Mennonites accused of deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon | Peru

OWithout the exuberant fecundity of the Amazon rainforest that surrounds it, Wanderland could almost be a stretch of 19th-century Dutch farmland; a straight, muddy track bisects rows of well-spaced farmyards with perpendicular houses and barns.

A typical morning begins when horse-drawn buggies driven by smiling blond-haired, blue-eyed boys scoop up shiny churns of fresh milk from farm gates to make cheese. The name given to this pastoral idyll carved into the thick foliage of the jungle seems to need little translation, even of Plautdietsch, the mixture of Low German and Dutch spoken by its inhabitants.

But there is an unease in this rustic paradise. It is one of three Mennonite communities being investigated by Peruvian prosecutors on charges of illegal deforestation of more than 3,440 hectares (34 km2) of tropical rainforest over the past five years. The run-in with the law has alarmed the community of around 100 families who fear losing the land they call home.

Abraham Thiesen, 44, who arrived in Peru with his wife and six children in 2015, is one of several hundred members of the secret Anabaptist Christian group whose origins date back to 16th century Friesland and who emigrated from Bolivia, with d others from Belize, where they have long-established populations.

Thiesen, president of the Wanderland Mennonite Association, says they acquired the land in good faith for farming purposes, with the understanding that they would receive legal titles once the area was cleared for farming.

Mennonite boys perform chores on the farm from an early age. At the age of 13, they work full time. Photography: The Guardian

But this explanation was dismissed by environmental prosecutor José Luis Guzmán. “I can’t deforest and then apply for a permit! It doesn’t work that way,” he said.

“To carry out deforestation there – to remove the vegetation cover from trees and forests – you need a permit from the state, and in this case they had no permit,” Guzmán said from his dilapidated office in Pucallpa, the border capital of the Amazon region of Ucayali in Peru. He has opened an investigation into whether the Christian group should be formally charged with deforestation.

But Thiesen said: “We came here for good. Entire families, usually consisting of four to seven children, had been uprooted from their communities in the sprawling plains of Bolivia and invested their savings in new lands deep in the Peruvian Amazon. “We are not planning to move as we are already established here,” Thiesen added, his ruddy face framed by the typical straw cowboy hat worn by all men in the community.

“Our hope is that we can be allowed to work in peace because where are we going to get enough to eat if they don’t let us work the land,” he added. Farming is a tenet of their faith, Thiesen explains, they believe God commanded them to work the land for a living since Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden.

But these Old Order Mennonites, the most orthodox of the pacifist sect, which spread from Canada to India in their quest for isolation and vast tracts of land to farm, may have fallen victim to the notorious informality and corruption often linked to land titles. in the Peruvian Amazon.

They say they originally bought 500 hectares (5 km²) of land in 2015 near Pucallpa which they swapped with a wealthy timber merchant for more than 3,000 hectares of rainforest where the three communities are based.

“Our hope is that we can be allowed to work in peace, because where are we going to get enough to eat if they won’t let us work the land.” Photograph: Dan Collyns/The Guardian

The remote expanse of the jungle matched the Mennonite preference to be left alone. The Guardian traveled 14 hours by boat on the Ucayali River and drove another hour along a muddy track to visit the community that lies halfway between Pucallpa and Iquitos, the largest accessible city in the world. only by boat or plane.

The closest settlement to the new Mennonite settlements, Tierra Blanca, is a poor riverside outpost that suffers occasional outbursts of violence as it sits on a cocaine smuggling route. There, the inhabitants welcome the settlers in overalls and the women in long capes with curious amusement. Elders say decades of logging have stripped all the precious tropical hardwoods from the forest where communities now live.

“It was secondary [forest] because the loggers had already used up all the wood,” Thiesen said. “We don’t work with wood. We prefer the ground, to work the land, he added, although he admitted that the leftover wood was used to build “houses, schools, churches, bridges, a few small things”.

Vegetation along Lake Clavero.
Vegetation along Lake Clavero.
Photograph: Kike Calvo/Alamy

Legally, this is an important distinction. The secondary forest is one more step towards the purma, the maquis that grows after the felling of trees. Purma can be legally turned into agricultural use while logging of primary rainforest is illegal.

Matt Finer, senior research specialist at the NGO Amazon Conservation, disagrees with Thiesen’s assertion. “The area has been selectively logged, like much of the Amazon, but it’s still primary forest,” he said.

Mennonite settlements have become the “new main cause of large-scale deforestation in Peru”, he said. “In total, we have now documented the deforestation of 3,968 hectares in four new settlements established in the Peruvian Amazon since 2017,” he added. Three of these four colonies are in Tierra Blanca.

Environmentalists fear this is just the start of the Mennonite invasion in Peru. Satellite images show the clearing of another settlement, also in Loreto, a vast Amazon region the size of Germany. A 2021 study in the Journal of Land Use Science indicates that Mennonites have 200 settlements in seven Latin American countries and collectively occupy more land than the Netherlands.

Peru lost a record 2,032 km2 of the Amazon to deforestation in 2020, nearly four times the 548 km2 it lost in 2019, according to its environment ministry.

Mennonites can be easy targets for environmental prosecutors, but their neighbors have come to their defense.

The evening meal at the Thiesen's.
The evening meal at the Thiesen’s. Photography: The Guardian

“The Mennonite colony changed the face of this village,” said Medelú Saldaña, the former mayor of Tierra Blanca. “We are blessed to be able to learn from this orderly agriculture.”

The Mennonites sell their cheeses and other dairy products locally and as experts in the cultivation of soybeans, sorghum and rice, their agricultural know-how is appreciated by the locals.

“[They] have come to boost the economy of our district, where the state does not appear or invest,” Saldaña added.

Prohibited by their beliefs from using modern technology, the Christian group does not drive any vehicles except tractors, so they rely on local transport for journeys to and from their communities, as well as longer journeys by rail. river to sell their products at the market.

On the balmy evening, amid the screeching of bats and chirping cicadas, the Thiesen family sits on their front porch, chatting and laughing as they watch the Milky Way streak across the night sky.

Their simple way of life appears to have changed little in more than a century, but conservationists fear even more that the Peruvian Amazon – second only to Brazil in size – will be lost as more Mennonites arrive at the search for isolation and land to cultivate.

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