- In 2015, three Mennonite colonies arrived in Colombia, attracting controversy due to deforestation for large-scale agriculture in protected areas and Indigenous territories.
- Residents and advocates of Indigenous communities in the Puerto Gaitán municipality of Colombia’s Meta department said Mennonite colonies have cleared their ancestral forests and threatened their leader’s lives.
- An attorney representing the region’s Mennonite colonies refuted these allegations.
- This publication is part of a journalistic alliance between Rutas del Conflicto and Mongabay Latam.
In the first half of the 20th century, Mennonite communities fled Europe for South America and, over the intervening decades, established large colonies in Latin American countries such as Mexico, Argentina, Paraguay, Peru and Bolivia. In 2015, three colonies arrived in Colombia, attracting controversy due to deforestation for large-scale agriculture in protected areas and Indigenous territories.
Leaders of the Barrulia, Tsabilonia, and Itwitsulibo Indigenous communities, located in Colombia’s Meta department, told the Mongabay Latam/Rutas del Conflicto reporting team that Mennonite colony members and other individuals have threated and intimidated them in an attempt to force Indigenous communities off their land and stop them from reclaiming land already lost. Several of these leaders requested anonymity due to safety concerns.
Satellite data and imagery visualized on Global Forest Watch show tree cover loss associated with large-scale agriculture and road-building occurring since 2015 in the area of the Liviney Mennonite Colony, located in Meta’s Puerto Gaitán municipality. Clearance appears to be ongoing, with agricultural expansion cutting into forest in as recently as the third week of March.
“They have bought new land and they cut wood where our ancestors were,” said an Indigenous resident who requested their name be withheld.
Alba Rubiela, the leader of the Indigenous Sikuani community of Barrulia, told reporters she requested protection of her community’s territory in 2017 from the Colombian National Land Agency (known by its Spanish acronym, ANT). According to Rubiela, the territory spans more than 44,000 hectares (108,726 acres) and overlaps with properties acquired by Mennonite colonies.
Rubiela said ANT granted a Protection Measure to the territory in 2018, which protected Indigenous communities from eviction by the Puerto Gaitán department of the National Police of Colombia when the Sikuani returned to the territory in January 2021. She added that Sikuani leaders are now working towards recognition as victims of violence by Colombia’s Land Restitution Unit.
“Presently, even after the signing of the  Peace Accord [that led to the demobilization of the FARC revolutionary group], another war is developing that is not [fought] with guns but rather through writing and environmental licenses, but that does take the land, this time to extract oil and produce palm oil and rubber, and also to give space to foreign communities like the Mennonites,” states a report submitted to Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace by Sikuani authorities from Puerto Gaitán and Mapiripán in March 2022. “They claim that this latest violence does not come from an armed group, but directly from the government.”
The Norman Pérez Bello Claretian Corporation works to defend Indigenous rights in Colombia. A representative from Claretian said the organization has, on two occasions, been offered money by an intermediary on behalf of Mennonite communities in exchange for stopping their work in Puerto Gaitán Indigenous territories. The representative shared an audio message with reporters in which a voice with a non-Colombian accent was heard saying “the lawyers who defend the Indigenous [people] need to be offered money; you know that no one can go against money.”
Representatives from Claretian say they have also received dozens of reports of conflict between Indigenous residents and Mennonite settlers. According to one of these reports, Itwitsulibo leader Alexander Álvarez was threatened by a leader of a Mennonite colony settled in the community of Cristalinas in 2021. The Mennonite leader allegedly told Álvarez “not to continue disturbing or bringing more people to the Itwitsulibo territory [or] they were going to send someone to kill [him] and give money to the paramilitaries so that they would kill him .”
Claretian representatives told reporters they received a report alleging that the Mennonite leader returned to the Itwitsulibo community later in 2021, accompanied by two masked individuals, and again threatened Álvarez’s life. The report stated that one of Álvarez’s children also received a phone call in which a person — “identified as the head of the paramilitary” — said that “the family was given three hours to leave the territory […] or otherwise they would be killed.”
Eight armed men allegedly entered Itwitsulibo and threatened Sikuani residents, claiming they had stolen scrap metal from adjacent Mennonite settlements, according to another 2021 report from Claretian.
Reports of conflict are not limited to 2021; community members told Mongabay that individuals entered the territory on horseback in 2022 and told residents “that they are going to finish them off, one by one.”
A 2021 investigation of Mennonite land conversion in Colombia’s Meta department by the Corporation for the Sustainable Development of the Macarena (Cormacarena) found no illegal environmental activity.
Attorney Jeny Azucena Díaz, who represents Meta Mennonite colonies in legal matters, refuted claims that Mennonites are involved in illegal activities, saying that Mennonites communities do not have crops, have not engaged in deforestation, and that “all of this is the lie of the Indigenous [residents] […] they themselves are the ones who have deforested.”
This is a translated and updated version of a story that was first reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and published here on our Latam site on Oct. 19, 2022.
Banner image of a Mennonite colony building in Meta, Colombia by Ana María Guzmán.
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