Elections in Paraguay: Indigenous Woman on Course for Senate

ASUNCIÓN, Apr 17 (IPS) – An indigenous woman has an excellent chance of winning a seat in Congress for the first time in the history of Paraguay, in Sunday’s general elections.

Margarita Mbyvângi, a "cacique" or tribal chief of the Aché people, is second on the list of Senate candidates for Tekojoja (Equality), a leftwing movement belonging to the opposition alliance backing former Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo, the presidential candidate who is leading the polls.

According to the latest opinion polls, 7.8 percent of interviewees in different parts of the country plan to vote for Tekojoja’s senate list, which would secure at least two of the 45 seats in the upper house for the movement.

More than 2.8 million Paraguayans are registered to vote on Sunday, to elect the country’s president and vice president, 45 senators, 80 members of the lower house, 17 governors, 214 provincial lawmakers, and 18 members of the Mercosur (Southern Common Market) Parliament.

The presidential candidates are Lugo of the centre-left Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC), Blanca Ovelar of the governing Colorado Party, former general and coup leader Lino Oviedo, conservative businessman Pedro Fadul and several candidates representing smaller parties.

The aspiring indigenous senator is preceded on her party list by small farmer Sixto Pereira, one of the founders of the movement that first promoted Lugo’s candidacy, and the alternate would be Catalino Sosa, of the Mbya Guaraní people.

Mbyvângi is a leader of the Kuêtuvy community, 157 kilometres into the jungle from the capital of the northern province of Canindeyú, and she is president of the Aché Association of Paraguay, made up of seven indigenous villages with 1,200 residents.

"The government has forgotten about us, we are dying off, and they are killing our forests," Mbyvângi told IPS. She said her candidacy "is a very important opportunity" to help not only her own people, but all the indigenous communities in the country. "It’s a very big responsibility, and it will also be a challenge to go into politics for the first time," she added.

Mbyvângi said she has an in-depth understanding of the needs of indigenous people, and of the deprivation and needs of other poor Paraguayans. Official estimates say 35 percent of the country’s more than six million people are living below the poverty line.

Hit hardest by poverty and marginalisation are indigenous people, who are divided into 17 ethnic groups and make up 1.6 percent of the Paraguayan population, according to the last official census in 2002.

The candidate, who is trained as a nurse, said that one of her major tasks will be to promote health in the native communities, which are highly vulnerable to diseases spread by the non-indigenous population.

The Aché community was one of the last indigenous groups in Paraguay to establish contact with the rest of Paraguayan society.

Their ancestral territory was the tropical jungle in eastern Paraguay, and in the 1970s they were the victims of brutal harassment by small farmers who took over their land for logging.

A large part of the population was killed, and their children were kidnapped and sold as domestic labour to families owning large estates.

Mbyvângi herself underwent this experience. In 1972, when she was "about five years old" and lived in the jungle with her people, she was kidnapped and sold to a family in the province of Alto Paraná for 5,000 guaraníes, just over a dollar at today’s rate of exchange.

At the age of 20 she got back in touch with her people through an evangelistic religious group, and she decided to leave her life in the city and return to her community to relearn their traditions and culture.

Six years ago she was elected cacique, after having participated in the National Constituent Assembly in 1992, where with other indigenous groups she managed to get important ethnic rights included in Paraguay’s new constitution.

Rejoining her community was difficult, Mbyvângi recalled. "It was very hard to go back to the jungle, but in time I learned to value the process. They taught me my customs and my language again. That helped me a great deal; it was like coming alive again," she said.

Last year she led a fierce struggle for the state to grant her community 2,158 hectares near Villa Ygatimí, 360 kilometres northeast of Asunción, on the border with Brazil.

Some 300 indigenous people set up makeshift camps in a public square in the Paraguayan capital for nearly three months, until Congress finally passed a law granting them title to the land to which they lay claim.

Access to land, technical assistance for farming, health and education are long-standing demands of indigenous peoples, according to the 2007 Human Rights report by the Paraguayan Human Rights Coordination (CODEHUPY), which emphasises that 45 percent of native people lack permanent, legal land settlements, as mandated by the constitution.

"In spite of a clear and favourable legal framework for restoring territories to indigenous peoples, and the relative simplicity of the solution in financial and political terms, the state has made no progress in this direction in recent years," anthropologist Rodrigo Villagra told IPS.

On the contrary, it simply denies the existence of the problem, he said.

"Indigenous people in the Chaco region are claiming only three percent (about 750,000 hectares) of their ancestral lands, and those in the eastern region are claiming less than one-quarter of that, which should not cost more than 50 million dollars to buy back from the present owners," he said.

A report last year by Survival International, a movement for tribal peoples, placed Paraguay among the 10 worst violators of indigenous rights, along with Indonesia, Australia, Canada, the United States, New Zealand, Botswana, Brazil, Peru and Malaysia.

If she is elected to the Senate, Mbyvângi said she will promote comprehensive agrarian reform to create a balance "in this country, where the distribution of land is scandalously weighted" in favour of large landowners.