Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Chaco Church

Among South American countries Paraguay probably has the saddest history. Coming down from the zenith of the Jesuit utopia there followed colonial stagnation, then independence that brought on a trio of dictators who, successively, hermetically sealed the country from the outside world, turned it into a personal fiefdom, and finally dragged it into a suicidal war against the combined forces of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. It would be no understatement to say that the War of the Triple Alliance absolutely annihilated Paraguay. Out of a pre-war population of some 500,000 Paraguay lost 300,000 people, or about 60% of its population, giving it the dubious distinction of being the most destructive (per capita) war of modern times (and possibly ever). Towards the end there were almost no men left in the country and little kids were sent to the front lines wielding little more than sharpened fruit and domestic utensils (hence the well-known phrase regarding kitchen sinks). And all this over an issue that didn't initially involve Paraguay at all.

Stained glass window in the national pantheon depicting Francisco Solano Lopez, Paraguay's dictator who plunged the country into the disastrous War of the Triple Alliance. Recently his historical legacy has been reviewed and he is now a national hero.

Whatever the root causes of Paraguay's unhappy reality at the turn of the last century, it was in need of people. It was in this background that a group of Canadian Mennonites* came to Paraguay looking for a welcoming land where they could practise their faith without any outside interference. Paraguay was in desperate need of people, especially in the vast, unpopulated wilderness of the Chaco - a hot, semi-arid, lowland plain; sparsely populated thanks to the impenetrable thorny scrub. The Chaco extends from northern Argentina right through to Brazil and encompasses a chunk of Bolivia and the entire western half of Paraguay. At the time national borders in the Chaco were ill-defined and putting settlers there was thought to be a good way of staking one's claim (in the end Bolivia and Paraguay went to war over the Chaco, but this time luck was with the Paraguayans as Bolivia has the worst army in history, losing every single one of its wars since independence).

The Chaco is a harsh environment of extremes that has kept humanity at bay for millennia.

So the first Mennonites arrived in the Chaco in 1928. It was not an easy life. They were not necessarily expert farmers, and certainly not used to the conditions of the so-called "Green Hell". However these pioneers opened the way for other Mennonites to arrive both in Paraguay (mainly from the Ukraine in two waves, one following the Hlodomor and another after WWII) and in Latin America as a whole. There are now colonies in Bolivia, Mexico, Belize and Brazil amongst others. Those first Mennonites were staunchly conservative, eschewing many modern innovations, education outside of Holy Scripture, and even such, apparently trivial, things as singing in harmony. They just wanted to be left alone to live as they wanted with no outside interference.

Over time their hard work and diligence paid off as they tamed the Chaco and prospered. A new road crossing the Chaco improved communications and allowed goods to be sold further afield. However this brought with it new challenges for the community. Their success attracted other Latino Paraguayans and indigenous groups (although the land given to the Mennonites was considered empty it was used by nomadic, aboriginal hunter-gatherer tribes) who came to work in the Mennonite communities as unskilled labourers and domestics. The outside world also crept in through growing mechanisation, an opening of the education system to allow Spanish and other subjects to be taught alongside German, and increased connections with other Mennonite colonies, especially those in Canada (as well as the relaxation of the ban on singing in harmony). The past couple of decades especially have seen a monumental change among the colonies: their agricultural cooperatives have grown exponentially and are now highly efficient companies supplying most of Paraguay's dairy market, as well as exporting significant amounts of milk and meat abroad; the outside world is now firmly anchored via the internet and foreign exchange programmes for students; and the Mennonites have now become among the most affluent Paraguayans with big houses, new cars, foreign holidays, and other trappings of wealth.

I was able to get an in-depth appreciation of the changes and history undergone by the Mennonites thanks in part to my local hosts, but also thanks to an amazing stroke of luck. My visit to the colonies coincided with a field trip by a group of university students from the US who were doing a course on the History of Paraguayan Mennonites. A rather specific subject for a university course perhaps, even for a Mennonite university. Nevertheless I wasn't one to argue, especially when they kindly agreed to let me tag along with them as they were given tours of factories, schools, parks and churches and, more importantly, were there to ask probing questions of the locals. It allowed me not only to learn a great deal about not just the Paraguayan Mennonites without looking like a nosey busybody, but also about (American) Mennonites in general. Interestingly for me (and without wanting to sound patronising) I found the American Mennonites to be indistinguishable from your average, North American, liberal arts student, with similar tastes, worldviews and fashions. Not in the least cultish. I also have to admit that I was very much impressed by the students. America has become a bit of a byword for lack of culture and ignorance (especially a certain glorification of ignorance) among us Europeans, who tend to look somewhat down on our cousins across the Pond. Instead these students were inquisitive, informed and, most importantly, able to formulate articulate questions and arguments independently (something that I've found is not often the case with students).

Students asking some tough questions on religion from the local Mennonite community leaders.

So what did I discover about the Mennonites? A bag full of contradictions. They're "white" and speak Low (Platt) German at home and High German in school, yet without exception consider themselves Paraguayan. They believe in closely following the teachings of Jesus, putting great emphasis on family and community, and yet the pursuit of wealth is equally dominant (obviously the passage about rich men, camels and needles was omitted from their Bibles). They came to distance themselves from the world, but the world (or at least Paraguay), is coming to them. They want to be rooted in traditions, yet the colonies are evolving very rapidly. They are open and hospitable people, yet no-one from outside can really become a part of their community. It was also evident to me that the Paraguayan Mennonites are on the cusp of fundamental changes to their way of life and there is a struggle within the community between modernisers wanting to pull it forward, and traditionalists who are afraid of losing the essence of who they are.

One thought that I came away with made a big impression on me. These people, with next to no outside help, through their hard work and community spirit, turned a once-barren wasteland into a productive, prosperous place. They were not allied to the ruling regime, they didn't gain anything through force of arms (since they're pacifists), and yet now they are very successful in a region that is poor and dysfunctional. I certainly don't believe in any material difference between the abilities of different ethnic groups/races. Therefore if they could achieve that there, with such infertile land, why should it not be possible for others, in more favourable situations, to do the same. Could it be that a group is far more responsible for its success than outside factors? Why haven't Paraguayans living in much richer agricultural areas not met with the same success? and what about other poor groups throughout the world? Are those poor subsistence farmers in Africa and India lazy? incompetent? Are we obliged to help them? are they doing enough to help themselves? Those thoughts don't necessarily come naturally to me as I lean politically to the left, yet to ignore them would be wilfully ignorant. Also it's not as easy as saying viva libertarianism! since amongst themselves the Mennonites are extremely socialist. Each colony has a collective, into which every member pays a significant percentage of their income voluntarily, which helps pay for their high-quality education, healthcare and other public services. In fact the economics of their communities seem to lie closer to Scandinavian cooperativism than North American every-man-for-himself. Whatever the reality, I feel that many people could improve the quality of their lives and that of their communities by learning a few lessons from these Mennonites.

The milk processing factory in Loma Plata is pretty state of the art.

*I must admit I knew next to nothing about Mennonites before. I loosely associated them with Amish (who, together, form the majority of the greater Anabaptist faith) as weird, Luddite cults. However, having done a bit of research on them I actually quite like some of their views, especially their dogged pacifism and adherence to much of the "turn the other cheek" spirit of the New Testament (although there are a number of loonies on the conservative fringes of the movement).

Or college for my North American readers.

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