Mexico's Mennonites: God's work or environmental disaster?

STORY: Location: Valle Nuevo, Mexico

This is a Mennonite community in southern Mexico

toiling the land in the name of their Christian faith.

Their agricultural prowess was once welcomed here.

But now, both ecologists and the Mexican government

see Mennonites' ranches as an environmental disaster,

for rapidly razing the Maya Forest to plant their crops.

Smaller only than the Amazon, the Maya Forest is one of the continent's biggest carbon sinks

and home to endangered jaguars.

According to non-profit Global Forest Watch, it’s shrinking by an area the size of Dallas every year.

Mennonites first arrived here from Canada in the early 1900s, in search of land and isolation.

Tracing their roots to 16th century Germany, they still speak ‘Plautdietsch’

a blend of Low German, Prussian dialects and Dutch.

The Mennonites say they live by traditional pacifist values

and that expanding farmland to provide a simple life for their families is the will of God.

But despite shunning electricity and other modern amenities,

their farming has evolved to include bulldozers, chainsaws, tractors and harvesters.

The government is now pressuring the Mennonites to shift to more sustainable practices.

According to research, Mennonites in Campeche embraced the use of genetically modified soy in the 2000s

and glyphosate weedkiller 'Roundup', designed to work alongside GMO crops.

Local farmers like Francisco Collo Caamal worry about the repercussions for the surrounding environment.

FARMER, FRANCISCO COLLO CAAMAL, SAYING:

“We don’t like to see other people from other nations or communities coming and to see they destroy the mountains and the jungle that provides us and the fields with life and fresh air. They come with machinery and fumigate soils, and contaminate soils with fertilizers.”

One 2017 study found that property owned by Mennonites in Campeche

had rates of deforestation four times higher than non-Mennonite properties.

Carlos Tucuch is the head of the National Forestry Commission in Campeche.

[Carlos Tucuch, Head / National Forestry Commission in Campeche]

“Campeche shamefully ranks first in deforestation in the country, and this is very worrisome and serious. Overall it's boosted now that the fellow Mennonites are coming in search of new cropping areas. They open new farmlands, and this has contributed to our leading position in deforestation.”

Despite a deal between the Mexican government and some Mennonite communities,

ongoing land clearance was visible in two villages visited by Reuters in February and May.

A lawyer representing some Mennonite communities said they felt attacked and scapegoated by the government's efforts.

Groups including palm oil farmers and cattle ranchers also engage in widespread land clearance,

although data on how much each group is driving deforestation versus others is not readily available.

Mennonite leaders are seeking a proposal from the government that won't cut their production dramatically.

Higher yields means more income to support large families, which can commonly hold 10 children.

The fear is organic methods will not be successful.

Still, some have faith.

One Mennonite leader said “If the government shuts us down. God will open for us.”

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