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2014-02-01 issue:

Mennonites and land

Global Anabaptist: Stories from the global Mennonite church

by John D. Roth

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At 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 18, 2013, five Menno­nites from the Nuevo Progreso colony in Campeche, Mexico, were released from the Chetumal prison, where they had been held since Feb. 7, 2013. (Two other colleagues had been released a short while earlier).

Although the details regarding their arrest remain shrouded in confusion, authorities had formally charged the men with illegally clearing trees from a 47-acre tract of land they were in the process of purchasing in Quintana Roo. For 10 months the Menno­nite community in Mexico followed the labyrinthine legal process that swirled around the imprisonment and ensuing trial of the seven men.

By the time of their release, the colony had spent several million pesos in legal fees and was forced to pay a fine of 600,000 pesos. In addition to losing ownership of the land, the colony must also reforest the section that had been cleared.

The story was clearly complicated by the duplicity of a middle man, paid by the Mennonites to negotiate between buyer and seller.

Moreover, land titles are sometimes murky in Mexico, and Mennonites have frequently found themselves frustrated by confusing, sometimes contradictory laws, competing government bureaucracies and the persistent reality of corruption.

But beneath all the surface complexities of the story is a deeper, more enduring, challenge: the Mennonite relationship to land. Indeed, one reading of Mennonite history could be told entirely through the lens of land and the related issues of ownership, stewardship, profitability, inheritance, group identity and the ties forged by land to local markets, the legal system and the larger nation.

In the Old Testament, God promised land to Abraham and his descendents as a gift and a blessing (Genesis 5:18-21; 28:13). In Scripture, land is almost always associated with the hope of productive vineyards, fields of ripened grain, rich pasture, milk and honey, and large families.

That same promise and hope is anchored in the stories of Mennonite history. The genealogies of many North American Mennonites, for example, almost always include heroic accounts of hardworking pioneers who cleared the forest, broke prairie sod and drained swamps in order to make the land productive for their families and communities.

When Mennonites first moved to Mexico in the 1920s, they came seeking religious freedoms; they were also looking for land. In the century since then, the region around Cuauhtémoc has become a major producer of the country's corn, grain and apples.

Mexican political leaders have frequently praised the Mennonites as model farmers, granting them religious, legal and cultural concessions in light of their contribution to the economy.

Yet possession of the land is never simple. Mennonites in Paraguay, Belize and Brazil—seeking economic security for their growing families and expanding colonies—have clearcut forests, thereby destroying fragile ecosystems and contributing to the large global problem of deforestation. For the past decade, Mennonites in northern Mexico have been locked in a tense battle with local activists over water rights in the face of shrinking water tables. And pressure on arable land by Mennonite investors and agribusinesses has played a role in the dislocation of indigenous people from village to city.

It would be easy for North American Menno­nites to interpret the recent legal action by Mexican authorities in Campeche as a justifiable response to a pattern of aggressive Mennonite land-grabbing. And maybe, with more investigation, the facts will bear out that interpretation.

Yet the fate of all growing agrarian communities—whether that be the Old Order Amish in the United States or Old Colony Mennonites in Central and South America—is inextricably tied to land acquisition. It is no accident that Mennonite periodicals in Mexico are filled with reports about the prospects of available land in Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and regions as remote as Kirgistan.

Mennonites in the future will continue to buy land and make that land productive. But in the context of a competitive global economy, disappearing water tables, new pesticides and the promises of genetically modified seed, the challenge will be to ask difficult questions of land stewardship: What does it mean to take relationships with indigenous neighbors seriously? Can we forfeit short-term profits for more sustainable forms of production? Will our communities commit themselves to seeking the welfare of the larger country where they reside?

The biblical promise of land was never intended for Israel alone. Rather, through Israel "all the nations of the earth would be blessed" (Genesis 22:18). Such is the challenge for Mennonites in the future—not just in Mexico but also here in North America. 

John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review.

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