Low German Mennonites, natural resource management and the Bolivian state

Traditional Low German Mennonite (LGM) colony land-use practices in Bolivia are rooted in a singular focus on agricultural production. However, new Bolivian laws for sustainable land-use practices, a global concern about land-clearing and shifts in long-term local climate patterns have implications for the future of traditional LGM livelihoods in the country. Within this inherently complex situation, MCC has a unique opportunity to come alongside struggling LGM communities and promote sustainable land-use practices.

In 2013, MCC Bolivia began an emergency response project working with the LGM Durango colony in the municipality of Charagua in response to a severe drought. MCC provided feed for cattle and later seeds for feed crops, allowing LGM farmers to maintain base livestock necessary to sustain their basic livelihood needs. In 2014, at the request of LGM community partners, MCC began a related project to help young, low-income families establish a new daughter colony of Durango called La Esperanza. This project included clearing land to establish the colony, but in accordance with Bolivian laws and regulations on land-use practices. Like the original Durango project, the La Esperanza project was also an emergency response to drought.

As with any project, MCC must work within a mix of different cultural assumptions that complicate the NGO-partner relationship. The Low German Mennonite productive economy in Bolivia is generally focused on the production of grains, milk and cheese. Farming relies on large machinery. These practices, combined with large families (often with ten or more members), create the need to find and clear more land. The challenge for MCC is to work alongside the insular colony system to validate its strengths, while working together to make positive changes that improve quality of life, the sustainability of colony land-use practices, compliance with Bolivian law and relationships with Indigenous communities.

With this in mind, MCC needed to take a number of factors into consideration when working with LGM colonies to clear land. First, MCC was mindful of Bolivian colonial history and the history of Indigenous land loss. MCC is also transparent before Bolivian law and the constitution, ratified in 2009 as a result of Indigenous activism and recognized internationally for its progressive promotion of Indigenous rights and priorities. It was therefore important for MCC to build good relationships with Indigenous Guaraní communities in the region, be aware of potential conflicts between LGM colonies and their Indigenous neighbours and help build right relationships and understanding between Guaraní and LGM communities.

A second important consideration was the new progressive Bolivian food security and forest restitution law number 337. This law forces Bolivian farmers to implement practices such as adequate pasture rotation, cover cropping, wind barriers and agrosilvopastoral systems (agriculture that includes crops, forests and animal pasturage). In this context of strong cultural traditions and new national laws, MCC does not play the role of a driver for change, but rather helps LGM colonies understand the new laws and build colony capacity to comply, avoid fines and build healthier and more profitable farms.

With these considerations in mind, MCC had an opportunity in La Esperanza colony to help low-income Mennonites make the necessary changes in their practices for a more sustainable future. Through the project, ten to fifteen trees per hectare are being left on cleared land, wind breaks are being implemented to reduce erosion, Cupesí trees (which cattle can graze on and use for shade) are being planted in pastures and, in the future, small, irrigated garden plots and fruit trees for home consumption will be introduced.

While La Esperanza’s short-term achievements are considerable, MCC also has a long-term vision. The implementation of cover crops, agrosilvopastoral systems and adequate crop/pasture rotations in the colony have yet to be achieved. However, with the build-up of credibility brought on by this project (itself made possible by years of trust- and relationship-building), the arrival of new personnel later in 2016 and the state’s implementation of Bolivian law 337, MCC hopes to continue to build on present gains and good practices.

Building participation and enthusiasm has been a successful part of the project in La Esperanza. The formation of La Esperanza colony was not MCC’s idea, but a community initiative in need of MCC support. According to past MCC Bolivia LGM program director Wilmar Harder, the idea for this project arose out of meetings in which, for the first time in MCC Bolivia history, colony leadership (bishop, elders and others) directly called a meeting and asked MCC to work with them. LGM participation was therefore never in doubt because the project was theirs from the beginning: the question was if MCC would participate.

Due to its long history of work with Bolivian Mennonites, MCC is uniquely positioned to work alongside LGM colonies. While LGM colony structure and culture can often seem to impede change, there are few other outside actors with which colonies willingly work. By supporting a small percentage of the land clearing for La Esperanza, MCC has accompanied the entire new colony in the process of implementing sustainable land-use techniques compliant with the law. Furthermore, this initial MCC investment provides the opportunity to continue building colony capacity to implement agrosilvopasotral systems, cover cropping and pasture rotations, while providing economic opportunities for low-income families and building resiliency to the effects of climate change.

In order to work within the complexities of the local partner-North American donor dynamic, MCC must remain flexible to the call and needs of partner communities. In Bolivia, the LGM colonies’ intense focus on agriculture as a means to make a living and their rapid population growth will likely become increasingly problematic as tighter government restrictions are placed on land clearing. In this situation, MCC might be tempted to play the role of the prophet of doom calling out from a smug North American perch. However, MCC must be willing to meet partner communities on their own development path, and help them bring about positive changes for themselves and those around them, even if those changes are incremental rather than radical.

 Jordan Penner is MCC interim representative for Bolivia. Patrocinio Garvizu is food security and sustainable livelihoods coordinator and grounds manager with MCC Bolivia. 

 Learn more:

Muller, R., Pacheco, P., and Montero, J.C. The Context of Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Bolivia: Drivers, Agents and Institutions. Bogor, Indonesia: Center for International Forestry Research, 2014. Available at http://www.cifor.org/library/4600/the-context-of-deforestation-and-forest-degradation-in-bolivia-drivers-agents-and-institutions/

Fraser, Barbara. “Food and Forests: Bolivia’s Balancing Act.” (2014). Available at: http://blog.cifor.org/25157/deforestation-food-security-in-bolivia?fnl=en

Slunge, D., and von Walter, S. “Environment and Climate Change in Bolivia: Challenges and Opportunities for Development.” (2013). Available at: http://blog.cifor.org/25157/deforestation-food-security-in-bolivia?fnl=en

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