The Mennonites of Paraguay (with Photos)


 

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This is the full version of the original article.The third in a series on Paraguay’s Chaco region features the local Mennonite communities. The first focused on Filadelfia, the area’s largest town, and the second on the rural Chaco. The final post highlighted the local indigenous community. Enjoy photos and stories from one of Paraguay’s most intriguing places.

Paraguay’s remote western region, the Chaco, boasts a diverse mix of Mennonite, Spanish, Brazilian, and indigenous Guarani influences. The approximately 60,000 to 80,000 Mennonites in Paraguay who live in large communities, or “colonies,” dominate the local culture. Its distinctly German flavor was introduced to the country by Russian Mennonites of Germanic descent who emigrated from the former Soviet Union in the late 1920s and early 1930s to avoid persecution under Stalinism. Other Mennonite communities migrated to Paraguay between 1929 and 1932 from Canada, Germany, and the United States. The Fernheim, Menno, and Neuland colonies settled near present-day Filadelfia in 1930, and have since grown to more than 10,000 members. Most are farmers with large ranches (estancias) that produce a variety of agricultural products, including beef, dairy products, and other foodstuffs.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Mennonites (3)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Mennonites (8)

The Mennonites’ arrival in the Chaco coincided with the rise in tensions between Paraguay and its neighbor, Bolivia. Eager to solidify the country’s hold on the sparsely populated region, the Paraguayan government granted in the 1930s large parcels of Chaco land to the Mennonites on the condition that they establish a permanent presence there. The Bolivians, who coveted the Chaco for oil-producing potential that never materialized, invaded it in 1932 and fought the three-year Chaco War with Paraguay. More than 80,000 Bolivians and 50,000 Paraguayans died in the conflict that ended with Bolivia’s defeat. Although the pacifist Mennonites did not fight, the food they cultivated kept the Paraguayan troops fed.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (15)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (16)

The Mennonites struggled to survive in the 1930s and 1940s. An inhospitable, semiarid environment with little rainfall and poor soil made life difficult for the early settlers as they domesticated the land. Travel overland to Paraguay’s capital, Asunción, before the construction of the Trans-Chaco Highway in the late 1950s, was an odyssey that left the remote colonies isolated from the outside world. Indigenous groups such as the Guarani resisted encroachment by their new neighbors and fought occasional skirmishes with the settlers. The Mennonites and the indigenous learned to co-exist peacefully, and many indigenous now work for the colonies. After years of toil, the Mennonites transformed the area into one of the country’s most productive agricultural regions.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Mennonites (1)

The Mennonite’s cooperatives (cooperativas) are among Paraguay’s largest enterprises. Closely affiliated with the local Mennonite Church, they manage the colonies’ commercial interests. Their operations and logistics networks are brilliantly efficient. They provide farmers with enriched animal feed, transport raw milk from farms to dairy plants, transform milk into dairy products, process foodstuffs, and ship finished goods to market on gravel roads that they maintain. The cooperatives also operate service businesses, including hotels, restaurants, gas stations, hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, and shopping centers that cater to the Mennonite communities. Fernheim Colony’s cooperative, the country’s best known, also runs an experimental farm that incubates and crossbreeds cash crops capable of the surviving in the Chaco. The power and influence of the cooperatives is astounding, although one would not know it at first glance. The low-profile associations are opaque operations whose sole purpose is to serve the Mennonites.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Mennonites (4)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Mennonites (6)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Mennonites (7)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Mennonites (5)

The Mennonite culture emphasizes hard work, a simple life, and strict adherence to its religious beliefs. Unlike their Amish cousins, Mennonites embrace the use of technology when it improves their productivity, and they dress in plain, functional clothing. Most men wear short-sleeve cotton shirts and khaki pants or jeans; women usually wear dresses to church and pants on the farm. Most marry within the community, while those who marry non-Mennonites tend to leave the colony. As a result, offspring tend to look Germanic than Hispanic, indigenous, or mixed. It is common to see someone with blond hair and blue eyes walking around Filadelfia. Mennonites also prefer to speak Plattdeutsch, an old variant of Low German, to Spanish or Guaraní, Paraguay’s official languages. It’s easy for those who visit the Chaco to see the cultural divide between the Mennonites and non-Mennonites. While many indigenous and Brasiguayos, or Brazilian migrants living in Paraguay, work with the Mennonites on the estancias, they tend to live separately. Mennonites and other groups seem to frequent restaurants, stores, and services that caters to one or the other. Mennonite activities tend to focus on the church, while non-Mennonites enjoy pastimes such as soccer (fútbol) and public gatherings such as barbeques (asados). This tendency is reinforced more by tradition and preference than overt discrimination.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Mennonites (2)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Mennonites

A visit to the Chaco is worth the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the Mennonite culture set against a backdrop of the “Wild West” of South America. It’s a remarkable journey back in time to a simpler age.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Mennonites (9)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Mennonites (10)

Special thanks to Juliette Wade for hosting the original post on her blog, TalkToYoUniverse as part of the Writers’ International Cultural Share. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in this great forum where writers can share their cultural experiences and insights from around the world.

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Paraguay


Click here to read the original article on MG Edwards. Visit MG Edwards for more great travelogues, photos, and video from around the world.

“An island surrounded on all sides by land” is how Paraguayan author Augusto Roa Bastos described his homeland. A small, landlocked country in the heart of South America, Paraguay has had a rich and tumultuous history since its independence in 1811. The country lost half its territory during the 1865-70 War of the Triple Alliance against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. However, it won back part of its dry, western half, the Chaco, when U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes mediated a dispute over the territory and ruled against Argentina in 1878. Paraguay also held on to a large swath of the Gran Chaco by turning back Bolivia in the 1932-35 Chaco War. Known for long periods of isolation under presidents Dr. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia y Velasco (1814-40) and Alfredo Stroessner (1954-89), Paraguay earned a reclusive reputation. In recent decades, however, the country has emerged from a half century of dictatorial rule and become more open to visitors. Hindered by a nascent tourist industry and dearth of obvious must-see attractions, Paraguay is easy to overlook. A visit can be rewarding to those who venture off the beaten path to enjoy its beauty, rich mixed indigenous Guaraní and Hispanic heritage, and warm reception from some of the most wonderful people you’ll meet in South America.

More About Paraguay

2008_07 Paraguay National Palace

2008_11_28 Paraguay Caacupe

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco

2008_01 Paraguay Itaipu Dam

Map picture

Indigenous of the Paraguayan Chaco


This is the final article in a series on Paraguay’s Chaco region highlighting the local indigenous communities and some of the challenges they face. The first post focused on Filadelfia, the area’s largest town, the second on the rural Chaco, and the third on the Mennonites. Unlike my other travelogues that emphasize tourism, this one underscores the sobering reality of life among the local indigenous.

Paraguay’s indigenous people comprise less than one percent of its population but have an outsized influence on its culture. Most Paraguayans descended from indigenous and European ancestry. An indigenous language, Guaraní, is one of two official languages of Paraguay (the other is Spanish) and is spoken by most Paraguayans. The country’s official currency is the guarani.

In 2009, an estimated 108,000 indigenous persons lived in Paraguay, 46,000 of whom resided in the Chaco. Most belonged to subgroups of the Guarani ethnic group, the largest indigenous group in Paraguay. Local Exnet communities are affiliated with the Maskoy (toba-maskoy) indigenous group.

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (1)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (2)

Life can be harsh for the indigenous living in the dry western portion of Paraguay, an area prone to severe droughts. Many work for local employers such as Mennonite cooperatives or private ranches, earning wages and benefits provided by “assurance associations” that support indigenous communities with medical care, fresh water and other basic services. Some own their own land and cultivate crops that they sell as cash crops. The Paraguayan government and a few non-governmental organizations (NGOs) dedicated to helping the indigenous provide fresh water, education, and other services. The remoteness and relative inaccessibility of the Chaco hinders assistance.

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (3)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (4)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (5)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (6)

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2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (8)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (9)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (10)

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2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (12)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (13)

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2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (15)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (16)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (17)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (18)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (19)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (20)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (37)

The indigenous I met during a visit in 2009 appeared adequately nourished and clothed. Nevertheless, many lived in poor conditions. Their homes were constructed from cinder block, wood, or available materials including aluminum sheeting, cardboard, tarps, and chicken wire. Some, particularly those living near Mennonite towns such as Filadelfia, Loma Plata, and Colonia Neuland, had access to basic services such as wells, fresh water, schools, health clinics, and community centers. Many who lived in more rural areas did not. Most lacked electricity and telephone service.

Although the International Labor Organization, U.S. Department of Labor, and some NGOs have claimed that child and forced labor occurs in the Chaco, the situation is more complicated than analysts, many of whom have never visited the region and rely on outdated information and indirect sources, have described it. While wages were generally low and some employers have used unfair tactics such as restricted freedom of movement to coerce employees, most Chaco employers in 2009 paid indigenous workers minimum wage or more with a percentage of indigenous’ salaries set aside to support local assurance associations that offered indigenous benefits such as health care. Repeated accusations that local employers committed child and forced labor abuses and the increased scrutiny over ranchers’ treatment of the indigenous led some to substitute indigenous workers with non-indigenous laborers, creating a situation in which labor abuse claims contributed to indigenous unemployment.

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (21)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (22)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (23)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (24)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (25)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (26)

A pressing issue that has received little international attention because it doesn’t fit neatly into global human rights agendas is the communities’ chronic lack of fresh water caused by persistent drought cycles made worse by climate change. When I visited in 2009, the Paraguayan Chaco was having one of its worst droughts in recent memory with bone dry or contaminated water tanks and reservoirs. The region had had no rainfall for more than six months.

Although the government is responsible for providing some communities with water storage and deliveries of fresh water, distances and drought conditions make assistance difficult. Because most wells produce salty water suitable for agricultural purposes but unfit for human consumption, local communities buy fresh water with the money they earn from agriculture or rely on assistance from assurance associations for potable water.

Meanwhile, those who have advocated indigenous rights have turned a blind eye to this pressing problem to focus on more sensational — and less urgent — issues that are more apt to receive international attention and funding. It’s abundantly clear to anyone who visits the Chaco that the biggest issue affecting the indigenous is an inadequate water supply — complicated by the fact that drilling wells won’t solve the problem.

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (27)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (28)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (29)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (30)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (32)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (33)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (34)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (35)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (36)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (31)

The Yakye Axa and Sawhoyamaxa Exnet communities lived in arguably the bleakest conditions of any I visited. In 2009, families from both groups were ensconced on the shoulders of rural Highway 6 near the town of Pozo Colorado, squatting next to private ranches that had annexed land once belonging to the indigenous. They had no local access to water; could not drill wells because of the salty water table; had difficulty growing crops because the sandy soil and limited space; and lacked access to electricity even though power lines passed overhead. The Paraguayan government delivered food and water weekly, but water shortages forced some to drink contaminated water from open cesspools. Some worked on private ranches for low wages and few benefits.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), to which Paraguay is a party, ruled that these communities had been unjustly evicted from their native lands by local ranchers in the 1980s and held the Paraguayan government liable. In 2005, the IACHR determined that the government had violated the rights of 64 Yakye Axa families and mandated that it remit monetary compensation and 16,000 hectares of land. It ruled in favor of the 19 Sawhoyamaxa families in 2006 and imposed similar penalties, including a remit of 15,000 hectares of land. The Yakye Axa and Sawhoyamaxa refused to move until the government compensated them with land.

Amnesty International reported that the Sawhoyamaxa families were compensated with land in September 2011 and the Yakye Axa as well in February 2012, enabling them to relocate, at long last, to their new homes. Paraguay, to its credit, has made efforts to comply fully with the IACHR rulings. I was delighted to learn that the situation had been favorably resolved for these families and hope that they no longer live in the homes shown in the photos below.

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (38)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (39)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (40)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (41)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (42)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (43)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (44)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (45)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (46)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (47)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (48)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (49)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (50)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (51)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (52)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (53)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (54)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (55)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (56)

A cattle ranch on land claimed by the Yakye Axa.

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous

The time I spent in the Paraguayan Chaco had a profound influence on me. It made me appreciate life more and not take for granted what I have in abundance. I admire the strength and fortitude of the local residents, from the Mennonites who have worked hard to turn semiarid desert into an agriculture bread basket, to the indigenous who have struggled to eke out a living with meager means in a harsh climate.

The Chaco is a place lost in time and unknown to most. Those who live there survive, and even thrive, in obscurity. It’s my hope that my series on the Chaco has brought this fascinating place to life for readers who might never have given it another thought and highlighted the triumphs and tragedies that make it the truly unique place that it is.

More about the Chaco

How You Can Help

If you want to learn more about the indigenous in Paraguay or to lend your support, contact the following organizations. I have no affiliation or connection with them but know that they are dedicated Paraguayan NGOs.

Map picture

 

buythumbM.G. Edwards is a writer of books and stories in the mystery, thriller and science fiction-fantasy genres. He also writes travel adventures. He is author of Kilimanjaro: One Man’s Quest to Go Over the Hill, a non-fiction account of his attempt to summit Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain and a collection of short stories called Real Dreams: Thirty Years of Short Stories. His books are available as an e-book and in print on Amazon.com and other booksellers. He lived in Paraguay from 2007 to 2009 and now in Bangkok, Thailand with his wife Jing and son Alex.

For more books or stories by M.G. Edwards, visit his web site at www.mgedwards.com or his blog, World Adventurers. Contact him at me@mgedwards.com, on Facebook, on Google+, or @m_g_edwards on Twitter.

© 2012 Brilliance Press. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted without the written consent of the author.