The first Mennonites of Colombia – a photo essay

나는n a remote corner of the rolling plains that stretch across eastern Colombia from the foothills of the Andes to the Venezuelan frontier, a cluster of grain silos juts up against the pristine blue sky.

Not long ago, this region was plagued by Communist insurgents and rightwing paramilitaries; now it is home to an austere community of blond-haired, blue-eyed Anabaptist Christians which traces its origins to 16th-century Friesland.

Children, dressed immaculately and in plaid shirts and long dresses, finish Bible studies – in English, Spanish and Low German – and prepare for an afternoon’s labour in the fields; the family patriarchs fuel up huge combine harvesters, shipped especially from Mexico and the US. Their wives, who seldom work the crops outside harvest time, tend to chores in their homes.

The first members of this Mennonite community arrived here in 2016, but their forefathers have been migrating for centuries.

“The Anabaptist ancestors of the Mennonites were chased out of Europe by Catholics because they were radical reformists,” said Luca Zanetti, a Swiss photographer who recently visited Liviney. Zanetti’s interest in Mennonite settlers was first piqued by a plaque in Zurich for Felix Manz, one of the group’s founders who was martyred in the 16th century. “I wanted to know who these ancestral neighbours are that now live across the world.”

The Mennonite diaspora began fleeing their homelands in northern Europe – across Holland, Switzerland and Germany – in the 16th century, to escape persecution from the Catholic church.

Many ended up in Russia, before migrating to the prairies of the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. 오늘, there are Mennonite communities across Africa and the Americas which dwarf those that remained in Europe.

Most inhabitants in this settlement, known as Liviney, hold Mexican passports, and had spent most of their lives in a community of tens of thousands in the Sonoran desert. But land there was expensive and unsuited to many cash crops, rains were scarce and water sat deep underground, requiring extensive drilling.

Furthermore, northern Mexico is currently the setting for a fierce drug war in which innocent bystanders frequently become victims: three years ago, cartel gunmen murdered six children and three women from a Mormon community which like the Mennonites had settled in the country in the 19th century.

Colombia’s 2016 peace process, which put an end to five decades of civil war, offered the Mennonites a way to carve out a new foothold in South America.

Before the deal, such a project would have been unthinkable: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), then the largest leftist insurgency in Latin America, dominated this isolated region, imposing their own rules on the civilian population, while battling the Colombian army and its paramilitary allies.

In just a few years, 하나, Mennonite investors have snapped up the titles for 20,000 hectares of land. Fleets of 18-wheeler trucks make regular pickups of Liviney’s biggest exports: rice, corn and soya beans, the latter sold to a pig farm owned by a former president.

“The blessing of the lord makes you rich without effort,” reads an inscription in German on the wall of one of the colony’s several churches that also doubles as a school.

But the growth of the settlement has not come without hard work – and plenty of investment: the Mennonites have invested more than $20m through two newly incorporated local companies.

“Here you need to throw a lot of money at the land before you gain something,” said Abram Loewen, a rice farmer. Like other senior members of the community, he employs other Mennonites who have been unable to get their own crops going.

Liviney’s gleaming pickup trucks and air-conditioned homes contrast starkly with the poverty in surrounding region, which had long been neglected by the Colombian government.

And unlike the rough dirt trails in neighbouring villages, Liviney’s roads are paved with fine red gravel and flanked by brand-new electricity pylons and cables.

Abram Fehr, tall and with a pair of Arctic-blue eyes, is a pastor and also the proprietor the only hotel in town, 어느, before the pandemic, received Mennonite visitors from as far as Mexico, Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina looking to buy land.

Argentine Mennonites are currently the biggest buyers, said Fehr, as they are keen to escape what they see as government “meddling” in the upbringing of their children.

Mennonite children study from ages six to 13, but then they are put to work – the boys work the fields, even if they can barely see over the steering wheel of the tractors, while the girls tend to the kitchens and gardens – a custom which often puts them at odds with education laws around the world.

In recent decades, similar tensions caused a wave of Mennonite migrants to leave Canada – “practically a Communist state,” scoffed Fehr.

The Mennonites have little contact with their neighbours, who refer to them as “the Germans” and comment on their “weird accents”.

Some locals complain about the Mennonites’ intensive farming practices, and the community’s rapid expansion has also brought them into conflict with the indigenous Sikuani people, after the Mennonites moved on to land claimed by the tribe.

Further friction has been caused by the settlers’ aggressive logging – a practice which for decades was banned by the Farc rebels.

“While the Mennonites get on well with the local population, buying products in nearby towns and visiting restaurants and boosting our economy, there are some environmental issues,” one local government official said diplomatically.

When asked about the climate crisis, which is heightened by worldwide deforestation, Ramon Dick, one of Livney’s leaders, was fatalistic.

“As a Christian I do not fear death or the end of the world because I am entrusted to Christ,”그는 말했다, his broad grin revealing a set of brilliant white teeth. “I follow him, the day I die I am with him, walking on a golden pavement to a crystalline sea!”

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