With Bible in hand as a shield against adversity, Paraguay’s Mennonites have celebrated their bounty 85 years after settling in the inhospitable plains known as El Chaco.
Established in 1927 by Mennonites fleeing Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin, the deeply pacifist Protestant community has survived and flourished to become an important generator of wealth for Paraguay, said Ronaldo Dietze, a descendent of German settlers.
“With income from selling meat, dairy products, grains and a variety of other things, Mennonites contribute between six and seven percent of Paraguay’s gross domestic product,” he told AFP of the group that counts around 50,000 members. Mostly rural Paraguay has just 6.5 million people.
The Mennonites’ success, evident throughout Boqueron province 550 kilometres (340 miles) south of Asuncion, has been truly remarkable.
Farming cooperatives, run mainly by Mennonites, account for 80 percent of agricultural production in Paraguay, a key South American exporter of grains and beef.
Last year, they produced 255 million litres of milk and raised two million head of cattle, a fifth of all cattle in the country. They produce an array of other goods and are also heavily involved in fuel distribution.
“Without faith in God and Jesus Christ, this would not have been possible,” said Patrick Friesen, leader of the Mennonite cooperative in Filadelfia, the region’s biggest city.
Once known as Colonia Menno, Filadelfia was Paraguay’s first Mennonite settlement in the scorching Chaco, a land so dry that rainwater is collected in giant cisterns. Their denomination is named for Menno Simons, who was born in 1496 in Friesland, now part of the Netherlands.
The Mennonites have contributed not only to the Chaco’s economy, but also to its social, educational and cultural development.
This year a new school of farm sciences at the National University in Loma Plata, a Mennonite community near Filadelfia, graduated its first class of students.
“Mission accomplished,” remarked the dean of faculty, Lorenzo Meza, whose goal is to meet a growing demand for agriculture-oriented education among the region’s three Mennonite communities — Filadelfia, Loma Plata and Neuland.
“We are proud of our first university graduates in this region, where there was nothing 80 years ago,” Walter Stoeckl, Boqueron’s governor, told AFP.
Mennonites have also pushed for technological advances.
With four dairy companies, three cold storage companies, eight animal feed processing plants, a mate (tea) processing plant, national fuel distribution companies, truck lines and mobile laboratories for quality control requirements in Filadelfia, the Mennonites compete fiercely for market share.
“The European market, where most of the products are going, forces them to be on the cutting edge in technology and in training their personnel,” said Dietze, a spokesman for a mainly Mennonite association of cooperatives.
Though the Mennonites of Paraguay’s outback — today an estimated 30,000 people — have found their way to prosperity, their community founders often faced religious persecution and went to extremes to reach what they saw as a kind of promised land.
“Even I am really impressed by what our ancestors were able to do. And I love to tell tourists who come here about it,” said Hans Bochmann, who is in charge of the Jakob Unger Mennonite museum in Filadelfia.
“My Dad was 17 when he got here with my grandparents. He used to say they almost froze to death when they left Russia in ’26 (1926). They crossed the Amur River and made it to China. From there they took a ship to India. From India they took a ship through the Suez Canal to Marseille (France) and then travelled on to Argentina, and came all the way up the Paraguay River,” he said.
Bochmann tells the story of his family’s actual arrival in Chaco: “At the (Paraguay River) port of Casado, they got on a train they took to the last stop, 145 kilometres (85 miles) in from the coast, and from there they walked with just their personal belongings in carts, to reach the Promised Land,” he said referring to Loma Plata.
About 80 of them died of a plague, but many survived and began to struggle and succeed, working the land in peace and eventually, prosperity.
At the museum, old Russian tickets are on display, like trophies, symbols of a past the Mennonites’ families were able to escape for freedom from persecution and a better life.