Long known as one of the least worldly of peoples, Mennonites here are turning to politics for the first time to save the land that has been their refuge for nearly 70 years.
A pacifist Protestant sect whose members have traditionally equated isolation with peace, Mennonites have farmed this arid desert called the Chaco, in northern Paraguay, since 1927. It is an inhospitable area with week-long dust storms, 115 degree summer heat, and locust swarms that prey on crops. Many Paraguayans call it the "Green Hell."
In fact, the Mennonites chose the Chaco precisely because no one else wanted it. They hoped that because of the notoriously hostile environment, no one would challenge their domain.
But now that is changing.
In the past several years, Paraguay's Mennonites have come under attack from politicians claiming they are a "state within a state," from cattle ranchers deforesting nearby land, and from Indian advocates seeking to expropriate their property. And later this year, a new highway is scheduled to open that would connect Chile with Brazil passing directly through the Chaco.
"Many Mennonites are so worried they are thinking of moving to Bolivia," says Ricardo Caballero, a leading columnist for the Asuncion daily, ABC Color.
The Mennonites, who originated among the Anabaptists in Switzerland, have traditionally shunned contact with society as the best way to maintain their religious values. Thus, it was no easy decision when the 12,500-member Chaco community opted to fight back with an unprecedented weapon - politics.
In 1993, they voted in Cornelius Sawatzky as the Chaco's first Mennonite governor. Then they elected Henrich Ratzlaff to Congress as Latin America's first Mennonite to hold national office.
A strapping, blue-eyed man who favors safari suits and Birkenstock sandals, Mr. Ratzlaff was born in the Chaco after his father led a group fleeing Russian Bolshevik persecution. He has studied in California, and speaks English, Spanish, and Plattdeutsch, the northern German dialect that is his community's lingua franca. Until Ratzlaff entered politics, he was director of a psychiatric clinic. He ran no campaign and made no political speeches. "That would have been egoism," he declares.
The congressman says his job is not only to make his people's case to the outside world, but to help modernize the more standoffish traditional colonies. These colonies, which abstain from tobacco, alcohol, and dancing, also avoid modern technology, including cars and telephones. Men shun modern clothes for overalls, while women don loose-fitting dresses and bonnets.
"They view me as a lost soul, but I tell them that times are changing. They think that if society moves too close, there is someplace else to move to," Ratzlaff explains. In fact, 15 families pulled up stakes in March to go to Bolivia. "In 10 or 15 years," Ratzlaff says, "there won't be any place left on earth."
For the time being, most of Chaco's Mennonites are staying put around Filadelfia, a town of 3,000 inhabitants, located 300 miles north of the capital, Asuncion.
Visitors to the Mennonite capital are greeted by a huge sign over the youth center saying "Willkommen." Wide dirt streets house a small hotel, five red-brick churches, several restaurants, a radio station, peanut factory, bank, and an air-conditioned supermarket with a computer check-out system.
The Mennonites have built a prosperous agricultural colony here, and its members have a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. Their farms provide 45 percent of Paraguay's dairy products, 41 percent of its peanuts, and 10 percent of its meat. Most business is organized into cooperatives in which land is owned and worked individually but crops are sold together.
Ratzlaff says one of his chief aims is to fight congressional attempts to repeal Law 514, the 1921 agreement giving Mennonites autonomy over their affairs. The law allows them to run their own schools, hospitals, police force, roads, and utilities and collect their own taxes. Males are given special dispensation from military conscription. Congressional critics say it is time they are treated like everybody else.
"There is the perception that we have taken advantage of the state," Ratzlaff says.
On the other hand, Mennonite leaders say cattle ranchers are taking advantage of lax enforcement to threaten the Chaco with environmental destruction.
The Chaco has one of the world's richest eco-systems, with 2,000 square miles of grasslands and forests sheltering ostrich, swans, flamingos, pumas, and monkeys. Cattle ranchers - mostly from Brazil, Germany, and South Africa - are deforesting the landscape, eroding soil, and wiping out habitats of many locust-eating birds. This year for the first time, the Mennonites had to spray insecticide by plane to elminate swarms of insects.
Along with Raul Gauto, director of Paraguay's Moises Bertoni Foundation, Paraguay's leading environmental group, the community demarcated 56,252 acres of natural parks and developed regional sustainable development projects. "The Mennonites are well aware of their environment and are very disciplined about sustainable development," Mr. Guato says.
Ratzlaff is also busy publicizing community work on behalf of the region's 18,000 Indians, which he insists is based on goodwill, although critics charge it is paternalistic. Congressional foes have rallied around a group of Indian activists who have made large claims on the colony land.
Ratzlaff is pushing for the administration of President Juan Carlos Wasmosy to buy uninhabited Chaco land for the region's nine indigenous groups. "If we don't find a solution in the next year or two," he concedes, "we will have a serious problem on our hands."
Critics also charge that the Mennonites exploit Indians for cheap labor. Scores of indigenous families have in fact migrated to the Mennonite colonies in vast numbers in search of work and modern comforts, and many live in Filadelfia's shantytowns.
Early on in their colonization, the Mennonites set up a welfare arm funded by donations and Mennonite taxes that funds schools and medical clinics, the Association of Mennonite-Indigenous Cooperation.
The Mennonites hope the money buys more than charity. "It's for our own security," says agronomist Wilhelm Giesbrecht, suggesting such philanthropy may forestall Indian demands for their land.
Meanwhile, Congressman Ratzlaff says he expects more Mennonites to run for public office in next year's elections. Until then, he knows his job is far from that of a traditional politician looking after his district's interests.
"The Mennonites don't expect great things from me," he says. "All they want me to do is make sure they are left in peace."