The Mennonites of Liviney, Colombia – A Photo Essay | Colombia


IIn a remote corner of the rolling plains that stretch across eastern Colombia, from the foothills of the Andes to the Venezuelan border, a cluster of grain silos stand against the pristine blue sky.

Not so long ago, this region was plagued by communist insurgents and right-wing paramilitaries; now it is home to an austere community of Anabaptist Christians with blond hair and blue eyes, whose origins date back to 16th-century Frisia.

The children, neatly dressed in plaid shirts and long dresses, are finishing their Bible studies – in English, Spanish and Low German – and getting ready for an afternoon of work in the fields; the patriarchs of the family fuel huge combines, shipped especially from Mexico and the United States. Their wives, who rarely work the crops outside of harvest time, take care of the household chores in their homes.

The first members of this Mennonite community arrived here in 2016, but their ancestors have migrated for centuries.

“The Anabaptist ancestors of the Mennonites were driven out of Europe by the 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 founders of the group who was martyred in the 16th century. “I wanted to know who these ancestral neighbors are who now live across the world.”

The Mennonite diaspora began to flee their native lands in northern Europe – through Holland, Switzerland, and Germany – in the 16th century, to escape persecution from the Catholic Church.

Women are rarely seen in the fields unless it is harvest time.  Then you can see them sitting in the little car-sized John Deer cabins with their husbands.
Liviney is surrounded by patches of forest that resemble islands in the sea of ​​grass and form along rivers and streams.  The locals call them Morichales because the Moriche palm dominates the rest of the vegetation.  These swamp forests are home to the jaguar, tapir and anaconda.
  • Liviney is surrounded by patches of forest that resemble islands in the sea of ​​grass and form along rivers and streams. The locals call them moriches because the moriche palm dominates the rest of the vegetation. These swamp forests are home to the jaguar, tapir and anaconda.

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

Most of the inhabitants of this colony, known as Liviney, hold Mexican passports and have spent most of their lives in a community of tens of thousands in the Sonoran Desert. But the land there was expensive and unsuitable for many cash crops, the rains were scarce, and the water was deep underground, requiring intensive drilling.

In addition, northern Mexico is currently the scene of a fierce war on drugs of which innocent passers-by are frequently victims: three years ago, men armed with cartels murdered six children and three women from a Mormon community. who, like the Mennonites, had settled in the country in the 19th century.

If possible, European migrants from the New World settled in areas that reminded them of homes left behind.  In Liviney's case, some residents are struggling to introduce look-alike pine species.
Fifteen-year-old David Bowen finished school helping his parents on the farm
Martin Klause, 16, finished school to help his parents on the farm
Eight-year-old Eva Loewen
Before their decision to settle in Colombia, the Mennonites asked the government for assurances that they would be allowed to continue their way of life, that is, to open their own schools, churches and cemeteries and not to not having to send their children to compulsory military service, which could put them on the front lines of the war on drugs.
  • Eight-year-old Eva Loewen. Right: Eva Fehr, daughter of Issak Fehr, from a family of eight children. Before their decision to settle in Colombia, the Mennonites had asked the government for assurances that they would be allowed to continue their way of life, that is, to open their own schools, churches and cemeteries and not to not having to send their children to compulsory military service, which could put them on the front lines of the war on drugs.

Colombia’s 2016 peace process, which ended five decades of civil war, offered Mennonites a way to carve out a new place for themselves in South America.

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

His Colombian truckers like Alberto Cardenas who bring imported fertilizers south of Cartagena de Indias to the Caribbean coast at 1,500 km, in a three-day journey.  When the fertilizer is unloaded, it fills the truck with soybeans, grains or rice.
  • Colombian truckers like Alberto Cárdenas bring imported fertilizers south of Cartagena de Indias to the Caribbean coast 1,500 km away, in a three-day journey. When the fertilizer is unloaded, it fills the truck with soybeans, grains or rice.

Within a few years, however, Mennonite investors secured title to 20,000 hectares of land. Fleets of 18-wheeled trucks regularly pick up Liviney’s biggest exports: rice, corn and soybeans, the latter of which are sold to a pig farm owned by a former president.

“The Lord’s blessing makes you rich effortlessly,” reads an inscription in German on the wall of one of the settlement’s many churches which also serves as a school.

But the colony’s growth didn’t come without hard work – and plenty of investment: Mennonites have invested more than $ 20 million in two newly incorporated local businesses.

The Loewen family with his father Abram, his wife Eva Harms, Ana, one year old, Eva, eight, and Abram, six.  The family had a very good grain and soybean harvest, which enabled them to buy a house from a less fortunate family who returned to Mexico.
  • The Loewen family with his father Abram, his wife Eva Harms, Ana, one year old, Eva, eight, and Abram, six. The family had good crops of grain and soybeans, which enabled them to buy a house from a family that returned to Mexico.

Rice farmer Abram Loewen and his daughter Ana.

“Here you have to invest a lot of money in the land before you earn anything,” said Abram Loewen, a rice farmer. Like other senior members of the community, he employs other Mennonites who have not been able to harvest their own crops.

Liviney’s gleaming vans and air-conditioned homes stand in stark contrast to the poverty in the surrounding area, which had long been overlooked by the Colombian government.

And unlike the rugged dirt trails of neighboring villages, Liviney’s roads are paved with fine red gravel and flanked by brand new pylons and power cables.

Pastor Abram Fehr on a Sunday morning.
Pastor Abram Fehr with his family.

Abram Fehr, tall and with a pair of arctic blue eyes, is a pastor and also the owner of the only hotel in town that, before the pandemic, received Mennonite visitors from as far away as Mexico, Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina seeking to buy land.

Argentinian Mennonites are currently the biggest buyers, Fehr said, because they want to escape what they see as government “interference” in their children’s education.

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

Young people kiss on Sundays to play volleyball, listen to rock music, drink beers (boys only) and vape.
  • Young people go out on Sundays to play volleyball, listen to rock music, drink beers (but only boys) and vape.

In recent decades, similar tensions have sparked the departure of a wave of Mennonite migrants from Canada – “practically a communist state,” Fehr scoffed.

Mennonites have little contact with their neighbors, who call them “the Germans” and comment on their “weird accents.”

Some locals complain about the intensive farming practices of the Mennonites, and the rapid expansion of the community has also brought them into conflict with the indigenous Sikuani people, after the Mennonites move to lands claimed by the tribe.

Further friction was caused by aggressive settler logging – a practice that was banned for decades by the Farc rebels.

“While Mennonites get along well with the locals, buying produce in nearby towns and visiting restaurants and boosting our economy, there are environmental issues,” a local government official said diplomatically.

Escarlet's family is Venezuelan, his partner works for Abram Loewen.  Many Venezuelan migrants travel length and breadth of Colombia in search of a better life.

Asked about the climate crisis, aggravated by global deforestation, Ramon Dick, one of Liviney’s leaders, was fatalistic.

“As a Christian, I don’t fear death or the end of the world because I am entrusted to Christ,” he said, his wide smile revealing a series of shiny white teeth. “I am, the day I die, I am with him, walking on a golden sidewalk towards a crystal clear sea!”

The new Liviney cemetery.  A 20 x 20 meter square surrounded by a 1 meter high cement wall.  Placed flat on the ground in a corner a small solitary marble tombstone with the inscription: John Fehrn Janzen's baby born June 22, 2018 and died December 5, 2018, he lived 5 months and 13 days.  The first person to die in the new colony.


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