the right to enter a university, the right to health or the right to organise ourselves.

I will also fight for the environment, which is the main problem facing native peoples. When the environment is destroyed, we are hit the hardest. I want to help my people organise, to defend their rights and to learn about international conventions so that they are not manipulated by non-governmental organisations. 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 who have been holding large protests, and the indigenous political movement in Ecuador? MM: I feel part of that Latin American struggle that we are winning, because it is time 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 higher-profile role that indigenous people have had in recent years has modified the exclusion they suffer? MM: No, I believe that we are still the worst off. I know that our ancestors did not suffer from hunger or cold, they didn’t have diseases, they didn’t have a need for anything. Now we are sleeping on the streets, we don’t have homes or land. We have been dispossessed of our natural environment.

They are polluting 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 1960s and 1970s, the Aché people were persecuted. They killed many of us because we lived in isolation. The children grew up in the bush, forgotten. They were grabbed and sold to other people. I was one of the girls who were sold. I was around five at the time.

Until I was 20 I had no contact with my family, and knew nothing about my people. But then I decided to look for them and I returned to my community. Now I am the leader of one of the Aché 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 on the nearly two-decade-old International Labour Organisation Convention 169 (concerning indigenous and tribal peoples)? MM: We don’t know much about these conventions. We were never able to give our views about them. Despite these agreements, we see that governments never took action. For example, we never had land rights here. 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.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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