News & Current Affairs

August 19, 2008

Paraguayan Indian named minister

Paraguayan Indian named minister

Margarita Mbywangi in Asuncion in March 2008

Margarita Mbywangi pledged to serve all indigenous communities

An indigenous woman in Paraguay who says she was sold into forced labor as a girl has been made minister for indigenous affairs.

Margarita Mbywangi, a 46-year-old Ache tribal chief, is the first indigenous person to hold the position.

She has been an activist for many years, defending her tribe’s interests.

She was appointed by the new president, Fernando Lugo, who was sworn in on Friday, ending more than 60 years of government by the Colorado Party.

The new president, a former Catholic bishop, seems keen to demonstrate a decisive break with the past, through his ministerial appointments.

‘Forced labor’

But some Indian leaders have voiced fears Ms Mbywangi will give preferential treatment to her own tribe.

The mother-of-three promised to meet those who opposed her appointment, in order to ease their concerns.

“We are immediately going to help colleagues from different communities who are experiencing a difficult situation due to lack of potable water, food and clothing,” she told local Channel 2 television.

The new minister said that as a four-year-old girl she was captured in the jungle and was sold several times into forced labor with the families of large land owners.

She told the television station that she had also been sent to school, so she could read and write, and was now studying for a high school diploma.

The new minister also identified indigenous land rights as a priority, as well as protecting forests.

For an Indian the forest represents “his mother, his life, his present and future”, she said.

About 90,000 people say they belong to one of Paraguay’s estimated 400 Indian communities, in what is one of Latin America’s poorest countries, according to government figures.

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