Will of God or ecological catastrophe? Mexico tackles Mennonite deforestation

By Cassandra Garrison

VALLE NUEVO, Mexico (Reuters) – North America’s largest rainforest offers picture-perfect rows of corn and soybeans. Light-haired, blue-eyed women in wide-brimmed hats race down a dirt road in horse-drawn carriages, past simple brick houses and a whitewashed schoolhouse: a Mennonite community in southern Mexico.

Here in the state of Campeche on the Yucatan Peninsula, on the northern edge of the Mayan forest, Mennonites say they live by traditional pacifist values ​​and that expanding farms to provide a simple life for their families is the will of God.

In the eyes of environmentalists and now the Mexican government, which once hailed their agricultural prowess, the Mennonite farms are an environmental disaster that is rapidly razing the jungle, one of the continent’s greatest carbon sinks and a haven for jaguars in Endangered.

Smaller than the Amazon, the Mayan Forest is shrinking by an area the size of Dallas every year, according to Global Forest Watch, a nonprofit organization that monitors deforestation.

The government of President Andres Manuel Lopez is now pressuring Mennonites to adopt more sustainable practices, but despite an agreement between some Mennonite settlements and the government, ongoing land clearing was visible in two villages visited by Reuters in February and may.

Farmers like Isaak Dyck Thiessen, a leader of the Chavi Mennonite settlement, are struggling to adapt.

“Our people just want to be left alone,” he said, standing on a shaded doorstep to escape the unforgiving afternoon sun. Beyond his manicured farmhouse rose the green wall of the rainforest.

In search of land and isolation, the Mennonites – for whom agricultural labor is a fundamental tenet of their Christian faith – grew in number and spread into remote areas of Mexico after arriving from Canada in the early 20th century. century.

Although they shun electricity and other modern conveniences away from work, their agriculture has evolved to include bulldozers and chainsaws as well as tractors and harvesters.

In Campeche, where the Mennonites arrived in the 1980s, about 8,000 km2 of forest, or almost a fifth of the state’s tree cover, has been lost in the past 20 years, with 2020 being the worst ever recorded, according to Global Forest Watch.

Groups including palm oil producers and cattle herders are also engaging in widespread land clearing. Data on the extent of deforestation caused by Mennonite settlers and the extent of deforestation by other groups are not readily available.

A 2017 study, led by Mexico’s Universidad Veracruzana, found that Mennonite-owned properties in Campeche had deforestation rates four times higher than non-Mennonite properties.

The clearing contrasts with the traditions of indigenous farmers who have been turning corn and harvesting forest products such as honey and natural rubber since Mayan cities dominated the Yucatan jungle in El Salvador.

Itself under international pressure to pursue a greener agenda, in August the government persuaded some Mennonite settlements in Campeche to sign an agreement to stop land deforestation.

Not all towns signed up.

FIRE AND SAWS

On the outskirts of the remote village of Valle Nuevo, Reuters reporters saw farmers clearing jungle and setting fires to prepare for planting.

Jacob Harder, Jr., a Mennonite teacher from Valle Nuevo, said the agreement had no impact on how Valle Nuevo approaches agriculture.

“We haven’t changed anything,” Harder said.

Chief Dyck Thiessen and a lawyer representing some communities and farmers said Mennonites, who take a pacifist approach to conflict, have felt attacked and scapegoated by government efforts.

Jose Uriel Reyna Tecua, the lawyer, said they were unfairly blamed as the government pays less attention to others who deforest.

At a meeting last year, Agustin Avila, a senior official with the federal environment ministry, warned villagers that the army could be brought into the area to prevent deforestation if communities did not change their ways. , said Reyna Tecua.

“It was the direct threat,” said Reyna Tecua.

In response to a Reuters question about Avila’s alleged comments, the environment ministry denied any mention of the use of the military, saying the government was operating on the basis of dialogue.

Carlos Tucuch, head of the Campeche office of Mexico’s National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR), told Reuters the government was not targeting Mennonites and was also tackling other causes of deforestation.

THE SOUTH MOVE

Mennonites trace their roots to a group of Christian radicals in 16th century Germany and surrounding areas who emerged in opposition to both Roman Catholic doctrine and the dominant Protestant religions during the Reformation.

In the 1920s, a group of about 6,000 people moved to northern Mexico and established themselves as a major crop producer.

Still speaking Plautdietsch – a mixture of Low German, Prussian dialects and Dutch – a few thousand people settled in the forests of Campeche in the 1980s. They bought and leased tracts of jungle, some belonging to indigenous communities local Mayans. Others have arrived in recent years as climate change has worsened drought in the north.

In 1992, legislation made it easier to develop, lease, or sell previously protected forests, increasing deforestation and the number of farms in the state.

When Mexico opened up the use of genetically modified soybeans in the 2000s, Mennonites in Campeche embraced the cultivation and use of Roundup glyphosate weed killer, designed to work with GMO crops, according to Edward Ellis, a researcher at the Universidad Veracruzana.

Higher returns mean more income to support large families – 10 children is not unusual – and live a simple life supported by the land, said historian Royden Loewen, explaining that colonies often invest up to 90 % of profits to buy land.

At least five Mennonites who spoke to Reuters said they wanted to acquire more land for their families.

While most Mexican Mennonites remain in the north, there are now between 14,000 and 15,000 in Campeche spread over approximately 20 settlements.

“If God grants you, then you grow,” said Dyck Thiessen, who attended government meetings but did not sign the agreement.

FORESTRY TOLL

The Mennonites largely maintain a strained peace with the local indigenous communities who serve as guardians of the surrounding forest but also rent out equipment to their new neighbors for their own lands.

“With them, we started to have access to machines. We see that it gives us results”, says Wilfredo Chicav, 56, Mayan farmer.

Such advances in agricultural efficiency have taken a toll on the Mayan forest, which is home to wildlife that includes up to 400 species of birds.

Its 100 species of mammals include the jaguar, which is threatened with extinction in Mexico if its habitat shrinks, the forest commission’s Tucuch said.

Between 2001 and 2018, the three states that make up Mexico’s forest lost about 15,000 km2 of tree cover, an area that would cover much of El Salvador.

This leads to a shorter rainy season. Farmers used to time planting for the first of May, now they often wait until July because less forest means less rain catchment, leading to less moisture uptake in the air and a decreased rainfall, Tucuch said.

Campeche Environment Secretary Sandra Laffon said Mennonites in the state don’t always have the right paperwork to turn the forest into farmland.

Reyna Tecua acknowledged problems with land purchases. Families sometimes fall victim to deals based on a handshake and a verbal word, and sellers can take advantage of this by promising land that is not for sale legally, he said.

The agreement signed last year created a permanent working group between the government and Mennonite communities to try to resolve issues of permits, land ownership and administrative and criminal complaints brought against them by local people, including for illegal logging.

Laffon said there were signs the deal was having an impact. Data from Global Forest Watch showed a decrease in deforestation in Campeche in 2021, but said this could be the result of factors such as a lack of remaining land suitable for agriculture and government incentive programs, which include a national program popular with indigenous Mayan farmers that rewards tree planting.

Mennonite leaders are asking for a government proposal that will not drastically reduce their production, Reyna Tecua said. A government plan to phase out glyphosate by 2024 is the biggest worry for many, he said.

However, lower production may be a price farmers, including Mennonites, must pay to protect the environment, Laffon said.

“We are about to have to sacrifice our position ‘as Mexico’s second largest grain producer’ for a healthier Campeche,” she said.

Raising his cap to wipe the sweat from his brow, Dyck Thiessen, the Mennonite leader, doubted the government’s proposed organic methods would work. Tension with authorities has stalled his plans to acquire more land, he said.

Yet he has faith.

“If the government shuts us down,” he says, “God will open us up.”

(Reporting by Cassandra Garrison; Additional reporting by Adrian Virgen and Jose Luis Gonzalez; Editing by Stephen Eisenhammer and Frank Jack Daniel)

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