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Mennonites said to deforest ancestral Indigenous land in Colombia

  • Environmental authorities and Indigenous groups accuse a Mennonite community, members of an Anabaptist Protestant sect, of destroying forests and polluting water sources in the Altillanura high plains of eastern Colombia.
  • Authorities say the Mennonites have burned 135 hectares (333 acres) of riverbank forest since arriving in the region in 2016.
  • Indigenous Sikuani communities say the Mennonites have taken over their ancestral lands and driven away the native wildlife and fish with their farming activities and intensive use of agrochemicals.
  • The Mennonite colony is one of many that left Mexico in recent years and settled in other Latin American countries, including Peru and Bolivia, where they have also been accused of environmental violations.

This report is a partnership between Mongabay Latam, Rutas del Conflicto and La Liga Contra el Silencio.

In Colombia’s Meta department, a stretch of several miles of reddish, arable land is home to a Mennonite community. For six years, this Protestant sect has built roads and installed 41 kilometers (25 miles) of lighting across more than 29,000 hectares (71,600 acres) that they’ve acquired. Indigenous Sikuani communities living nearby say these activities have caused environmental damage on land that they claim as ancestral territory since 2017.

The Mennonites live separately from the local population. They’re of European origin and speak clumsy Spanish, and live in houses that wouldn’t look out of place in the suburban United States. The main property, where the Mennonites host visitors, is Liviney, a 1,000-hectare (2,500-acre) estate. The house is surrounded by flowers and small trees, said to be the Mennonites’ way of taking care of the environment.

Outsiders may only enter if accompanied by a Mennonite; visits must be brief and in the presence of the lawyer who advises the community. The community members say they don’t speak Spanish and that it’s difficult for them to communicate with the authorities and with the locals and Indigenous people who have lived here long before they arrived. But on the occasions when they need to defend themselves against accusations of land grabbing or environmental damage, their leaders speak fluent Spanish with a mix of German and Mexican accents.

No one can explain how the Mennonites, who arrived from Mexico, chose to settle in this high plains region of Colombia known as the Altillanura, an area historically overlooked by the state and the media. Puerto Gaitán, the municipality where they settled, was the scene of paramilitary violence for more than three decades during Colombia’s civil war; a training camp used by the paramilitary group Autodefensas Campesinas de Meta y Vichada (ACMV) sat in a lot adjacent to the land now occupied by the Mennonites.

Las colonias menonitas salieron de México hacia Perú y Bolivia, en 2016 llegaron a la Orinoquía de Colombia. Foto: Rutas del Conflicto.
Mennonite colonies have left Mexico in recent years and settled in Peru and Bolivia, as well as in the Orinoco region of Colombia in 2016. Image by Rutas del Conflicto.

Grid electricity and piped water only came to this area in 2007, and there are still no roads to transport farm harvests to market. But this didn’t deter the Mennonites; according to a Mennonite individual who asked not to be identified, the community ran out of land in Chihuahua, Mexico, and needed to start a new colony.

For this report, Rutas del Conflicto, Mongabay Latam and La Liga Contra el Silencio investigated complaints filed with departmental authorities against the Mennonites. Officials are examining the possibility of sanctioning and suing the community for environmental violations. Other Mennonite communities face similar deforestation claims in other Latin American countries.

Complaints of environmental violations

Abram Loewen, a Mennonite leader in the area, speaks slowly and is attentive to his visitors, but there’s a hint of suspicion when he answers. Sitting in front of his house with his hands braced against the back of his neck, he says that when his community arrived at the Liviney estate, they found grassland suitable for growing crops. “We don’t touch the forests. There they are,” he said, pointing to a small row of trees separating the estate from other land.

But complaints about burning and logging have reached the Puerto Gaitán municipal environmental authority and the Meta departmental environment office (Cormacarena).

The Indigenous Sikuani people have voiced the greatest concerns. Several Sikuani communities displaced or persecuted by settlers and the military returned to this area between 2009 and 2011. After reclaiming their territory, these Indigenous communities began to note the absence of the wildlife and fish they were used to seeing in the plains and the rivers. The smell of burning and clouds of smoke alerted them to an issue.

Los menonitas en Colombia tienen extensos cultivos de arroz, soya y maíz. Foto: Rutas del Conflicto.
The Mennonites in Colombia have established extensive rice, soy and corn crops. Image by Rutas del Conflicto.

“We live from hunting and fishing; [the Mennonites’] crops are very close to the canals,” said an Indigenous leader who is not being identified to protect their identity. (The leader is under government protection due to threats.) “The water is contaminated and the fish don’t return,” they added. “We have to take water from these streams that are drying up.”

On March 16, 2021, the Puerto Gaitán Environmental Secretariat visited the site following a complaint of logging of gallery forests, which grow along riverbanks. “The municipality’s environmental police referred the case to us and we went with Cormacarena [the departmental environmental authority] to see the two properties that were said to be damaged,” said Ninfa Novoa, an environmental engineer with the secretariat.

During the visit, officials photographed the plows used for farming as well as several fallen trees used for road construction on the properties. According to the Indigenous inhabitants, they did not receive any further information from the authorities after their visit on any actions that they would take. Despite this, the Sikuani leaders continued to warn them about the burning, logging and construction of bridges over streams that were taking place.

Satellite images of land-use changes: in 2015, one year before the arrival of the Mennonites, and in 2021. Environmental authorities allege the Mennonites deforested 135 hectares (333 acres).

Cormacarena’s preliminary investigation indicates that the Mennonites allegedly burned 42 hectares (104 acres) of forest, an area equivalent to 70 soccer fields. Although at the time of the inspection the land should have been recovering from the burning and application of insecticides and other effects of monoculture farming, the Mennonite colony of Puerto Gaitán had already begun to prepare the soil for planting. Their justification for preparing the land early for soy, rice and corn crops was the early onset of the rainy season.

The environmental authorities returned on March 24, 2021, and found that the land had been burned. “They were burning [the land], which is where we have observed most of the damage to the native forests,” Cormacarena director Daniel Felipe García said in an interview with La W radio.

That same day, a meeting was held to establish environmental commitments for the Mennonite community. According to the minutes of the meeting, said they had “observed alterations in the natural resources.” The community, the added, “commits to complying with the laws, decrees and resolutions regarding the preservation, conservation and protection of the environment.”

During that second visit, Cormacarena officials estimated that the affected area was much larger, totaling 135 hectares (333 acres) of gallery forest. That’s why the Mennonites are now facing three lawsuits for indiscriminate logging and open burning of land, which are in the judicial review stage. In response to a right of petition, Cormacarena said it already has a technical concept demonstrating the environmental impacts derived from these interventions in the Liviney and Campo Alegre properties, but the decision has not yet been announced.

“We are here to settle,” was the Mennonites’ response, referring to any financial compensation that would be ordered if they were found guilty of any of the administrative processes.

En territorios apartados de Colombia han logrado instalar su propio alumbrado. Foto: Rutas del Conflicto.
The Mennonites have managed to install their own lighting in this remote area of Colombia. Image by Rutas del Conflicto.

Investigation under way

The leaders of the Mennonite colony and their lawyer, Yenny Díaz, deny burning or cutting down the forest. But findings from a Cormacarena investigation initiated in April 2020 against a leader of the sect show concrete evidence.

During a visit by Cormacarena officials to the community’s lands on April 30, 2020, to verify their timber harvesting permits, officials found two people cutting down native trees up to 20 meters (66 feet) in height. Due to this and other findings, Cormacarena’s investigation is focused on the logging and burning of 93 hectares (230 acres) in Campo Alegre, a 6,200-hectare (15,300-acre) property adjacent to the Liviney estate that sits on ancestral land claimed by Sikuani Indigenous communities.

A technical report drafted by the officials who visited the affected area documents their findings of abandoned logs and young trees, along with the confiscation of machinery and suspension of permits as a result.

The mayor’s office in Puerto Gaitán and Cormacarena initiated conversations with the Mennonite community until May 2021 to determine how many trees and which native species should be planted, insisting that sanctions are imminent. However, they haven’t announced the agreement they reached or released documents stating any sanctions yet.

Novoa, the Puerto Gaitán Environmental Secretariat official, said that anyone who exploits natural resources must compensate for their use. “We established that they would reforest the places they had impacted,” she said.

But reforestation is not that simple and takes a long time, say biologists Tania González from the National University of Colombia and Pablo Stevenson from New York University. “It is presumed that it may take 200 to 300 years for the forests to fully recover,” Stevenson said.

Time is not the only factor at play. González said planting trees requires rigorous studies and care that begins with rehabilitating the soil. In addition, there is a high probability that the new trees will die because of the persistent environmental threats in their surroundings.

Logging and burning of gallery forests

Colombia’s eastern region of Orinoquía, in particular the Altillanura high plains, is made up of extensive savannas and patches of gallery forest. Over the last seven years or so, these savannas have expanded due to deforestation.

“When humans burn and help destroy the forests, savannas are created. Few trees grow and more fires can occur. Generating a forest is very complicated,” Stevenson said.

The destruction of these forests means a change in land use. According to an Indigenous leader, the Mennonite community in Puerto Gaitán arrived with logging machines in 2016. “I went in and saw [the machinery] on the properties. Some plowing, others making tracks and others burning grass to grow crops. Our sacred sites are being changed,” he said.

La colonia menonita en Masisea, Perú, se dedica actualmente al cultivo de arroz y soya. Foto: Sebastián Castañeda.
A Mennonite colony in Masisea, Peru, is now growing rice and soy. Image by Sebastián Castañeda.

In a 2014 document, the National Council for Economic and Social Policy, the government’s advisory body for development, identified 2.8 million hectares (7 million acres) of land with farming potential in the Altillanura. However, tensions between Indigenous communities and companies cultivating soy, corn and rice are increasing due to the environmental impacts on the territory.

The Mennonites are not the only ones to have been sanctioned; Colombia Agro, founded by former executives of the multinational Cargill, is facing criminal proceedings for environmental damage in the municipality of Cumaribo in the department of Vichada.

Burning land to plant monocultures has major impacts on the ecosystems of the Orinoquía, which comprises the watershed of the Orinoco River. Here, gallery forests grow near rivers and streams, and protect the ecosystem in times of drought. These forests “supply fresh water and harbor nutrients for the fauna and flora that inhabit the region,” González said.

The felling of these trees has repercussions on the wildlife and the fish that the Indigenous communities depend on for sustenance. “In the Muco channel we used to see peacock bass, cachama and bocon toadfish, which is a very large fish. But at the moment we don’t see anything. Nor have the terecay turtles returned,” an Indigenous leader said.

La comunidad nativa Caimito, en Perú, ha perdido por lo menos 200 hectáreas de bosques primarios, aseguran los líderes indígenas. Foto: Sebastián Castañeda.
The Indigenous community in Caimito in Peru has lost at least 200 hectares (500 acres) of primary forest, according to Indigenous leaders. Image by Sebastián Castañeda.

Juan Manuel Rengifo, a biologist from the National University’s Observatory of Socioenvironmental Conflicts, another impact of the gallery forests being cut is the loss of important ecological corridors for wildlife to move through. “In a natural environment as fragmented as our country’s, this role is key in connecting natural areas and ecosystems. And it’s even more important in the Altillanura, where forest cover does not predominate,” Rengifo said.

Stevenson said logging breaks up the Orinoco ecosystem and results in another major consequence: CO2 emissions. One of the main natural functions of these forests is carbon sequestration, which helps tackle climate change. “Gallery forests are going to be much more effective in capturing CO2 from the environment than a savanna. They are as important as those in the Amazon,” Stevenson said.

When burning occurs, such as the fires allegedly set by the Mennonites between 2020 and 2021, trees known as yarumos can grow quickly, providing shade for other species to grow that can’t tolerate direct sunlight. However, yarumos are known for their fragile wood and hollow stems, which make them less effective at storing carbon than other species.

In the village of La Cristalina, where the Mennonite community lives, soybean and corn crops stretch across the horizon. A few tall trees remain, but the locals say they will disappear when the planting spreads. The Sikuani people have seen the change in the quality of stream waters; they have also witnessed the disappearance of deer, anteaters and white-lipped peccaries, known as cajuches, many of them scared off by the noise of the farming machines.

José Manuel Ochoa, coordinator of the biodiversity evaluation and monitoring program at the Humboldt Institute, said animals such as anteaters leave these disturbed ecosystems due to the loss of forest. “Anteaters spend most of their time in the savannas looking for food, but must return to the forest at night for protection. Many species need the forests to protect themselves from climate change,” he said.

Una escena que se repite en el territorio donde se ha establecido la colonia menonita en Masisea, Perú. Foto: Sebastián Castañeda.
Farming activity in Masisea, Peru, where a Mennonite community has settled. Image by Sebastián Castañeda.

Not an isolated incident

Holding a folder containing permits from Cormacarena, Yenny Díaz, the Mennonites’ lawyer, says all accusations of logging and burning are false. “This is a media setup. The Indigenous people are the ones setting the fires,” she said.

But if the allegations are true, this won’t be an isolated incident. Mongabay Latam has reported how another Mennonite community, also from Mexico, deforested areas in Peru to plant soy, corn and sunflower crops. The Mennonites arrived in Peru in 2016, the same year their peers arrived in Colombia. “We left there because we needed more countryside to live in,” said a member of the sect in Peru.

The Mennonites didn’t mention that they also face legal proceedings in Mexico for water exploitation and indiscriminate logging. The Attorney General’s Office for Environmental Protection of the state of Quintana Roo in southern Mexico alleges that at least 80% of the land in the control of these communities was ravaged, for which the Mennonite leaders face sanctions.

The Mexican Attorney General’s Office also said that one of the main obstacles in dealing with deforestation caused by this community is the remoteness of the devastated areas. That’s the same problem identified by the director of Cormacarena, Daniel Felipe García, to explain the Colombian case: “It is an area that is difficult to access even for us. We have visited the areas when we have been warned,” he told La W radio.

It’s not just forests in Peru, Mexico and Colombia that have been affected. In August 2020, a strange die-off of fish occurred in Laguna Concepción, a protected lake and wetland in Bolivia. Mongabay Latam reported that a Mennonite community there had extended its property into the reserve without authorization and diverted water to grow rice.

Bolivian authorities found sodium phosphate in the lake, a product of the Mennonites’ intensive cultivation. The Sikuani Indigenous people in Colombia also report an absence of fish in the streams of La Cristalina following the intensive farming activities of the Mennonites and their use of the herbicide glyphosate on their rice crops.

These controversial farming practices have been repeated by Mennonite colonies throughout Latin America. The Sikuani communities, meanwhile, are currently partway through a process with the National Land Agency to be handed back the land they consider their ancestral territory. “We don’t want [the Mennonites] to damage any more land because then it is useless. We want to return to our sacred sites, where our ancestors are buried,” said one of the Indigenous leaders.

Banner image by @camilovargas.designer.

This article was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on May 31, 2021.

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