The Mennonites being accused of deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon

Mennonite men in Wanderland, Loreto region, in the Peruvian Amazon. Photograph: Dan Collyns/The Guardian


A brush with the law has alarmed the community of about 100 families who fear losing the land they have made their home

Were it not for the ebullient fecundity of the Amazon rainforest surrounding it, Wanderland could almost be a stretch of Dutch farmland from the 19th century; a straight muddy track bisects rows of neatly spaced farmyards with perpendicular houses and barns.

A typical morning begins as horse-drawn buggies driven by smiling blond-haired, blue-eyed boys collect shiny churns of fresh milk from farm gates to be made into cheese. The name given to this pastoral idyll carved out of thick foliage of the jungle seems to need little translation, even from Plautdietsch, the mixture of Low German and Dutch spoken by its inhabitants.

But there is unease in this rustic paradise. It is one of three Mennonite communities being investigated by Peruvian prosecutors over accusations of illegally deforesting more than 3,440 hectares (34 sq km) of tropical rainforest in the past five years. The brush with the law has alarmed the community of about 100 families who fear they could lose the land which they have made their home.

Abraham Thiesen, 44, who arrived to Peru with his wife and six children in 2015, is among several hundred of the secretive Anabaptist Christian group which traces its origins to 16th-century Friesland who migrated from Bolivia, along with others from Belize, where they have long-established populations.

Thiesen, president of the Wanderland Mennonite association, says they acquired the land in good faith for agricultural purposes on the understanding that they would be granted legal titles once the area was cleared for farming.

Mennonite boys carry out chores on the farm from a young age. By the age of 13 they are working full-time. Photograph: The Guardian

But that explanation was rejected by environmental prosecutor José Luis Guzmán. “I can’t deforest and then ask for a permit! It doesn’t work like that,” he said.

“In order to carry out deforestation there – to remove the vegetation cover of trees and forests – you need a permit from the state, and in this case, they did not have any permit,” Guzmán said from his dilapidated office in Pucallpa, the frontier capital of Peru’s Amazon Ucayali region. He has opened an investigation into whether the Christian group should be formally accused of deforestation.

But Thiesen said: “We have come here for good.” Entire families, typically with four to seven children, had uprooted from their communities in Bolivia’s sprawling lowlands and invested their savings in the new land deep in the Peruvian Amazon. “We are not thinking of moving because we are already established here,” added Thiesen, his ruddy face framed by the typical straw cowboy hat worn by all the community’s menfolk.

“Our hope is that we can be allowed to work peacefully, because where are we going to get enough to eat if they don’t let us work the land,” he added. Farming is a tenet of their faith, Thiesen explains, they believe God commanded them to work the land to live ever since Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden.

But these Old Order Mennonites, the most orthodox of the pacifist sect, which has spread from Canada to India in their search for isolation and grand expanses of land to farm, may have fallen afoul of the notorious informality and corruption often linked to land-titling in the Peruvian Amazon.

They say they had initially bought 500 hectares (5 sq km) of land in 2015 near Pucallpa which they swapped with a wealthy timber merchant for more than 3,000 hectares of rainforest where the three communities are established.

‘Our hope is that we can be allowed to work peacefully, because where are we going to get enough to eat if they don’t let us work the land.’ Photograph: Dan Collyns/The Guardian

The remote tract of jungle suited the Mennonites’ preference for being left alone. The Guardian travelled for 14 hours by boat down the Ucayali river and drove for another hour along a muddy track to visit the community which sits about halfway between Pucallpa and Iquitos, the largest city in the world accessible only by boat or plane.

The nearest settlement to the new Mennonite colonies, Tierra Blanca, is a poor riverside outpost which suffers occasional outbursts of violence as it sits on a cocaine trafficking route. There the local people welcome the dungaree-clad settlers and the womenfolk in long cape dresses with curious amusement. Old-timers say decades of logging has stripped any valuable tropical hardwoods from the forest where the communities now live.

“It was secondary [forest] because the loggers had already used all the wood,” said Thiesen. “We don’t work wood. We prefer the soil, to work the land, he added, although he admitted the leftover timber was used to build “houses, schools, churches, bridges, some little things”.

Vegetation along Clavero Lake.

Photograph: Kike Calvo/Alamy

Legally, it is an important distinction. Secondary forest is one step closer to purma, the scrub which grows after tree felling. Purma can be legally transitioned to agricultural use while felling primary rainforest is illegal.

Matt Finer, a senior research specialist at NGO Amazon Conservation, disagrees with Thiesen’s assertion. “The area was selectively logged, as is much of the Amazon but it’s still primary forest,” he said.

Mennonite settlements had become the “new leading cause of large-scale deforestation in Peru”, he said. “In total, we have now documented the deforestation of 3,968 hectares across four new colonies established in the Peruvian Amazon since 2017,” he added. Three out of those four colonies are in Tierra Blanca.

Environmentalists worry this could just be the beginning of the Mennonite invasion in Peru. Satellite images show land clearing for another settlement, also in Loreto, a vast Amazon region the size of Germany. A 2021 study in the Journal of Land Use Science says Mennonites have 200 settlements across seven countries in Latin America and collectively occupy more land than the Netherlands.

Peru lost a record 2,032 sq km of Amazon to deforestation in 2020, a figure almost four times the 548 sq km it lost in 2019, according to its environment ministry.

The Mennonites may be easy targets for environmental prosecutors but their neighbours have jumped to their defence.

The evening meal at the Thiesen household. Photograph: The Guardian

“The Mennonite colony has changed the face of this village,” said Medelú Saldaña, the former mayor of Tierra Blanca. “We are blessed to be able to learn from this orderly agriculture.”

The Mennonites sell their cheese and other dairy products locally and as experts in growing soya, sorghum and rice, their farming knowhow is valued by the locals.

“[They] have come to invigorate the economy of our district, where the state neither makes an appearance nor invests,” Saldaña added.

Prohibited by their beliefs from using modern technology, the Christian group do not drive any vehicles except for tractors so they rely on local transportation for journeys to and from their communities, as well as longer journeys by river to sell their products at market.

In the balmy evening, amid the high-pitched squeaks of bats and chirruping cicadas, the Thiesen family sit on their porch chatting and laughing as they gaze at the Milky Way streaking across the night sky.

Their simple way of life appears to have changed little in more than a century but environmentalists fear even more of Peru’s Amazon – second only in size to Brazil’s –could be lost with the arrival of more Mennonites in search of isolation and land to farm.

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Dan Collyns in Wanderland