mennonites
Buggy near Barton Creek Community

In 1959, the first Mennonites settled in Belize in search of a life, free of religious persecution and the pressures of modern society.  Since then, many communities have developed in the North and West of Belize, utilizing some of the best farmlands, producing much of the basic food items that Belizeans consume.  These communities vary in the level of their adoption to modern life and technology; from the ever-modernizing Spanish Lookout and Blue Creek to the more serene communities like Shipyard and Barton Creek.

These idyllic communities are themselves an enigma; closed off from the everyday amenities, challenges, and temptations facing mainstream Belizeans, but fully plugged into the business environment of Belize as an integral, arguably indispensable part of our economy.  This duality is confusing to Belizeans, and it is only when one digs deeper into the workings of these communities that their impact can be understood.

Belizean Mennonites, and I use that term carefully, vary in their approach to technology and integration depending on the community in which they associate. I use the term “Belizean” carefully because many of the communities will exchange members with other communities in Canada, Mexico and Bolivia on a regular basis; mostly to promote non-related marriages, and to bring in fresh ideas and capital to build their communities. I used the word “associate”, because there is a growing trend of Mennonites moving out of their native villages into urban areas for purpose of business expansion, for marriage to non-Mennonite spouses, and in the well-known case of a Mennonite Belizean, to run for public office.

I had the opportunity to spend the day with a group of Mennonites from Blue Creek and one from Shipyard on Saturday.  It is only in spending time with these fascinating individuals that one gets to understand their inner workings, and the nuanced differences among the various communities that most outsiders would hardly notice.

The first thing that always stands out to in any interaction is the level of innovation and the “can do” attitude that is seemingly innate in the Mennonite psyche.   My friend from Shipyard, despite not having use of Internet, electricity, or mechanical implements in his personal life, is nothing short of a genius in mechanical engineering.  He speaks diagnostically about motors, vehicles, boats and barges that he builds from scratch, and just about any mechanical contraption in ways that advanced engineers from MIT would applaud.  These men do not know the meaning of the word “can’t”, or “stuck”.   I was amazed to witness an on-the-fly vulcanization of a gash in a flat tire without removing the tire from the vehicle, in no less than 10 minutes, in the middle of a muddy, almost impassable trail.

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Map showing Neulands (blue) and Balam Jungle

Part of my day took me into a newly established community aptly named Neulands, an idyllic farming community about 9 miles east of the village of Santa Marta along the Old Northern Highway in the Orange Walk District.  This developing community on 24,000 acres of land acquired by the Shipyard community at a whopping price of $12 Million, was established some 3 years ago.  Already about 12,000 acres are cleared and much of it planted in Beans and Corn, ready for harvest.  It is hard to describe the size and scope of this development, happening in the midst of Belize with hardly a notice by mainstream Belizeans.  Neulands already has over 500 permanent residents, and a large network of roads all installed by the community under a creative structure where land is re-sold to members at a profit in 60 acre parcels, and where an annual per-acre locally administered tax is levied to pay for expansion and maintenance of road infrastructure.  Residents in Neulands are for the most part transplants from Shipyard, where the growing population numbering close to 4,500, seems to be causing a shortage of farmlands and growth stagnation.

The simplicity of this community and the non-mechanical, rural lifestyle of its residents belies the wealth that it wields.  It is perhaps this under-the radar approach that has allowed the virtual clear-cutting of thousands of acres of pristine rainforest, much to the chagrin of environmentalist watchdogs, just along the perimeter of the Freshwater Creek Forest Reserve. This land, purchased from a large foreign land owner, used to form a part of the massive Balam Jungle Estate, a former logging plantation that made up almost 8% of the Belize’s landmass.  The low-tech lifestyles of the traditional Mennonites from Shipyard and Neulands seem to be equated to a low-tech approach to farming, and that is far from the truth.  Parked next to quaint wooden farmhouses and horse and buggy trap sets are modern excavators, tractors and combine harvesters; while modern crop sprayers fly overhead, dispensing herbicides, pesticides and all forms of agricultural chemicals.

Within this new industrial farming complex, it’s support infrastructure is underpinned by an army of non-Mennonite Belizean personnel that cleverly take on tasks that are necessary, thereby allowing the traditional Mennonites to obey their commitment to a pastoral lifestyle devoid of modern contraptions.  Mennonites from these communities, in contrast to the ones in Spanish Lookout, are prohibited by their elders to utilize technology except in their work, a term that is rather loosely defined except in their own home or in activities that doesn’t earn income, and never to be used by their own person.  In order to ensure non-violation of these principles, they employ others as their surrogates in the interaction with and ownership of modern technology.  As many customers of services in Shipyard may know, one cannot call the owner of a service shop or a farm, but you can call his worker’s cellular phone and that worker will hand it over to the owner. The same holds true for vehicles.  While residents travel around the community on horse and buggies, there is a pool of pickup truck owners that park at the general store in Shipyard, waiting to be called for a quick trip to move a heavy item or for distant transport of individuals outside the reach of horse drawn buggies.

The last Census in Belize showed 10,607 Mennonites living across Belize.  With high birthrates, immigration and un-registered births, it is believed that the number today is probably closer to 16,000 spread across approximately 13 communities.  If one were to do an assessment of land ownership and cultivation, however, this one sect of the Belizean population holds the largest ownership of land per capita than any other single ethnic or economic group consisting less than 5% of the national population.  The acquisition of the 24,000 acre Neulands property is only one example of the expansionary policy and program of the Mennonites; a program that is repeated 13 times across the nation.

The Mennonites’ contribution to GDP, is yet to be assessed, and that is a difficult task because of the nature of how they transact.  Financial transactions are typically done among the population within their own un-licensed credit unions and other casual systems outside of the financial system.  It was only within the last four years that the Spanish Lookout Credit Union, an institution that rivals the size of smaller banks, has come under the supervision of the Central Bank. Cash transactions are the norm, especially in the case of large volumes of unreported sales of livestock and produce across the borders to neighboring Guatemala and Mexico.

My trip to Neulands highlighted to me the scope of the unreported economy in Belize, and within this one economic group.  I was pleasantly surprised to see a sign on the general store displaying their Tax ID Number (TIN), but the majority of their other business, by virtue of being in the agriculture sector, and because they produce mostly zero rated food items, benefit from large tax credits.  Their land clearing activity, perhaps due to the apparent simplicity of their lifestyle often falls below the environmental radar.

This segment of the economy, not in the shadows but open for all to see, represents a parallel existence of a separate culture, interacting with Belize purely for the profit that it brings, minus the burdens of tax, crime, or financial controls that the rest of Belize bears.

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Neulands General Store

I am no advocate for jeopardizing our bread-basket, nor do I believe we should dissuade these innovative, hardworking Belizeans from earning a living through productivity.  On one hand, It is without a doubt that the rest of the country ought to gain more benefits from these immense activities, paid for by our own consumption patterns.  On the other hand, the abundance of basic food production, albeit in a low tax and low regulatory environment, has kept our cost of living far lower than our fellow Caribbean and Central American neighbors.

The fact is that these communities continue to expand and thrive. Many of the more progressive members of the Mennonite community now control large import-based retail enterprises outside of their own communities, while our towns and cities continue to starve for revenue and infrastructure improvements.

We ought to learn from the Mennonites and adopt some of their principles to build all our Belizean communities in a similar way, but we also need to integrate these productive people into our mainstream economy, and we must ensure that the economic benefits are shared in an equitable manner.

Neulands Community was an eye-opener for me, beyond our vision, in plain sight.