An Update on the Drought-related Tensions of Mennonites in Chihuahua:
The Mexican consulate of Minnesota has confirmed that there are increasing tensions in the Chihuahua region between Mennonites, non-Mennonites and others over land and water resources. The Consulate also confirms that rumours have been circulating in the national press of Mexico that the Mennonites are going to immigrate elsewhere. BUT there has been no confirmation from authorities in the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), Mexico or Tatarstan, Russia, that any of the smaller Mexican Mennonite groups have or are planning to immigrate back to Russia. You will recall that it is from Russia that these Mennonites’ fore-parents fled as refugees from legal and religious persecution by Tsarist officials and later, economic, political and physical persecution from the Soviets.
It seems clear that there have been some sort of contacts regarding immigration potential by Mennonites from Chihuahua elsewhere due to the drought and rising tensions with non-Mennonite neighbours. BUT this is also a very normal thing for Mennonites. As Mennonites communities, congregations and kolonies increase in size, small groups often leave to establish new communities and farms elsewhere. In fact, Amish and Hutterite groups within the United States and Canada are constantly making news with their plans to move to new areas to buy inexpensive land for establishing new farms, communities and families. So the entire immigration angle might be true but have nothing to do with any potential conflict or even the drought. The Russia and Kazakh angles are interesting only in that they would indicate a return to the Mennonite diaspora’s ancestral “homeland.”
There is yet another set of rumours that are equally difficult to substantiate that the cultural awkwardness between the Mestizos and the Mennonites is being exploited for the personal economic and political interests of others. There seem to be some loose strands relating to semi-mysterious connections to Mexican businesspersons in Russia and Germany and more than a little grand-standing by certain local Mexican officials, possibly including local mayoral offices and, according to the attached report, Mexican Senator Javier Corral who seems to be attempting to connect the presence and farming activities of the Mennonites with “other” suspicious “foreign corporations” and “outsiders,” and disturbingly, even with recent politically-motivated murders. Senator Corral specifically references illegal water wells allegedly dug by Mennonites diverting common resources from the Rio del Carmen and disputes over some 35,000 hectares of land. This is where it is difficult to depend on poor translations. I find it hard to judge the actual tone of Coral’s words.
While I am following this story as it pertains to social and political studies – as an ethnic Russian Mennonite, I am increasingly curious as to whether or not the MCC and other groups will or even should get involved – especially in a role as interested outside observer. As Mennonites, we often do not like our fellow Mennonites intruding into our “individual” affairs. On the other hand, it has always been a comfort to know that should we need them, the resources and expertise of the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and various sub-ethnic and religious organizations are there to aid and assist both impacted Mennonites and their non-Mennonite neighbors in the interest of international development and peace making.
My greatest concern in this matter is whether recent decisions by the MCC and many of our constituent church conferences to sub-divide along national boundaries may have weakened both our international Mennonite and Amish identity but also our ability to maintain a unified international and transcultural witness and effective ability to aid development work – especially when we, or at least our fellow Mennonites, might be part of the crisis. I know that there has been no mention of the drought or political tensions within the Minnesota or Illinois Mennonite communities. We are normally very well informed on such matters.
Regardless, by next week, I will hope to have some additional information on El Barzon and on the two murder victims – Ismael Soloria Urrutia and Martha Manuela Solis.
Let me stress that apart from Coral’s apparent lumping of all of these problems together, there is no evidence that has been presented by either side of any wrong doing by any Mennonites or Mennonite settlers. In fact, the Mennonites have presented their own counter-charges of racism, intimidation and economic fraud on the part of local water and utility officials and neighboring mestizos – again, the presence of an interested outside observer might be a good recommendation. In the meantime, the Mennonites have apparently organized frente menonitas to help diffuse tensions and encourage the same dialogue for which Coral is calling. It seems curious to me that Senator Coral met with El Barzon but not with el frente – which might be a mere omission on the part of the reporter or could indicate a bit of grandstanding by local Mexican politicos.
Not unrelated, the larger Mennonite community has also remained largely ignorant of the increasingly tense situation between the descendants of Russian Mennonite settlers and aboriginal or first nations’ peoples even in the United States and elsewhere. As I understand it, many of these situations seem very similar to that of the Chihuahua Mennonites in that the struggle are over access to land and water rights – and the greatest challenge seems to be a basic inability to establish and maintain an effective dialogue over the concerns of both sides or to mediate potential economic competition between member of the different ethnic communities.
We would seem to have both an ethnic heritage interest in being informed about these struggles, and a faith community interest. It is apparent that non-European descent Mennonites in other parts of the world (especially in Africa and Asia) are also seeking to establish cultural communities based on the exploitation of regional natural resources. As this exploitation progresses, it would seem essential to be able to share information, experience, technology and guidance to as to best protect the environment and the long-term sustainability of such development, but also to limit potential conflict with neighbouring ethnic groups, government officials and others who could become jealous over any potential economic success.
As a cultural historian, I am often somewhat skeptical that we might be better at resolving the conflicts of others than we are in resolving and preventing our own. As a sociologist, I hope to be able to eventually compare and contrast the methods and successes of Mennonite cultural coping and conflict resolution efforts as exemplified by the individualistic independent farmers and Mennonite entrepreneurs of the United States and Canada and more traditional cooperative methods such as those being employed by el frente and others in Latin America, Asia and elsewhere.
supplemented 08 Nov 2012:
Of related interest -- this article was posted in the Bolivian press indicating that the Mexican Mennonite settlers of
the Black River Colony in Beni, Bolivia, face possible eviction, but that Mexican authorities are working with the
Bolivian government to rectify the situation and find a solution.