National Geographic: It's Catholic beekeepers vs. Mennonites (whoever they are) in Mexico

I know Mennonites get around, but I didn’t know there was a large colony of them in Mexico. In the U.S., they’re often known as the Amish lite people — with similar German roots and Anabaptist beliefs that got them pushed out of Europe in the 16th century.

Many of those who ended up in Canada emigrated to Mexico at the beginning of the 20th century where the government needed farmers to work on land previously owned by William Randolph Hearst, as foreign landowners were expelled at the end of the Mexican revolution in 1921. The Mennonites bought the land as long as they were freed from Mexico’s educational laws and military service. (You can read more about that here. )

Most of the Mennonites settled in the states of Durango and Chihauhua where they farmed parts of the country no one else was touching and have brought prosperity to the area.

But the National Geographic found a more isolated group on the Yucatan peninsula and wrote about it, which is where the drama starts. Once again we face a familiar journalism question: Do readers need to know anything about what the Mennonites believe?

CAMPECHE, MEXICO — “How did it start?” asks Everardo Chablé. He’s propped on a stool in his living room as the daylight fades outside. The only noise in this tiny Mexican town in the Yucatán Peninsula—where there’s no cell signal and little electricity—comes from the music his father is blasting in the yard. He speaks up. “For thousands of years the Maya people had bee culture. Then the Mennonites came with large machines and started to deforest large parts of land where the bees feed. We had virgin forest with very delicate ecosystems—deer, toucans—but most importantly bees that keep up life. When deforestation started they destroyed everything from millennia back.”…

What he’s describing is a simmering battle between a growing community of Old Colony Mennonites—the insular religion’s most conservative Low German-speaking members, who eschew modern amenities like electricity and cars—and indigenous Maya beekeepers. It has electrified this sliver of the Yucatán Peninsula. …

Since the 1930s, Maya beekeepers have made the Yucatán—a peninsula covered with the largest remaining tropical forest in Mexico, sacred cenotes, and endangered wildlife—into a world-class honey producer. But the rapidly expanding presence of Old Colony Mennonites, who are transforming large swathes of land into agricultural fields, could change that.

 Now this is curious because elsewhere in Mexico, Mennonites have been leaving for greener (literally) pastures where there’s more water than drought-stricken Mexico. The New York Times talks of some going to Argentina.

This National Post story describes how Mennonites are moving back to Canada because of the Mexican drug cartels and poverty. Some are even thinking of returning to Russia, where many of the Mennonites originated.

Beekeepers say that the large-scale agriculture and the genetically modified soy, also called transgenic, planted by the Mennonites is killing their hives and contaminating the supply of honey with pesticides. In 2012, the beekeepers sued the government and won—resulting in a supreme court ban on transgenic soybeans four years ago. The win, with its David and Goliath qualities, made international news. But on the ground, little has changed.

So why are these Mennonites digging in and staying?

We hear very little of what they believe other than that they are an “insular religion” that avoids cars and electricity and a “conservative sect” that seeks out good farming land. They bought a lot of land for genetically modified soybeans in 2008 when the Mexican government sold it to them.

Pech’s brother, Jorge, says he’s watched as new crops, pesticides, and deforestation took the number of hives needed to make one ton of honey from 12, around 20 years ago, to between 30 and 40 today. Soon after transgenic soy was planted in the state, he and other beekeepers say they saw a sharp dip in honey production and increase in bee deaths. In 2012, Pech and a dozen other beekeeping collectives filed a lawsuit against the government agencies who issued the permit, on the basis that planting of GM soy was illegal because the indigenous communities had not been consulted. Other lawsuits were filed at the same time.

One thing that’s not brought up in this tale of competing interests is that the Mennonites are Protestant and the Maya beekeepers are Roman Catholic.

Does that factor help fuel the debate? Not that we’re told they are Protestant. In fact, it’s hard to determine from this piece that they are even Christian. But it’s clear the two groups hardly talk with one another.

In the late 1990s, a group of Mennonite families set out from northern Mexico in search of more land and founded Nuevo Durango about an hour outside Hopelchén. Today, there are around 1,400 people living in a cluster of small communities that form the colony. It feels like stepping into Depression-era Middle America. The dusty road leads straight to the grain silo, where farmers in nearly identical overalls and plaid shirts wait next to a small shop selling tubs of agrochemicals and piles of seed bags.

One doesn’t get much of a feel for why these Mennonites are so traditional except for one quote from a Mennonite official who considers the Mexican Mennonites as a whole separate breed.

Old Colony Mennonite communities are extremely insular, with no overarching governing body. The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), run by modern members of the religion, plays a largely humanitarian role in the region. Though she has little involvement with the Old Colony settlements, Bonnie Klassen, who oversees most of Latin America for MCC, offers perspective on their relationship with the land. Most Old Colony Mennonites get five or six years of education, centered almost entirely on religious teachings, she says. “This idea that what they do is going to affect others is a fairly abstract notion. Nothing from the Bible or catechisms will lead them to understand how ecosystems work.”

So, unlike their brethren elsewhere in the country, it sounds like these Mennonites aren’t emigrating anywhere. Thanks to their Protestant work ethic, they are the economic engine that runs the peninsula.

Still, I got very little feel for what makes them tick other than descriptions of how they are isolated, backward and have tons of kids.

Do they deserve better? It looks like the photographer got a lot closer to the Mennonites, as she has more photos of Mennonites at home and out in the fields. As interesting as this piece, I still feel that mostly one side of it got told. Clearly the Mayan folks won out on this coverage.

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