Paraguay's Mennonites resent 'fast buck' outsiders
FILADELFIA, Paraguay (Reuters) -- Paraguay's austere Mennonites, who
have invested decades of sweat to survive in extreme conditions, say their
hard-won wealth has lured a "gold rush" of easy-living outsiders desperate to
make a quick buck.
Some 10,000 German-speaking Mennonites live in the Paraguayan Chaco,
a vast, sparsely inhabited plain of scrubland and palm trees where poisonous
Searing temperatures that can hit 122 degrees in summer have given the
inhospitable Chaco the name "the green hell." The dry, dusty area extends
into Bolivia and is one of South America's last great wildernesses.
Overcoming the natural hardships, the Mennonites have set up an efficient
cooperative farming system that provides around half of Paraguay's dairy
needs and produces its finest quality cotton fiber and groundnut oil.
But the mild-mannered Mennonites now complain that the face of their
community is changing, and many resent the intrusion of dozens of
Paraguayans and Brazilians who have flocked to the area to work as hired
farmhands or open bars and shops.
Succeeding where others fail
The Mennonites have kept to their traditional evangelical Christian values
more than 60 years with little interference from the government, which grants
them religious and economic independence and exemption from military
Of German extraction and speaking a guttural north German dialect, the
Mennonites reject all violence and fled Russia and Ukraine in the 1920s to
avoid compulsory service in the army. They are typically blond with pale
European faces and are scattered around the globe, particularly in the United
States, Canada and Latin America.
They arrived in 1927 in Paraguay, one of the region's poorest countries.
With their own banks, schools, hospitals and agricultural cooperative,
Paraguay's Mennonites have created three prosperous communities --
Menno, Fernheim and Neuland -- in an area that has attracted few other
"We work as hard as we can with the few liters of water we have. But the
Paraguayans don't understand it," said Franz Ernst Eitzen, a schoolteacher
and a manager of the cooperative in Filadelfia, service center for the
"We have good organization in our cooperative system. You can invest
money better, and that's why the Brazilians are also here. The work is no
longer enough in Itaipu and Yacyreta," he said, referring to Paraguay's two
huge hydroelectric projects -- the first shared with Brazil and the second
Only a few years ago very few non-Mennonites could be seen walking the
streets of Filadelfia, where every passing vehicle kicks up a choking swirl of
dust. Not any more.
"It's changed a lot in the last five years. The government has put in a
so we've got more Paraguayans attracted to Filadelfia. Before, they had to
pay to go to our school," said Betty Wiens, accountant at the Filadelfia
cooperative. "And there are Brazilians here too, all looking for work."
Elders say crime is on the rise
Filadelfia's 3,000-strong population consists mainly of Mennonites but
are also Germans, Brazilians and Indians from the Ayoreo, Lengua and
Chulupi tribes, among others.
Despite running a $300,000-a-year program to educate and help 9,000
Indians who live on 370,000 acres bought by the Mennonites, Filadelfia's
leaders remain wary of the "outsiders" and blame them for rising crime in the
"It's worse than before, with people taking cars and cattle. Paraguayans
Indians give us more trouble than our own people," said Eitzen, one of the
town's leading figures.
"It's only the Paraguayans who are running around the streets. You don't
our children doing that," he told Reuters. "They (Paraguayans) might want to
spend their money on gambling or liquor. We don't."
Paraguay's government had recently stationed a small police force in
Filadelfia, the largest Mennonite settlement, Eitzen said. But this was largely
ineffective, he added, citing incidents of rape for the first time ever in the
"It's like a gold rush. Outsiders keep coming. We tell people why we are
here, why we are doing maybe a little better financially, we invest in working
Despite any ethnic tension, the Mennonites insist that they are trying
improve community relations.
"The intermingling between the communities has improved a lot," said Arnold
Boschmann, program director for Radio La Voz del Chaco Paraguayo,
Filadelfia's religious station broadcasting 17 hours daily in nine languages.
"From a Christian perspective we have been trying to show them what it
means to 'love thy neighbor,"' he said.
Wiens was more blunt in her appraisal. "We know that if Paraguayans come
in they don't have the same values as us, the same work ethic," she said.
"And we have a good working relationship with the Indians, but not more."
Young are eager to find more exciting lives
The Mennonites' hard-won wealth has brought other problems to the
community, whose more traditionalist members disapprove of the use of
electricity and certain clothes. Most Mennonites do not drink alcohol or
smoke tobacco, at least not in public.
With the influx of non-Mennonites, more luxury goods such as motorbikes,
videos and computer games have appeared in local shops, giving teenagers
used to a diet of hard work and religious instruction a glimpse of how the
"other half" lives.
"Young people want to dance or go to the cinema and drink, and that's what
we don't have here," said Wiens. "Lots of young people go and don't want
to return because they don't want the restrictions we have here. People
watch you so much, everybody knows you and sees what you are doing."
Bicycles, pigtails and long dresses are a common sight and the Mennonite
elders would certainly frown on a woman who dared to wear a miniskirt in
"They're still a pretty closed community. It's basically a council of elders
have, and when they say no it means no," said Edi Scheguschevski, a
Brazilian-born taxi driver who works around Filadelfia. "You see more
Paraguayans and Brazilians now than before. But the Mennonites are in
Many young Mennonites leave high school in Filadelfia and either travel
miles to the capital Asuncion or go abroad for their further education, Wiens
Some become disillusioned with the drugs, crime and corruption they find
outside the enclosed world of the Chaco. Wiens herself said she went back
to Filadelfia after eight years in Canada to give her children a "safe"
The parents who stay are hard pressed to provide greater incentives other
than religion for their offspring to keep to their birthplace and ensure the
"People try to focus on youth and offer them some alternatives. It's not
entertainment but often attached to their work with the church," Boschmann