What Do Indigenous People and Low German Mennonites Have in Common?

I had what I consider to be my first real day on the job one hot day in March. I spent all day driving around a group of Low German Mennonites (LGMs) to work on fixing a water pump for a new Guarani community that my neighbor, a Guarani sociologist, is forming in the area. The LGMs are from Pinondi colony near Charagua which rejects the use of automobiles and rubber tires on their tractors. Thus the need for someone to drive them around. They have helped with numerous water projects for other LGMs and Guarani communities in the area. I spent most of the day in the intense Chaco sun watching them work and getting sunburned.

While the LGMs were working on the pump, I took a drive with my neighbor to see the land that was already being cultivated for the community’s use. 30 hectares are being cooperatively farmed primarily with sesame which is a high value crop that can help fund the construction of housing. Each family will receive five hectares for their own dwelling and cultivation. Six families will hopefully move in this year and six the next. Eventually 30 families will form the total community.

As we were walking the land and talking about the community, I asked about how the process of autonomy was going that was started in 2010 when Charagua municipality voted to become an autonomous indigenous region within Bolivia. He shared with me about a conference he went to in the United States of indigenous leaders from around the world. They created a declaration on the rights of indigenous people that had five points:

1. An autonomous judicial system
2. Respect for cultural and religious practices
3. An autonomous system of government
4. Education in their own native language
5. Ownership of land

My neighbor pointed out that there are similarities between the plight of indigenous people and the Old Colony LGMs that were helping put in a water source for their new community. I found this comparison fascinating and pondered it throughout the day. The five points are almost identical to the vision of the Old Colony LGMs that has compelled them to seek refuge in countries and rural settings that would allow them to pursue their vision. Old Colony LGMs have sought reassurance from governments that they would be free to practice their religion, form their own autonomous communities with their own form of education, civil governance and right to their land. The LGM’s flight from Russia and Canada were due to pressure from those respective governments for them to give up some of the rights that were at one time granted to them concerning freedom of religion (e.g. release from military service in Russia) or education (e.g. separate education systems in Canada).

There are certainly differences between the two groups. The Old Colony LGMs have chosen to pursue communities separate from modern society out of their religious convictions. They have had a level of opportunity and choice in their pursuits that Guarani and other indigenous people have not had. Yet, because of their chosen marginal status in isolated communities, LGM Old Colonies today face many of the same problems as the Guarani. Of special interest to me is their constant pursuit of land.

As I listened to my neighbors plan for the development of his small Guarani community and the process of forming an autonomous indigenous region, I found myself second guessing his plan. It has to do primarily with the LGM’s and indigenous people’s ongoing problem of land. In fact this is a global problem as arable land becomes more and more scarce. Some continue to believe that we will be able to squeeze ever more food out of ever fewer acres, but it seems logical that at some point this strategy will fail whether by population pressure or environmental damage.

Old Colony LGMs have faced land shortages throughout their history because of their high priority placed on large families and maintaining an agricultural basis for their communities. Likewise, the Guarani and many indigenous highly value a close connection to the land which can no longer be met by the hunter-gatherer traditions of their past. The scarcity of available land for building agricultural communities makes the realization of the goals of both groups increasingly difficult.

Because of their marginal status, both groups do not have easy access to land. Their need highlights the problems facing the rest of the world in the future. It could also provide an opportunity for these marginal groups to lead the way forward by developing communities and techniques based on permaculture and other regenerative ways of living lightly on the earth. These marginal communities could serve as models for the rest of the world that depends so heavily on systems of agriculture and industry that exploit the earth rather than living within the boundaries provided by the natural systems that sustain us.

As seems to often be true, when kingdom work happens one often finds strange partners. In the civil rights movement atheists and Jews came together with the predominantly Christian movement to fight for equality. Why not Guaranis and Old Colony Mennonites working together toward a more sustainable future for, not only themselves, but the planet?

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