THE ARRIVAL OF THE MENNONITES: A painful experience for the Ayoreo

The Ayoreo remained largely uncontacted until the arrival of the Mennonites in the 1920s from the Ukraine, Russia, Canada and Mexico. They were invited by the Paraguayan president to take over 140,000 acres of the most remote part of the Chaco, a place once described as a “green hell” by Spanish colonizers, in return for settling the Chaco as honorary Paraguayans. The Mennonites are Christian groups from the Anabaptist denomination with members of varying ethnic origins. They preached simplicity, pacifism and adult baptism and were often on the move to flee communist persecution. With the Paraguayan state almost nonexistent, some chose to put down roots in the Gran Chaco, a region stretching from Argentina across Paraguay and into Bolivia and Brazil. Life was not easy for the refugee-settlers to begin with: disease, conflict and privation blighted their early years. But with perseverance, they transformed their dusty piece of land into a haven, setting up farms, factories, hospitals and schools. Their main town, Filadelfia, home to 10,000 people, is the largest settlement for 250 miles and is one of Paraguay’s most affluent towns. Nowadays, the wide streets of Filadelfia are full of brand new pickups driven by wealthy, baseball cap wearing Mennonites.

There is a flip side to all the prosperity, however: the sale of Ayoreo territory to the Mennonites by the state was a painful experience for the Indigenous tribe. The first encounters between the Mennonites and the Ayoreo were bloody and violent, and the transformation of virgin forest into prairie-style farmlands forced forest-dwelling communities out of their homes. Deeming the Ayoreo too difficult to control, the Mennonites invited the New Tribes Mission, an evangelical mission organization, to the Chaco to “help domesticate” the Ayoreo Indians. Aggressive manhunts ensued, in which many Indigenous Ayoreo were driven out of the forest. Mennonite families continued to buy up land in the Chaco for livestock farming and today dominate the Paraguayan agribusiness. But their belief that God wanted them to use the land as a source of sustainability and production has created an ecological disaster, according to conservationists. As well as the widespread erosion and desertion, their increasing encroachment onto Ayoreo territory puts the few remaining uncontacted Ayoreo at risk.
Jun 22, 2015
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