The Gran Chaco is Paraguay’s frontier country, with 60% of the landmass but only 4% of the country’s population. It is a subtle landscape: the land is predominantly flat, rising gently from the Paraguay river in the South East to the border with Bolivia in the North. The vegetation graduates from a rich and lush savanna near Asuncion, through to dry and often impenetrable thorn brush in the north. It may not be sensational, but in its quiet way the region is a nature-lover’s paradise: trees, plants, birds and wild animals in abundance, clean air, hot sun, and wide horizons.A very different form of settlement took place when the Christian Mennonites were offered refuge in Paraguay at the beginning of the twentieth century. The government granted them political autonomy under a Privilegium. A strict, hard-working and God-fearing sect, they came as religious refugees, originally from Holland and Switzerland, latterly from the Former Soviet Union, Canada and Mexico. Like the Indians they lived off the land, but as settled farmers. Against the odds they developed successful agricultural communities, even where conditions were at their most hostile. There are now eighteen Mennonite settlements and over 30,000 inhabitants across the country overall.
In the early days of their settlement there was some resentment of the newcomers amongst the local Nivaclé Indians, because of their settled agricultural system and their proselytizing manner. But in recent years relationships have improved, and both cultures realize that cooperation is necessary for their joint survival and prosperity. One Mennonite settlement is Fernheim, a commune of 4,000 people. Founded in 1930, it originally consisted of German-speaking refugees who had fled religious oppression in Russia and the Ukraine. Filadelfia, 450km from Asuncion, and about 20km north of the Ruta Trans-Chaco, is the administrative capital of Fernheim: a pleasant, well-ordered town of well- kept houses & gardens.
The inhabitants still speak Plattdeutsch amongst themselves, but also Hochdeutsch, Spanish-Guarani and, increasingly, English. The streets, museum, hotels, shops and even the cemetery are well-ordered and cared-for, the traffic is light, the children polite. It’s like stepping back in time.
The Nivaclé live in a community of 280 families on the Southern edge of Filadelfia town, and are learning to work on the farms and in the local Cooperative Milk Factory and supermarket. The Mennonites have also provided the Indians with educational and health services, and are increasingly trying to help them retain their traditional culture, just as they have guarded their own. Handicrafts, based on local materials, are one expression of traditional values for the Nivacle, as with other Indians in Paraguay. A Mennonite-owned store, the Mensajero, just next door to the Florida Hotel, is currently the only outlet. This little shop, in addition to Christian literature and music, sells handicrafts produced by the Indians. These consist mostly of textiles and bags made from fibers of the caraguat plant, dyed brown, red, yellow, gray or violet by vegetable bark, roots, pods or resin.
Unfortunately, these traditions are in great danger of extinction and there has been a need to re-teach some of the weaving techniques. The few older women who have retained or re-acquired the skills admit that they are finding it difficult to generate any enthusiasm amongst the young. Moreover, they are unable to develop an inventory of their goods because they do not have the funds to invest either in equipment or in materials. This means that as each piece is completed, it is sold to the Mensajero in return for money that is then immediately used for the demands of daily village or family life.
The Nivaclé have been through dark days. However, a new cultural community center, funded in part by the European Community, seems to be renewing some pride and hope for the future. On Indigenes Day – April 19, 2001 – the center hosted a festival of dance and music for some of the 17,000 Indians of other tribes, who traveled there from outlying areas of the central Chaco. The Chaco is beautiful, and Filadelfia is an attractive and comfortable stop for the inquiring traveler. Both Mennonite and Nivaclé communities have singular cultures that are well worth exploring. The Mennonites are readily contacted via the Museo Unger (on Hindenburg) and the library. And the Hotel Florida shows an hour-long professional video on Mennonite history.
Text written by Maria Gallitelli