- Mennonite families began to arrive in the southern Mexican municipality of Bacalar in 2001.
- They swiftly bought land, became members of the local ejido — an area of communally owned agricultural land — and then founded their own.
- Their presence in the region has continued to grow, along with the level of deforestation.
- Satellite imagery and field visits reveal vast swaths of rainforest have been cleared for large-scale agriculture.
BACALAR, Mexico — Less than a decade ago the El Bajío ejido — a form of communal land in Mexico —consisted primarily of rainforest. Today, the landscape is vastly different, with vast open fields of soybeans, sorghum and corn. This transformation was brought about by the mechanized agricultural activities of Mennonite families who began settling in the southern part of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo in the early 2000s.
“In the past, we could enter on horseback, but since they [the Mennonites] came, they have made many roads for us,” said Rigoberto, an ejidatario — or communal landowner — in his eighties who has witnessed the transformation of the land.
The mechanized agricultural practices employed by the Mennonites, a religious group of European origin known for their extensive monoculture plantations and demand for permanent land rights, have faced opposition from some of the region’s residents, who say they are flouting environmental regulations.
“They cut down thousands of hectares … there is a lot of illegal logging with them,” said one member of Kabi Habin, a cooperative of Quintana Roo beekeepers. The member, who requested anonymity for safety reasons, said large-scale agriculture has spread from what is now known as the Salamanca ejido – the first place where the Mennonites arrived back in 2001 – to other parts of the municipality.
Satellite data from Global Forest Watch shows clearing associated with large-scale agriculture has continued to expand in the municipality of Bacalar in 2022 and into 2023, including in the ejidos of Blanca Flor, San Fernando, Paraíso, El Bajío and Salamanca. The data also show that much of this clearing is coming at the expense of the region’s remaining primary forest.
Paving the way for deforestation
“There was no longer enough land for all the [Mennonite] families back in Belize,” says Jacobo, a Mennonite who agreed to talk to Mongabay on the condition that his real name is not used for fear of reprisal from authorities. “We saw a lot of land here in Bacalar [on which] to start a new colony.”
Sitting in the hallway of his house, while taking a break after attending Sunday church service, Jacobo said that Mennonites began to explore the purchase of land in Quintana Roo in the late 1990s.
Jacobo said that to acquire 5,000 hectares (12,355 acres) of land, Mennonite groups utilized a 30-year agreement with ejidatarios from Bacalar. This approach enabled them to circumvent Mexico’s Agrarian Law, which forbids the sale of ejido land. Additionally, the Mennonites obtained permission from the Program for the Certification of Ejido Rights and Land Titling (PROCEDE) to establish their own ejido.
The Salamanca ejido, the largest Mennonite colony in the Bacalar municipality, was founded in November 2005 by a group of 25 Mennonites. Presently, the colony houses approximately 300 families originating from Belize and the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Durango, Tamaulipas, and Campeche. This information comes from a 2021 census conducted by the Mennonite community, which was shared with Mongabay by one of its members.
At the time of its founding, the Salamanca ejido was swathed in 5,000 hectares (12,355 acres) of rainforest. Since 2012, around 4,600 hectares (11,366 acres) of forest cover has been cleared, according to data from Global Forest Watch.
Local sources say most of the land that was cleared was done without authorization from the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) to change the use of forest land having been granted.
“When Governor Felix Gonzalez Canto was governor [2005-2011], we received support in the form of fertilizers and machinery,” Jacobo said. “In this period he covered 60% of the cost of a tractor for me and supported us with another 12 tractors.”
Jacobo said that since 2012, another three Mennonite settlements have been established some 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the crop fields of Salamanca in the ejidos of San Fernando, Paraíso and El Bajío.
“First there were 12 Mennonite ejidatarios, then there were 24 who became ejidatarios in Paraíso,” said a member of the Mayan Indigenous Council of Bacalar, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. “Now they say that they are the majority and they want to manipulate the other ejidatarios. The day [the Mennonites] become the majority, they can even kick us out of here.”
Since the Mennonite colony was established in the region, land clearing in the El Bajío and Paraíso ejidos has intensified, according to satellite data from Global Forest Watch. When Mongabay Latam reporters visited the area, they observed evidence of recent forest clearing.
Sanctions in the air
In March 2017, the Federal Attorney’s Office for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA) and the Mexican navy inspected three properties occupied by Mennonite groups in El Bajío, El Paraíso, and San Fernando ejidos. The inspection revealed unauthorized logging on 1,445 hectares of forested land.
In July 2018, PROFEPA fined Mennonite individuals and the ejido authorities of Paraíso and El Bajío 10,266,640 Mexican pesos (around $500,000). In addition to the fine, it ordered the reforestation of 1,316 hectares (3,252 acres) of deforested land. Mongabay reporters could not confirm whether similar sanctions were imposed on the San Fernando ejido.
Inhabitants of Paraíso and El Bajío interviewed by Mongabay allege that the fine has not been paid and that Mennonite communities continue to expand their agricultural holdings.
“They keep clearing the forest because they saw that there were no consequences,” said one ejidatario who requested anonymity for safety conerns.
Mongabay requested an interview with PROFEPA, but did not receive a response.
“They continue to log. The law is not rigorously applied,” said another ejidatario who also preferred to remain anonymous.
Habitat at risk
The area boasts a diverse range of natural wonders, including freshwater pools called cenotes, lagoons, and extensive stretches of tropical forest dominated by trees such as mahogany, cedar and siricote (Cordia dodecandra). Additionally, the region is home to many animal species, such as jaguars (Panthera onca), tapirs, and spider monkeys.
However, region has been affected by deforestation. Between 2001 and 2021, the municipality of Bacalar lost at least 124,979 hectares (308,829 acres) of tree cover, according to satellite data from Global Forest Watch. Preliminary data for 2022 and 2023 indicate forest loss is an ongoing issue.
So far, Bacalar’s protected areas have comparatively escaped the deforestation experienced in other parts of the municipality. One of these is the Bala’an K’aax Flora and Fauna Protection Area, which connects the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, located in the neighboring state of Campeche, and Sian K’aan, located in the municipalities of Felipe Carrillo Puerto and Tulum, in Quintana Roo.
Bacalar is also home to the San Felipe Bacalar experimental forestry area, an area of 8,000 hectares (19,768 acres) created by decree in 1973 and which is under the protection of the National Institute of Forestry, Agriculture and Livestock Research (INIFAP). The institute conducts research in the area with the objective of preserving the biodiversity of this region of the Yucatán Peninsula.
Despite the lower rates of deforestation in the region’s protected areas, San Felipe Bacalar has not been completely immune to habitat loss, according to INIFAP researcher Francisco Montoya Reyes.
“San Felipe Bacalar is becoming isolated,” Reyes said. “We have a growing agricultural frontier around the adjoining ejidos. This is worrisome because San Felipe is the middle part of a large biological corridor that runs from the Sian Ka’an reserve to Calakmul.”
Deforestation is not only occurring in El Bajío and Paraíso. Neighboring ejidos, such as San Fernando and Blanca Flor, are also affected.
Blanca Flor is a Mayan community of around 650 inhabitants. The community is known for its organic honey, and is where the the Kabi Habin beekeepers’ cooperative is headquartered.
Mennonite communities have already begun to rent and buy land in Blanca Flor, according to a beekeeper from the community who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.
“It has taken place without the knowledge of all the ejidatarios,” the beekeeper said. “Now there are about six or seven Mennonite people who bought [land titles] here in Blanca Flor.”
The beekeeper added that individuals from Mennonite communities have also purchased land titles in the San Fernando ejido.
“There are people who are already leaving because they sold their rights and no longer have land to work on,” the beekeeper said.
Mongabay Latam verified via satellite data and on-the-ground reporting that forest clearing has occurred within a Mennonite settlement approximately two kilometers (1.2 miles) from the San Fernando population center. In total, some 15 hectares (37 acres) of land that was once forested had been added to the more-than 570 hectares (1,408 acres) of agricultural land in the ejido over the past few years.
Land clearing in a protected area
The expansion of large-scale agricultural fields extends to the north of the Nuevo Tabasco ejido, also part of the municipality of Bacalar.
Satellite images of the area — including land within the Bala’an K’aax Flora and Fauna Protection Area — show patches of land cleared from the forest. Local sources attribute the deforestation to the Cuatro Banderas Mennonite colony.
Mongabay Latam requested an interview with SEMARNAT to find out what actions are being taken by the government to prevent deforestation from advancing in this region of Mexico, but did not receive a response.
Jacobo, who said he was one of the first Mennonites to settle in the municipality of Bacalar, spoke of how he had recently returned from Peru. He said he traveled there to visit friends and relatives who left the Salamanca ejido in 2021 to found a new Mennonite colony in the Peruvian department of Ucayali.
“More than 20 families left; about 28 or so,” Jacobo said. “They sold everything here, their houses, their plots, their horses and went to Peru, near Pucallpa.”
In 2022, Mennonite communities celebrated 100 years in Mexico, having first immigrated from Canada to the state of Chihuahua in 1922. To commemorate the centennial, the Bank of Mexico minted a 20-peso coin last year that shows a Mennonite family along with a railroad and agricultural fields.
Jacobo looked at the coin. “I think Mexico is happy with us, with our work,” he said. “I think that’s why we are on this coin.”
This is a translated and updated version of a story that was first reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and published here on our Latam site on Oct. 19, 2022.
See related: In this episode of Chasing Deforestation, host Romi Castagnino travels to the central Peruvian Amazon to learn how deforestation is affecting Indigenous communities and visit the Mennonite colony responsible for the destruction in search of answers.
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