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The Mennonites of the Paraguayan Chaco (Pictures)

The Mennonites have resided in the Chaco region of Paraguay since 1927, turning an inhospitable land into one of the most productive and wealthiest regions of the country. Paraguay is a landlocked country sandwiched between the giants of Brazil and Argentina. Often forgotten and overlooked, Paraguay is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Far from the capital Asuncion, the Mennonites inhabit the most remote and arid part of the country. Today, with diary and ranching, the Mennonite colonies produce 6-7% of Paraguay’s total Gross Domestic Product despite only making up less than 1% of the population.

The Mennonites are a deeply pacifist religious group that originated in Europe during the 16th century and are known for their collectivism and cooperative farming practices. Fleeing religious persecution in Europe, many of them emigrated to Canada. At the turn of the 20th century, the Canadian government implemented mandatory secular education, which angered the Mennonites who saw this as a threat to their way of life. In 1927, the Paraguayan government encouraged the Canadian Mennonites to settle and develop the remote parts of the country near the Bolivian border. This allowed them to practice their religious and culture beliefs without government interference.

Loma Plata (located in Menno Colony) is the oldest and most traditional of the communities. Most people work at the Cooperativa Chortitzer, which producers high-grade dairy products that are sold throughout South America. The Mennonites are generally viewed positively by the Paraguayans. Most seem to admire their perseverance and work ethic, and wonder why the cooperative Mennonite model cannot be implemented across the country. However, some believe that they harbor racist sentiments which translates into hiring discrimination.