- A team of journalists followed in the footsteps of five Mennonite colonies that have been reported for clearing forests by Indigenous communities and locals in Bolivia, Colombia, México, Paraguay and Perú. Many of these cases are being investigated by prosecutors and environmental authorities.
- Authors of a recent study to understand the extension of Mennonite presence in the region say that the expansion will continue as the colonies grow in size and continue to pursue farming, creating new colonies.
- Many of these cases are being investigated by prosecutors and environmental authorities.
“They bought new land and they are cutting wood where our ancestors were,” says a source in Meta, Colombia.
“Us Mbya live from the forest, but here there’s barely anything left,” says an Indigenous local from Paraguay.
“They cut thousands of hectares,” says a member of Kabi Habin, a beekeeping cooperative in Mexico.
These testimonials have something in common. They all point to Mennonite communities as responsible for the deforestation in their territories or municipalities. Many of the people who talked to Mongabay Latam were afraid of talking publicly for fear of retaliation.
Indigenous and other local populations report that extensive areas have been deforested to introduce soy, corn and sorghum in five Latin American countries: Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico, Paraguay and Peru.
Mongabay Latam, Rutas del Conflicto, from Colombia, and El Deber, from Bolivia, teamed up and investigated these cases, first with satellite images to detect recent deforestation alerts, and then through field reporting.
More than 500 thousand deforestation alerts generated between January and October 2022 took the team of journalists to five critical points where they found forests logged without authorization, occupation of native community territories, land trafficking, threats and denounces that were filed years ago.
Different Latin American authorities have inspected the expansion of the mechanized agriculture that the Mennonites develop. The national director of the Bolivian National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA), Eulogio Núñez, confirmed in a public event that some colonies have gone beyond the limits of their property to expand their agricultural fields. He mentioned the specific case of the Valle Verde community in the San José de Chiquitos municipality. There “they tried to expand beyond what’s legal and that’s not allowed. The place where they wanted to settle is public land,” said Núñez.
What is the extension of Mennonite presence in the region? A recent study, Pious pioneers: the expansion of Mennonite colonies in Latin America, analyzes the occupation of this religious group that migrated from Europe. The map of Mennonite presence elaborated for the study calculates that there are around 214 Mennonite colonies in Latin America that “cover a total area of about 3.9 million hectares,” an area bigger than Netherlands, according to the study. The three countries with the biggest number of colonies are Bolivia (90), Mexico (65) and Paraguay (25). The Mennonites first arrived in Mexico in 1922.
The main author of the study, Yann le Polain de Waroux, researcher in the Geology Department of McGill University, Canada, told Mongabay Latam that the expansion will continue “as long as there are colonies where the value of having big families is important and so is the value of being farmers.”
“These people are going to need land and potentially they’ll have to grow and create new colonies,” he says. “There are still urges to find new land in Latin America and also outside of Latin America.”
Environmental organizations on alert
It isn’t hard to identify the presence of a Mennonite colony in a satellite image. They usually follow occupation patterns marked by new straight lines or roads from which quadrants for agricultural land open.
Carla Limas, a specialist in Geographic Information Systems with environmental organization ProPurús, has analyzed the Mennonite occupation of Ucayali in the Peruvian Amazon. She refers to the lines Mennonites created as agricultural axes “because these are the lines from which the plots emerge.” Seen from up high, these lines look like big scars in the middle of the forest.
The loss of forest cover in these colony lands has caught the attention of the environmental authorities. In the Peruvian Amazon, for example, the colonies in the regions of Ucayali and Loreto are facing investigations. All cases have something in common: the acquisition of the territory is linked to land trafficking.
One of the stories that the reporting team investigated is the case of Tiruntán in Peru. It focuses precisely on the land trafficking behind the acquisition of property and the unauthorized land use change. In addition, the investigation reveals meetings between the Mennonite colony leaders and their lawyers in the higher political spheres done to legalize their occupation.
In Paraguay, the prosecutor’s office responded to the lawsuit that an Indigenous local filed stating how a Mennonite colony’s machinery took down at least three hectares (7.4 acres) of forest and destroyed an estuary in the Pindo’i community reserve. While they wait for a sentence, more than 600 deforestation alerts indicate that forest loss continues.
The environmental authority in Colombia, Cormacarena, responded to the claims of the Sikuani Indigenous people in the department of Meta. There are three disciplinary procedures filed for logging of gallery forests and the pollution of water sources. Although the Mennonites committed to recover the affected forests, the communities claim that deforestation hasn’t stopped.
“They cut what I think is almost a hectare [2.47 acres] of trees near Itwitsulibo,” says Governor Alexander Álvarez of the Itwitsulibo Ancestral Territory.
In Mexico and Bolivia, the Mennonite communities have settled and they have bought land that’s part of the Maya rainforest and the Amazon, which has quickly become agricultural land. In Quintana Roo, Mexico, some Mennonites have allegedly become ejidatarios to achieve their goals, and in Bolivia, some environmental organizations say that they pretend to be farmers to obtain land titles and then exploit the territory. In Mexico alone, in 2018, the environmental authority determined an unauthorized land use change of at least 1,316 hectares (3251 acres) of forest.
The complaints and the land occupation patterns keep repeating themselves across the countries included in the investigation. In fact, Mennonite colonies move within the regions.
Yann le Polain de Waroux describes two examples: “I see two moves. One is by the Mexican Mennonites, from Chihuahua colonies for example, that are facing security issues, water problems and drought so they are looking for a way out. They are now in Colombia and in new colonies in Argentina,” he says. “The other one is by the Bolivian colonies, which are growing impressively. Some are in Peru and they are looking for new lands inside Bolivia but also outside.”
Banner image: Mennonites in the municipality of Bacalar, in Quintana Roo, Mexico. Image by Robín Canul.
Mongabay Latam coordinated this transnational investigation in alliance with Rutas del Conflicto, from Colombia, and El Deber, from Bolivia. This article was first published here on Mongabay’s Latam site.
General editing: Alexa Vélez.
Editors: Thelma Gómez, Michelle Carrere and María Isabel Torres.
Coordination: Vanessa Romo.
Journalist team: Yvette Sierra, Vanessa Romo and Alexa Vélez – Mongabay Latam; Natalia Brito and Pilar Puentes – Rutas del Conflicto de Colombia; Iván Paredes – El Deber de Bolivia; Aldo Benitez – Paraguay, and Valeria Contreras and Robin Canul – México.
Audiovisual productio: Richard Romero.
Photo and video: Ana María Guzmán, Hugo Alejos, Robin Canul, Juan González, Mario Silvero and Edwin Caballero.
Audience engagement and social media: Dalia Medina and Richard Romero.