The Mennonites of Paraguay (with Photos)


 

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

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.

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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

The Paraguayan Chaco


This is the second article in a series on Paraguay’s Chaco region with highlights from the area. The first focused on Filadelfia, its largest town. Other posts will feature the local Mennonite and indigenous communities. Enjoy photos and stories from one of Paraguay’s most intriguing places.

If you are looking for a trip off the beaten path, try visiting the Chaco region of Paraguay. It’s quite the trip (figuratively and literally). My family and I headed to the “Wild West” of South America, in August 2008. It’s a fun destination for those who enjoy rural tourism and exploring scenic beauty. The Chaco has many hidden gems to discover — wildlife, livestock, farmland, salt lagoons, historic battlefields, dry terrain, and the local culture.

We spent a day driving in the back country on dirt and gravel roads. We passed palm trees and lapachos (jacaranda trees) with flowers that seemed to glow in the sunlight. The flowers of different lapachos bloom at different times of the year in bright yellow, orange, or lavender. We saw Mennonite ranches (estancias) with grazing cattle and crop fields. We drove through swaths of barren land with dead trees, disheveled earth, and patches of salt residue left behind by flash floods. The water table under the Chaco is salty and non-potable, so local residents must collect and preserve as much water as they can during the rainy season (November-February) in order to weather the brutal dry season (May-August). Hollow dirt mounds serve as water reservoirs for the estancias.

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2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (2)

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2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (8)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (9)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (10)

We headed from Filadelfia to Isla Po’i, where we toured an experimental agriculture farm run by the Mennonites. We saw fields of cotton and mustard, two crops the Mennonites planned to introduce as cash crops.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (11)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (12)

At Isla Po’I, we toured the ruins of a former Paraguayan military staging area used during the Chaco War (1932-35). The national monument is one of several dedicated to Paraguay’s victory over the Bolivians. The statue is of Mariscal José Félix Estigarribia, Paraguay’s military commander during the war and one of the country’s most celebrated heroes. The bomb shell and tank tracks were left behind by the Bolivians.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (13)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (14)

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2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (16)

We continued on to the Yakaré Sur saltwater lagoon, a sanctuary for flamingos and other birds in the heart of the semi-arid Chaco. It’s a great place for bird watching. The view from the observation tower is gorgeous – one of the few places where you can survey the Chaco for miles in all directions.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (17)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (18)

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2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (30)

We drove not far from Yakaré Sur to a Mennonite estancia. The scene looked idyllic with grazing cows, green pastures, windmills, and landscapes dotted with palm trees and jacarandas.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (31)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (32)

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2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (34)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (35)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (36)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (37)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (38)

It’s easy to get lost in the back roads even with GPS, the road conditions are unpredictable, and the best places to can be hard to find. As a result, it’s advisable to hire a local guide for a half day (U.S.$90 in 2008) or full day ($150 in 2008) trip who can show you what the Chaco has to offer. Most roads are unpaved and chock full of potholes. Consider using the guide’s vehicle (an additional $150) to spare your own from wear and tear. If you drive in the Chaco, bring plenty of food and water, and be prepared for roadside emergencies. Your guide can help you navigate the myriad roads that crisscross the area.

Most of all, don’t forget to bring the tereré, a beverage made with yerba mate leaves. It’s the drink of choice in Paraguay, and you will make new friends and feel more at home in Paraguay. Enjoy a cup with your guide.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (40)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (39)

After driving more than 100 miles (160 kilometers), we opted not to visit two other attractions, Fortin Boquerón, a historic site from the Chaco War, and Fortin Toledo, home of the Tagua Reserve, a reserve for the endangered tagua boar (peccary). It’s impossible to see all the major points of interest in the Chaco in one day.

Our adventure continued when we returned to AsunciĂłn via the Trans-Chaco Highway. During the five-hour drive, we saw herds of cattle grazing amid fields of grass peppered with palm trees; fields charred by wildfires; igloo-size brick ovens; and cowboys (gauchos) herding cattle. We enjoyed taking in the wide open spaces and flatlands of western Paraguay.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (41)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (42)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (43)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (44)

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2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (55)

If you have the opportunity to visit Paraguay and the time for a few out-of-the-way excursions, head to the Chaco. Plan to take at least four days to see sites such as Filadelfia that are easily accessible from the Trans-Chaco Highway. For more remote locations such as Cerro LeĂłn (Lion Hill) in Parque Nacional del Defensores del Chaco (National Park of the Defenders of the Chaco), set aside at least a week, hire a guide, and expect to rough it.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (56)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (57)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (59)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (58)

More about the Chaco

  • Filadelfia, the capital of BoquerĂłn Province and the largest town in the Chaco
Map picture

 

This is an update with photos of an article I posted in September 2008. Click here to read the original post.

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 lives 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.