Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Mennonites in Belize are immigrant farming-families of Dutch/German descent who live in six communities in the Orange Walk and Cayo Districts of northern Belize. These are Blue Creek, Shipyard, Little Belize, Progresso, Spanish Lookout and Barton Creek.
Mennonites are members of the Protestant religious sect that originated in Switzerland and the Netherlands at the time of the Protestant Reformation.
In Belize they steadfastly retain their culture, which is influenced by the fundamentalist religious ideal of maintaining closed communities founded on New Testament principles. Mennonites participate in the country’s commerce, light manufacture and agriculture and are well integrated into the local economy.
As elsewhere, Mennonites in Belize are divided into two streams: the progressive wing, believes the church should be more involved in the world and have incorporated engines and electricity into their lives. The traditional more conservative wing, believes that the modern world including contemporary machinery contaminates their faith.
As a consequence the Mennonites in Blue Creek own vehicles use telephones, listen to radio, and have built and maintain a hydroelectric dam. In contrast the Mennonite communities at Shipyard and Little Belize refrain from using modern farm equipment and drive horse-drawn buggies.
In addition to using English and Spanish, Belize Mennonites still speak the dialect of Old Dutch/German, which the sect has used for over 400 years, They also favour clothing that is heavily influenced by the styles of an earlier era.
The Mennonites emerged in the Netherlands in the 1520s during the Radical Reformation period in Europe. The sect derives its name from the reformist Protestant leader of the movement Menno Simons. Since Mennonites reject infant baptism they also came to be known as Anabaptists (re-baptizers)
One of the principal tenets of the Mennonites was that the conscience of the individual is the sole authority on matters of Biblical doctrine, and that no clergy was needed to interpret religious text or mediate between an individual and God.
As radical Protestants the Mennonites rejected the concept of a state religion, and were among the first to advocate the principle of separation of church and state and to condemn the practice of slavery. They refused to sanction war or to perform military service and were therefore regarded as subversive and persecuted and harassed for many decades. This prompted members of the Dutch sect and parallel groups from Switzerland and Germany to initiate sanctuary-seeking migrations into Eastern Europe, Russia, Canada and the US. There were distinctive groups among them who followed different leaders such as Jakob Hutter (Hutterites) and Jakob Amman (Amish or Amish Mennonites). Migrations continued throughout the 18th and 19th century and following World War I Mennonites from Russia, who were primarily of Dutch stock, migrated to Canada, especially Saskatchewan and Manitoba. More migrations occurred after World War II, particularly to, Paraguay, Brazil. And Mexico
In all cases the tendency was to take up unoccupied land in isolated outlying rural areas and as a result Mennonites have been a rural farming people for much of their history,
The Mennonite migrants have customarily obeyed the civil laws of the society in which they live but many refuse to bear arms, to support violence in any form, or to take judicial oaths, or to hold public office.
In 1959 about 3,000 Mennonites from Canada (Manitoba) and Mexico (Chihuahua) relocated to Belize along the River Hondo.
Under a special agreement signed with the Belize government they were exempted from military service and certain forms of taxation while at the same time were guaranteed complete freedom to farm and practise their own distinctive form of the Protestant religion within their closed communities.
The unprecedented arrangement also allowed Mennonites the freedom to establish their own form of local government and run their own schools, businesses and banks.
The sect was allowed to settle on large tracts of wooded land in the rural districts of Corozal, Orange Walk, and Cayo, This is in the region of Belize where the mestizo population had also first established communities and small farms after escaping Guatemalan civil strife in the 1800s.
The Mennonite land allocations have since been turned into large well maintained North American style farms and dairies. A road was constructed from the original Blue Creek settlement to Orange Walk, and additional settlements were established at Spanish Lookout and Shipyard.
Although isolating themselves from the other cultures of Belize, the Mennonites are able to provide essential services and agricultural products to the local market. They specialize in the production and sale of poultry and dairy products and distinctive wooden furniture that is sold in all districts of the country.
Mennonites have no tourism infrastructure nor do they specially encourage tourists. However, their unique lifestyle and distinctive place in the local economy have made their communities attractive to foreign visitors.
Updated December 2017