FEATURE-Ancestral Russia lures land-hungry Mexican Mennonites

Dave Graham
Reuters Middle East

* Population growth, drought puts squeeze on Mennonites

* Farming dominates life of the religious dissenters

* Mennonites arrived in Mexico in the 1920s

CUAUHTEMOC, Mexico, Dec 6 (Reuters) - More than a century

after Mennonite farmers left Russia for North America in search

of new lands and religious freedom, hundreds of their

descendants in Mexico are thinking about completing the circle.

Shortage of farmland, drought and conflict with rivals have

made some Mennonites in northern Mexico wonder if the best way

of providing for their families is to go back to the plains of

eastern Europe their ancestors left in the 19th century.

This summer a delegation of 11 Mexican Mennonites went to

Tatarstan on the southern fringe of European Russia to look at

land that could help them protect their spartan way of life from

the impact of population growth and climate change.

"We're looking for a future for our children and

grandchildren," said Peter Friesen, 59, one of the farmers who

traveled to the town of Aznakayevo in August, himself the

great-grandson of Mennonites born in the Russian Empire.

Descendants of 16th century Protestant Anabaptist radicals

from Germany, the Low Countries and Switzerland, Mennonites

rejected Church hierarchy and military service, suffering years

of persecution and making them reliant on the patronage of

rulers keen to exploit their dedication to farming and thrift.

Many Mennonites like Friesen living in the colonies around

the city of Cuauhtemoc trace their origins to families that

settled parts of Imperial Russia in modern Ukraine in the 18th

century during the reign of Catherine the Great.

During the age of European nationalism, their freedoms came

under threat and they began to leave for North America in the

1870s. More followed in the years of turmoil that convulsed

Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution and the World Wars.

Still speaking Plautdietsch, a unique blend of Low German,

Prussian dialects and Dutch, the Mennonites that came to

Chihuahua state from Canada in the 1920s have helped turn some

of the most barren expanses of northern Mexico into model

farmland yielding tonnes of golden corn, beans, milk and cheese.

But as the fields in Chihuahua grew more plentiful, so did

the Mennonites, who are named after 16th century Anabaptist

leader Menno Simons, a Frisian. Anabaptists say believers should

only be baptized once old enough to understand their faith.


Dressed in plain cotton trousers, a dark shirt and cap,

Friesen uses short, simple sentences in Spanish, his face tanned

from years spent harvesting crops under the cloudless skies of

Chihuahua, which covers an area bigger than Britain.

Only when Friesen's mobile phone rings and he switches to

Plautdietsch does the tempo change. Words trip off his tongue in

a much softer cadence than High German, and are all but

unintelligible to speakers of the modern language.

"You know we Mennonites always want to grow. And that's what

we can't do here. Everything's already taken up," said the

father of 13 and grandfather of 25.

Enrique Voth, who also went to Tatarstan, said farmland can

be purchased there for a tenth of the price in Mexico. "We need

ten times more than what we have," said the father of 11.

The "100 or so" families interested in Russia are still

undecided about whether to go, partly because they did not find

a single bloc of land big enough for them, said Friesen.

But his blue eyes glitter when he talks of the dark soil,

mild climate and rich water supplies the Mennonites found in

Tatarstan. Once part of the Mongol Golden Horde, an empire

spanning Central Asia and eastern Europe, the republic harbors

flat, fertile terrain fed by the Volga and Kama rivers.

Originally about 7,000 strong in Mexico, the Mennonites

today farm about three quarters of the irrigated corn fields in

Chihuahua. But much of the land is leased and their holdings

have increased far slower than their population.

About 1,000 of the first settlers in Mexico returned to

Canada, but the Mennonite population in Chihuahua alone is now

probably about 60,000, said Peter Stoesz, director of a local

Mennonite credit union known as UCACSA.

The Mennonites in Chihuahua started with around 100,000

hectares of land. Today, that holding may not be much more than

250,000 hectares, according to the state government.

Since last year's drought, the land shortage has been felt

more keenly, and the Mennonites have been accused by a group of

rival farmers known as Barzonistas of sinking 200 illegal wells

to irrigate fields, damaging the local water supply.

Chihuahua's government says it has found a few dozen illegal

wells, drilled using fake permits. It is still investigating how

the permits were issued, and the Barzonistas are not happy.

"We're at a disadvantage, but we're Mexicans," said

Barzonista Jacko Rodriguez, who believes the Mennonites have had

preferential treatment in the water dispute. "We're going to

stay here and we're going to live here. They are not."

The row has taken a number of ugly turns, giving further

impetus to the Mennonites' desire to find new farmland.

This summer, one Barzonista declared the pacifist Mennonites

were Germans, burning up Mexican lands like the Nazis burned

Jews. And when a Barzonista leader was shot dead with his wife

in October, some of them pointed the finger at the Mennonites.

"This has caused us a lot of worry," said Johan Peters, 45,

a farmer, who said Mennonites were also looking at land in


The Mennonites have denied any involvement in the deaths.


During the 20th century, Mennonites fanned out into South

America, Africa and India. Many preserved a lifestyle tied to

tilling the soil, while adopting newer technology often still

eschewed by their Anabaptist Amish cousins in America.

Lacking pasture and fields to sow, some in Chihuahua have

given up farming, turning to services and handicrafts. A few

have drifted into drug trafficking and prostitution, locals say.

But UCACSA estimates over two-thirds work in agriculture,

which still dominates the rhythm of daily life. Sons may join

fathers to work the fields from the age of 12 or younger.

"Farming is the healthiest work a person can have," said

Voth from the Tatarstan delegation. "It's peaceful work without

competition. With a business, you have to fight all the time."

Plenty of Mennonites in the area are skeptical the answer to

the land shortage lies in Russia. Some say the families

considering a move half way across the world have fallen behind.

Others worry Mennonites are being swamped by the pace of change.

Though Chihuahua's Mennonites now use mobile phones, many

still reject television. Some fret about the impact of the

Internet on their children, who can see more and more of the

world from the confines of their modest, monochrome bungalows.

"Some people are losing the true reason of being a

Mennonite," said corn farmer Corny Kornelsen, 52. "They grab

every new thing that comes their way. But they can't cope with

all the new technologies."