Mennonites Maintain Lifestyle in Bolivia Isolated from Technology


EL BREAL-COLONIA SUR, Bolivia – Mennonite communities in Bolivia's Chaco blend peasant and creole traditions as they adhere to their beliefs - no electric power and shunning modern technology - leading lives devoted to religion, agriculture and communal ranching.

The dusty roads winding between hills have allowed the Chaco Ra'anga Spanish foreign aid project to reach El Breal-Colonia Sur, a Mennonite community in the southern province of Tarija, a few kilometers from the Bolivia-Argentina border.

Abruptly, the 4x4 pick-up trucks and SUVs that negotiate the difficult Bolivian roads vanish. And only horse-drawn carriages are seen on the roads.

Tall, blue-eyed men and women, dressed all alike, drive around calmly on metal-ringed wheel carts among neat, whitewashed houses, each one with its own cultivated plot.

Women wear long dresses and cover their heads with bonnets and wide-brimmed hats, while men dress all the time in characteristic overalls for field work.

Large cans stand by each house's door waiting for the cooperative that runs the communal economy to pick up the milk and take it to the cheese factory.

Without electric power, televisions or radios, the Mennonite lifestyle is a trip to the late 19th century.

Mennonites speak a German dialect called "Plautdietsh," or Low German, although in their schools they study the official language of Germany.

The community's only school allows boys and girls to study until they are 12 and does not teach Spanish. At that point, children start learning from mothers and fathers the tasks assigned to them, community representative Abraham Rempel told Efe, adding that the community allows visits by tourists once a month.

The Mennonites' religion relegates women to domestic chores and prevents them from participating in the cooperative's policy decisions.

"This was a desert when we arrived, and we helped Chaqueños to find water," Rempel said, as he showed a group of Argentine, Paraguayan, Spanish and Bolivian visitors the processing of milk for cheese, and the corn, sorghum and soy crops.

Mennonites are Anabaptist Christians and pacifists who reject modern technology in their lives and generate energy with sustainable methods, banning asphalt roads around their community.

The El Breal group arrived in Bolivia in 1967 from Mexico, where they had arrived from Canada in 1922 after a journey that took them to Russia, the Netherlands and Germany.

"I am Bolivian, some other members here are Mexican, but, in fact, we can say we do not have a country," Rempel, who was born in Bolivia in 1969, said.

Some 60,000 Mennonites live in Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina, Rempel said.