Bolivian mennonites bring the «hell» of deforestation to Suriname

The Mennonite colony of California (on the shores of the dried-up Concepción lagoon) has developed in this region of Santa Cruz (Bolivia) since 2006. On December 29, 2023, Revista Nómadas captured this image, revealing that —17 years later— no forest remains standing.

January 8th, 2024

  • The Surinamese government approved the arrival of 50 families for an agricultural project starting with 30,000 hectares (twice Suriname’s annual deforestation rate) and projecting up to 300,000 hectares, according to Terra Invest, the company responsible for bringing the Mennonites from Bolivia. Surinamese indigenous people question the concession of land to foreigners, while they have been demanding for decades that the state recognize their land rights.


  • Adrian Barbero, a partner at Terra Invest, the company taking Bolivian Mennonites to Suriname, says there will be «unbridled deforestation,» and the impact will be significant, but they are not in places where there could be problems with indigenous people. However, he claims that on the lands his company transfers to the Mennonites, only 50% deforestation will be allowed. Barbero also asserts that he has recorded the amounts of land the Bolivian Mennonites need, totaling more than one million hectares.


  • Environmental experts warn of the risk of triggering massive deforestation in Suriname, the country with the highest percentage of forest in its territory globally: 92,6%. They alert that the expansive culture of the Mennonites and their impact on deforestation in the countries where they reside threaten the virgin forest in Suriname.

Fernando Soria

Journalist for Revista Nómadas


Miguel Aguirre Hodgkinson

Translation to English*


A kingdom of giants with brown trunks and green crowns cares for the air we breathe. This jungle shelters monkeys, snakes, butterflies, anteaters, birds, and other species that, with their songs and cries, roars, chirps, squawks, and hoots, create music, the music of nature. A wild symphony.

Suriname is jungle. Literally, jungle. It is a country with 163,000 km² (slightly smaller than Uruguay), of which 92,6% is covered by trees, giving it the world title for the country with the highest percentage of forest in its territory. In this jungle, some indigenous peoples live off what nature provides. But suddenly, the wild symphony is interrupted by the roar of a bulldozer. Its mission: to fell trees in that seemingly infinite jungle, which is not infinite. And the trees begin to fall massively, as in the music video for Michael Jackson’s song «Earth Song.»

This jungle is not tattooed with asphalt roads; to venture into it, one must go by air or navigate through the veins of its rivers. It was thus, through a river, that, in December 2022, a barge—like an aircraft carrier transporting an F-16 for a destructive task—carried the bulldozer into the Surinamese forest.

Suriname is a country that has 163,000 km² (a little smaller than Uruguay) of which 92.6% is covered by trees, which gives it the world title of the country with the highest percentage of forest in its territory .

The machine, with a tank-like traction system similar to that of war tanks, and with a metal blade and steel blades at the front to fell trees, is operated by a ‘standard’ Mennonite: tall, blond, in overalls, checkered shirt, and hat. How did he get to Suriname? Who brought it?

That image seems to be the beginning of ‘something,’ a new time for the jungle of Suriname. The beginning of the end?

(I) Without consulting anyone / they prepare destruction / playing with our lives / selling to the highest bidder. / Blood on the land / Fire in the sky / It is the beginning of the end.


Suriname has around 635,000 inhabitants, of which 70% are concentrated in the northern zone, on the Atlantic coast, where its capital, Paramaribo, and its metropolitan area are located. The rest of its population, including indigenous peoples, is scattered in that 92,6% virgin forest, giving the country the status of High Forest and Low Deforestation (HFLD).

It is a South American country, but it seems absent from the collective consciousness as part of the predominantly Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking region. It is located north of Brazil and between Guyana (a former British colony) and French Guiana, both equally distant from the idea of what is considered ‘South American.’ Suriname gained independence from the Netherlands in 1975, inheriting, among many other characteristics, its official language, Dutch.

But how did the Mennonites get here, and how will it affect the forest? This story has its roots in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where there are more than 120 Mennonite colonies, and where Adrian Barbero, an Argentine land trader, resides, having become a naturalized Bolivian 10 years ago. He, along with Ruud Sovereign, a Dutchman based in Suriname, are partners in the agricultural real estate company Terra Invest and are responsible for the lobbying with the Surinamese government, the project development, logistics, and everything related to the arrival of the Mennonites in Suriname.

With a relatively low deforestation rate, the country holds the special status of High Forest, Low Deforestation (HFLD) .

Through this two-year lobby, they have managed to get the Surinamese government to grant them 30,000 hectares of land, which they will then transfer to the Mennonites. According to Barbero, this is part of a project in which the Surinamese government aims to convert 300,000 hectares (1.8% of its territory) into crops. This is equivalent to twice the size of the surface area of São Paulo, Brazil, the most populous city in Latin America, with over 12 million inhabitants. Thus, without consulting anyone, according to representatives of indigenous peoples and environmentalists, they will sweep away trees from that virgin jungle, with its ‘wild symphony’ and all that lives within it .

Barbero considers himself the ‘world reference for the Mennonites’ because they represent 50% of his clientele, and, in his words, he understands them and ensures they are not viewed negatively. «Not because they are the nicest guys in the world, but because they generate business for me, and I take care of my business,» he explains, without mincing words.

In September 2022, Barbero appears in a video on his TikTok account video en su cuenta de TikTok, «We are in the southeast region of Suriname, in the middle of the jungle, clearing some old fallow land that was there, to start some work.» The scene is a plot of land, a hill, already completely earth-colored, with nothing green surviving. In the background, a bulldozer levels the trees. This image may not be anything out of the ordinary in any other country in the world, but in Suriname, it has a powerful meaning: it is the beginning of ‘something,’ the arrival of Mennonites, people with agricultural vocation and an expansive culture who carry the outstanding reputation of being hardworking and honest but also the bad reputation of «leaving no tree standing.»

Thus, in the least deforested country in the world, the wild symphony seeks to be silenced by the roar of the bulldozer.

And that’s not all. The image of the machine with steel blades sweeping away trees also has a meaning that goes beyond the environmental and enters into the in the field of indigenous peoples’ rights, Suriname’s government, as the landowner, has now granted land concessions to foreign Mennonites, while indigenous people have been demanding recognition of their land rights since their independence from the Netherlands. In nearly half a century, the state has not recognized anything for the indigenous people, whereas the Mennonites were granted a concession in just a couple of years (the power of lobbying).

Suriname is the fourth least densely populated country globally, with three inhabitants per square kilometer. It boasts a diverse population, from European descendants to Amerindians (descendants of Indian people) and maroons (descendants of former slaves). The indigenous population comprises around 20,000 people (3.8% of the total population), with the Kaliña (Caribs), Lokono (Arawaks), Trio (Tirio, Tareno), and Wayana being the four most numerous, according to information from IWGIA, a global organization advocating for indigenous peoples’ rights.

In Suriname, the State owns the land and has now granted concessions to foreign Mennonites, while indigenous people have been advocating for decades, since their independence from the Netherlands, to have their rights recognized over the land they inhabit .

Iona Edwards, an indigenous parliamentarian, told Nómadas that the government has not informed or consulted them about the arrival of the Mennonites. Recently (in October), they were only informed that the pilot project involves 30,000 hectares for 50 Mennonite families, and nothing more; they don’t even know where the concessioned lands are.

This happens despite the fact that the arrival of Mennonites in Suriname did not happen overnight. As Barbero mentioned, there were meetings and negotiations for almost two years. There is an approval document, dated October 6, 2022, issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Barbero’s partner, Ruud Souverein, with the subject: «Permission for 50 Mennonite Families to Travel to Suriname.» It details that the permit is for Mennonite residents of the Valle Esperanza, Valle Hermoso, Yanaigua, and Norte colonies (located in Santa Cruz, Bolivia) and that with this permit, they can «work in the agricultural sector for a period of 3 years.»

In «We Kill the World» (1981), the band Boney M. sings: «Heavy tractors / invade where the air was clean and fresh / to make money. / Where will this take us and what is it good for? / The trees will fall. / Poor world, it is suffering a lot. / Poor world, it is doomed to die. / We kill the world.».


«I want to go to Suriname,» says Juan (we keep the real name and surname to protect his identity), quickly and with enthusiasm. At the mention of the name ‘Suriname,’ his blue eyes light up, and his mouth remains slightly open in a half-smile that reveals a pair of large front teeth, framed in silver material. Juan is on 6 de Agosto Street, in Los Pozos market, Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where Mennonites from different colonies come every day to make various purchases.

He is sitting outside an optician’s shop, waiting for the taxi that will take him back to his colony, Valle Hermoso, one of the four mentioned in the Surinamese government document, permitted to access the first 30,000 hectares that will no longer be virgin jungle but will be transformed into crops. The thermometer reads 31 degrees on a mid-October noon, and Juan wears a hat in the shade, a long-sleeved shirt with buttons fastened up to the neck, and is clad in overalls. Juan shows excitement at the prospect of owning land and a new nationality in that country, for himself and his children—the five he currently has and those he hopes to have with his wife, who is sitting beside him.

But how was the process for Bolivian Mennonites to be in Suriname now? According to Adrián Barbero, the project is an initiative of the Surinamese government, which asked him to bring farmers to transform forests into areas for cultivating soy and corn, aiming to have grains to feed chickens and thus ensure food for its residents. (Nómadas contacted two ministries of the government for this and other queries, but there were no responses).

In the first stage, he says, work will be done on 30 thousand hectares, which have been concessioned by the Government to Terra Invest and this company will transfer them to the societies made up of Mennonites in Suriname.

We asked Barbero if the need for farmers from the Surinamese government and the need for land from the Mennonites came together, and he replied, «We brought them together.»

Barbero says he has recorded the amounts of land that Mennonites need and ensures that they total more than one million hectares.

In the first stage, he says, they will work on 30,000 hectares, which the government has granted to Terra Invest, and this company will transfer them to the societies formed by Mennonites in Suriname. In other words, the government does not grant directly to the Mennonites but to Barbero and Souverein’s company.

To make this project viable, Barbero says he conducted negotiations, met several requirements to be eligible for the concession, and decided to bring Mennonites because they need land and can adapt to any place, no matter how remote.

Adrián Barbero (in blue shirt), in Suriname. Photo: AgroNegocios Barbero.

Precisely, Juan is one of those willing to go anywhere where he can have 50 hectares to cultivate and the chance for his children, in the future, to also have that amount of land. «It’s the minimum we need to cultivate,» he affirms.

Barbero acknowledges that there will be «excessive deforestation» in Suriname and that it is a country not accustomed to it, but he assures that in the lands Terra Invest will transfer to the Mennonites, they will only allow clearing 50%, although he did not show a document or evidence establishing that measure.

The Mennonites have an agricultural vocation and a high fertility rate, which always requires more land. As a result, colonies multiply as males reach adulthood. However, there comes a point where they can’t find more land in their residing country, prompting them to look beyond their borders, explains Alcides Vadillo, director of the Fundación Tierra in Santa Cruz.

Mennonites from a colony in the Chaco cruceño, after deforestation, turn fallen trees into charcoal. Photo: Revista Nómadas.

This is how they migrated from the Netherlands to America, first to Canada, then to Mexico, Paraguay, Belize, Bolivia, lately to Peru, and now they set foot in Suriname.

To make this project feasible, Barbero mentions that he carried out negotiations, fulfilled a series of requirements to qualify for the concession, and decided to bring Mennonites because they need land and adapt to any location, no matter how remote it may be.

According to environmentalist groups in Suriname, the government’s discourse is that they must produce more soy and other grains to ensure the country’s food security. Additionally, they aim to export in the future to generate foreign exchange. Nómadas contacted the Ministry of Special Planning and Development via email and the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Fisheries via telephone to understand the objectives and details of the project thoroughly, but there was no response.

In their offices, far from the forests, questions linger: How much do they charge the Mennonites per hectare? What is the price set for clearing virgin forest that is truly invaluable for human survival? Were indigenous peoples consulted? Why, in a couple of years of lobbying, are lands conceded to a private company and foreigners, but the historical demand of indigenous people for the recognition of their land rights is not addressed?

This is how the jungle of Suriname, with all its wild symphony, was offered by Barbero to the Mennonites, and the Mennonites were offered to the government of Suriname. Thus, the arrival of Bolivian Mennonites in Suriname occurs amidst two opposing views. On one hand, the environmentalist perspective anticipates consequences regarding deforestation due to the presence of the Mennonites, coupled with potential conflicts arising from the claims of indigenous peoples demanding their land rights. On the other hand, there is the worldview from the agricultural production  standpoint, championing a discourse of food security and agricultural frontier expansion at the expense of felling trees.

This situation foretells a conflict between the Surinamese government, indigenous peoples, and environmentalist institutions. Voices have already started rising, announcing mobilizations and protests to defend Suriname’s jungle and maintain its low deforestation status (HFDL), keeping 92,6% of its territory covered in trees.

(II) Man was never the owner of Gaia; it is precisely the other way around. (Man is not the owner of the land; the land owns man).


«It’s not about demonizing anyone, as the Mennonites are well-known for positive aspects such as their dedication to work, pacifist culture, and honesty,» emphasizes Alcides Vadillo. However, this is followed by a ‘dark’ side, as they are also known (by those who know them well) for being less attached to laws and norms, following their own ideas, for example, in deforestation and the use of transgenics and agrochemicals, and also in terms of internal punishments within the colonies, which, being very closed, impose their own rules not always in line with human rights.

But who are the Mennonites? They give the impression of living in another era, centuries ago. They stand out for their attire: long-sleeved checkered shirts (also plain), hats, overalls, or suspenders for men; while women wear long dresses, almost to the ankles, and cover their heads with scarves and hats. Literally, they have dressed like this for centuries. In their colonies, in the traditional ones, they travel in horse-drawn iron-wheeled carts, have no access to media, and are governed by their religious norms.

Tractors, with iron wheels, are common tools in Mennonite colonies in Bolivia. Photo: Revista Nómadas.

In the more modern colonies, they have started to leave some restrictions behind, causing certain disagreements with the ‘traditional’ ones.

Another characteristic is their pursuit of naturalization; just as they are currently seeking to be Surinamese, they have done so in other countries before. In addition to land allocation, they negotiate some ‘benefits,’ such as abstaining from military service and the mandatory formal education of their children. Moreover, they do not engage in politics. They are also characterized by not buying agricultural lands for their new colonies because they are more expensive. Instead, they prefer forested lands because they are cheaper and do not hesitate to cut down any tree that appears in front of them. A bulldozer, and it’s taken care off.

It’s not about demonizing anyone, as Mennonites are well-known for positive aspects such as their dedication to work, pacifist culture, and honesty,» emphasizes Alcides Vadillo. However, this is followed by a ‘dark’ side, as they are also known for their ‘reputation’ of being less adherent to laws and regulations .

In the document «Pious Pioneers, the Expansion of Mennonite Colonies in Latin America» (by Yann le Polain, Janice Neumann, Anna O’Driscoll, and Kerstin Schreiber), it is noted that this culture originated in Western Europe in the 16th century. It bears the name of the Dutchman Menno Simmons (1496-1561) and was formed around ideals of non-violence and ‘separation from the world.’ Strong attachment to the land and agriculture also became a defining characteristic over the years, along with the use of Low German as their language.

They will always need more land. There are two reasons for this: first, they have a 100% agricultural vocation, meaning their culture pushes them toward this profession and gives them no other alternatives. The other reason is the ‘traditional’ high fertility rate, making it normal for them to have four, five, six, seven… ten children.

Young Mennonites in a colony in Santa Cruz. Photo: Revista Nómadas.

This results in young Mennonites, upon turning 18, needing to seek new horizons when the land in their original colonies runs out. When expansion in one country is no longer viable, they must look for more distant horizons. Just as they arrived and expanded in Bolivia, the arrival of Mennonites in a country is a point of no return.

Some of their members migrated from Europe to Canada, Mexico, and Paraguay in the early 20th century, and then to Bolivia. Currently, there are 214 colonies across the continent, covering an area of 3.9 million hectares (comparable to the size of the Netherlands) in nine Latin American countries. In Paraguay alone, Mennonite colonies cover 1.8 million hectares, which is 4.5% of the country’s territory. When adding privately-owned properties held by Mennonites, they approach 8% of Paraguay’s territory. «They are 0.4% of the population and control 20 times more land than the average Paraguayan,» notes the document «Pious Pioneers, the Expansion of Mennonite Colonies in Latin America.»

If we focus solely on the role of Mennonites in deforestation, according to Global Forest Watch, Bolivia is the third country globally that lost the largest amount of forests in the world in 2022 (400,000 hectares) .

Bolivia hosts around a hundred Mennonite colonies, with new ones appearing every year. In the 1950s, the first colonies were settled on fifty thousand hectares. Seven decades later, Bolivian Mennonites have over a million hectares. And they want and need more. And more.

Barbero knows this and exploits it to consolidate his business.

If we focus solely on the role of Mennonites in deforestation, according to Global Forest Watch, Bolivia is the third country globally that lost the most forests in 2022 (400 thousand hectares). But the data concerning Mennonites, provided by the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP) in February 2023, states, «Mennonites have caused a third (33%) of soy deforestation in the Bolivian Amazon in the last 5 years.»

From above, the face of deforestation within the Chiquitano forest. Photo: Revista Nómadas.

Furthermore, according to a 2020 study by Le Polain de Waroux, Neumann, O’Driscoll, and Schreiber, of the 99 Mennonite colonies existing in Bolivia until 2019, 79 with available data totaled 891,715 hectares, representing approximately 21% of the agricultural hectares in the entire country, around 4.17 million.

Despite these figures, Barbero claims that Mennonites are «not deforesters» but have been «stigmatized,» much like in the cases of massive rapes https://time.com/6250526/women-talking-mennonite-bolivia-real-story/ that occurred in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, in 2009. «I understand the Mennonite concept very well; I live very close to them, not because they are the nicest people in the world, but because they generate business for me,» he emphasizes.

He states that he is the «international reference person for the Mennonites» and takes care of them, setting some guidelines as if they were partners, such as in the case of deforestation. Therefore, he asserts that Mennonites will not act in Suriname as they did in Bolivia and other countries where they are questioned for their role in deforestation.

The businessman affirms that, as the concessionaire of the initial 30 thousand hectares, he will establish the norm for Mennonites that they can only deforest 50% of the land he transfers to them (He was asked to show the document stating this for the first 50 families but did not provide it). He assures that anyone who does not accept that rule will not be given land, and he is confident that they will accept because there is high demand, many land requests from Mennonites, exceeding one million hectares. Therefore, he will only transfer to those willing to comply with that rule.

This possibility was presented to Juan, the Mennonite from Valle Hermoso with whom we spoke in the Los Pozos market in Santa Cruz:

– Juan, do you know how much you will be able to clear if you get land in Suriname?

– Everything. Everything. One hundred percent.

– The businessman who takes the Mennonites says it will only be fifty percent…

Here, his expression of enchantment changed to a mixture of disbelief and disappointment:

– No. It has to be one hundred percent, not even windbreak curtains because there is no wind in Suriname.

Juan has 14 hectares in Valle Hermoso, and he considers them ‘few.’ He explains that he is ‘on the list ‘ among those interested in his colony to go to Suriname, with an order for 25 hectares for which he will have to pay $7,500. Additionally, he hopes to sell his land in Valle Hermoso and raise money to be able to buy 50 hectares in Suriname. «Hopefully, by next year, I can leave,» he says, eagerly.

But with the idea of 50% deforestation, the equation doesn’t add up for him: if he manages to buy 25 hectares and Barbero only allows him to use half, that is, 12.5 hectares, he will be able to cultivate less than he currently has.

In Valle Hermoso, Juan’s colony, they don’t allow the use of cell phones, and they transport themselves internally in carts with iron wheels pulled by horses. However, he has extensive and detailed information about Suriname, that distant country 2,500 kilometers away from his colony. «The land is humid, fertile, there is a lot of rain, and it’s not flat; there are hills like in ‘Conce’ (Concepción, a town in Santa Cruz near his colony); it’s 90 kilometers from the sea, the soil’s moisture allows trees to be easily uprooted…,» he recites in good (understandable) Spanish.

– Juan, how do you know about Suriname?

– I saw it on the Internet.

– But in your colony, they don’t allow cell phones.

– On the taxi driver’s phone, right there on YouTube, I searched for ‘Suriname’ and saw what the land is like.

– Does the driver lend you his phone?

– Yes.

– Does he charge you?

– No. We are friends.

– And how do they offer you the land in your colony?

– The ‘big boss’ (referring to the colony leader) shows us a book with printed photos.

Juan says that his neighbor, Bernardo Klassen, is one of those in Suriname and has told him that he flew over the land in a small plane, that they are going to clear everything, that they won’t leave windbreak curtains, that the trees can be easily toppled with a bulldozer because the terrain is humid, that the river is 10 kilometers away…

Juan wants Bernardo Klassen to return and tell him more about Suriname.

«If I had the $1,300 for the ticket, I would have gone already,» says Juan, who hopes to leave next year. He mentions that Klassen and the others who have already left filled containers with machinery and items from their homes. They have already started moving.

Juan’s parents were from the Valle Verde colony, and the children of the members of that colony (including Juan) formed Valle Hermoso. Now Juan, with his children, hopes to establish a new colony, this time in Suriname. Later, his children and the children of his children will want more land and more land, and so on until the end of time.

– Juan, will you miss Valle Hermoso? Or Santa Cruz?

– No.

He falls silent. He makes no more comments or explanations. The ‘No’ is clear; he feels no attachment, will not feel nostalgia. He wants to go where he can have more land to cultivate.

According to the Andean Amazon Monitoring Project, «Mennonites have caused a third (33%) of soy deforestation in the Bolivian Amazon in the last 5 year.

Mennonite behavior against the environment is questioned wherever they go. «In Peru, the NGO Amazon Conservation describes Mennonites as the new leading cause of organized and large-scale deforestation,» according to a report in De Groene Amsterdammer magazine. Meanwhile, MAAP, on its website, published on August 25, 2023: «Our analysis reveals that the Mennonites have already deforested more than 7,000 hectares in the five colonies established (in Peru) since 2017. Additionally, we have documented an additional impact of more than 1,600 hectares of burned forests.» This is compounded by press reports from Peru documenting conflicts between indigenous people and Mennonites due to deforestation, such as in the Ucayali province.

Yann le Polain, one of the authors of the document «Pious Pioneers, the Expansion of Mennonite Colonies,» points out that Mennonites should not be generalized. On the positive side, he highlights their strong work ethic and respect for agreements. On the contrary, he also observes the dynamics of appropriating territories in conflict, competition for land with local inhabitants, deforestation, and legal issues in other countries.

At the Los Pozos market in Santa Cruz, we also spoke with Pedro, a 51-year-old Mennonite who didn’t want to disclose his last name but mentioned the name of his colony: Valle Esperanza, another one listed in the Surinamese Government’s approval document for the arrival of Mennonites. Pedro doesn’t show much enthusiasm when discussing the topic, and his Spanish is not as fluent. He is shopping with two other Mennonites who prefer not to speak. He mentions being on his colony’s list but hasn’t contributed any money because he doesn’t have any. He wants 50 hectares but notes that there are many requests, much demand from all colonies, making it very difficult for him to go. Another Mennonite whispers something to him in low German, and he leaves. After that, Pedro becomes more distrustful and curt. He says those with money can buy up to 100 hectares and that those are the ones who will be able to go to Suriname. The conversation ends abruptly; he doesn’t say goodbye or offer any excuses. He crosses the street to join his friends.


The name Suriname derives from a native group called ‘surine’ of Arawak origin. A river was named this, and later, the country adopted the name. According to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), Suriname’s legislative system, based on colonial law, does not recognize indigenous or tribal peoples, and the country lacks legislation regarding land rights, among other issues.

Drone images on the IO Foundation’s page show panoramic views of Suriname’s jungle, which spans 14.7 million hectares, dominated by greenery, flowing rivers, and some small indigenous villages and populations.

At 2,500 kilometers south in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Adrian Barbero, in an interview with Nómadas, says with sincerity and no remorse: «We are going to have excessive deforestation in a place where nothing has ever happened. The impact is going to be very strong. We don’t want to be in places where there could be conflict.» He claims to have negotiated and socialized with all relevant sectors in Suriname for two years for the arrival of the first 50 Mennonite families on the initial 30,000 hectares of the project. «We have left no stone unturned,» says the businessman, asserting that there were no setbacks and that the only negative aspect, from his perspective, was a series of publications about allegations of rape against Mennonite women in Bolivian colonies in 2009, which he considers irrelevant since the perpetrators (seven Mennonite men) were sentenced and imprisoned for their crimes.

However, when consulting with representatives of indigenous peoples and environmentalists in Suriname, they pointed out that they don’t even have details about the place or places where the Mennonites are, and they were never invited to any socialization. Monique Pool, director of the Green Heritage Foundation Suriname, stated that, at least with her institution, no such socialization took place, attributing the lack of information from the government to the fact that the population is unaware of this and other projects affecting Suriname’s forest wealth.

A similar response was given by indigenous parliamentarian Iona Edwards, who stated that she also had not heard of any socialization of the project. «When I asked in parliament about the Mennonites, the Government replied that they would do a pilot project with 50 Mennonite families and nothing more. They didn’t tell us where they would do it,» Edwards lamented.

Where the lands granted to the Mennonites are located remains a mystery. An NGO in Suriname claimed to have information that 90,000 of the 300,000 hectares to be converted into crops are in a community near Apoera, to the west, on the border with Guyana. On his TikTok account, Barbero made two references regarding the location of the colonies: one where he is looking at lands in the western zone, on the border with Guyana, and another where he says he is in the southeast, near the border with Brazil.

Iona Edwards: «When I asked the question in parliament about the Mennonites, the government responded that they will carry out a pilot project with 50 Mennonite families and nothing more. They didn’t tell us the location where it will take place.»

Without revealing where the lands for the Mennonite colonies are, Barbero claimed that they had conducted socialization and reached «agreements with the people of the Tibiti and Bitagron communities» (85 and 190 km southwest of Paramaribo, respectively, on the Coppename River basin) and also with the Maroons.

When asked about the agreements, he said, «The Maroons have some trees they consider sacred; we made an agreement not to touch that, and many other details that relate to daily life, peaceful, which took me two years. If there is so much land, why are we going to go into areas where there could be problems?»

A potential conflict between indigenous people and the government is in his calculations; however, he believes it will be a ‘peaceful’ struggle and a matter that «should be discussed by politicians.» He is also confident that nothing will happen on the concessioned lands because he has planned for his project not to be on indigenous lands, «not even those in dispute.»

However, even if the Mennonite project does not directly affect indigenous lands, it bothers these peoples and environmentalists. Parliamentarian Edwards told Nómadas that the leaders of her village «will not give permission to the Mennonites until the Government grants us our land rights… we cannot fight for our land rights while the government gives land to an external group.» They also don’t know the price the Mennonites will pay per hectare of land.

Monique Pool, director of the Green Heritage Fund for Suriname, states that in august of this year, they sought a meeting with Ruud Souverein, a partner at Terra Invest. «He confirmed that they were interested in primary forest areas, and we told him that we oppose large-scale mechanized agriculture using transgenic seeds and associated products,» said the environmentalist.

Parliamentarian Edwards told Nómadas that the leaders of her village «will not grant permission to the Mennonites until the government recognizes our rights to the land…

She also warned that they would lose their HFLD status if more than 30,255 hectares of primary forests are deforested per year. She believes that the people of Suriname are not aware of the «illegal acts» committed by the Mennonites against the environment and acknowledges that environmentalists have been slow to react, attributing it precisely to the misinformation from the State. «Currently, we are organizing to start making our opinion known, and if necessary, organize protests,» she cautioned.

A wound will be opened to begin bleeding Suriname’s jungle; the representative of the concessionaire company claims to have socialized, but the consulted indigenous people and environmentalists state they don’t even know where those lands are.

On October 27, non-governmental environmental organizations present in Suriname held a press conference expressing their concern about the arrival of Mennonites.

«Where is the plan? Why can’t there be transparency? We ask for a study to scientifically determine what could be the effect of large-scale Mennonite agriculture on the environment,» said Gwendolyn Smith of the organization Green Growth Suriname, according to the newspaper De Ware Tijd of Paramaribo.

«We cannot afford to give foreigners access to land while the territorial rights of indigenous and tribal peoples are not regulated,» Smith added.

The organizations emphasized that it is not about stigmatizing the Mennonites but knowing «about the deforestation that is occurring in the gold sector. However, we want to avoid dealing with the effects of deforestation due to large-scale agriculture. Suriname and Guyana are the only countries in South America that don’t have this,» said Gina Griffith, director of Conservation International Suriname.

They also expressed the need for an environmental impact study as a legal condition before proceeding with deforestation for agricultural purposes and questioned that in Suriname, there is a «red-carpet treatment for the Mennonites,» while in South America, they are known for their destructive large-scale agriculture, not only accompanied by deforestation but also water pollution, pesticide use, the introduction of genetically modified foods, and conflicts with local indigenous peoples.

According to the Keynews Suriname newspaper, in its October 28 edition, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, International Trade, and Cooperation, Albert Ramdin, announced days earlier that the Mennonites «who want to settle in Suriname do not need the government. They plan to engage in large-scale agriculture and invest themselves. The government will not provide them with land, and large-scale deforestation will not be allowed. The Mennonites are negotiating land with local communities, especially in the west and in the Brokopondo area.»

They also quote Minister Parmanand Sewdien, stating that he has «hinted» that his ministry «has no cooperation with the Mennonites.»


Raul Otero Reiche, the greatest poet of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the land from where the Mennonites come to Suriname, wrote:

«I am the untamed jungle / the storm of earth-scent / I am the one awaited by jaguars spotted with stars, / the fiery bulls of twilights, / the iron caimans, / the silk doves…» (Song to the Man of the Jungle, 1964)

Suriname is one of the few countries in South America that has not ratified ILO Convention 169, which is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. According to IWGIA, the recognition of these rights is a major threat to economic interests that have their eyes on oil, bauxite (sedimentary rock from which aluminum is extracted), gold, water, wood, and others.

This lack of recognition of indigenous rights dates back to its independence from the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1975 and the drafting of its Political Constitution, which was changed in 1987 and underwent reforms in 1992 without recognizing indigenous peoples and their rights.

According to the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), the 1987 Constitution states that all forests, except those privately owned, belong to the State. However, the forest is a lifeline for the majority of Amerindians and Maroons, as nearly 40,000 people from these tribal communities make a living in the jungle without felling trees.

Suriname is one of the few countries in South America that has not ratified ILO Convention 169, which is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples .

This is why Monique Pool considers granting land to a company rather than the indigenous peoples of Suriname «an illegal act» and calls for looking at the judgments of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (which are made after exhausting internal remedies), such as the Saramaka people’s case, whose petition was made in 2000, admitted in 2006, and had a judgment in 2008 instructing the State to «formally recognize the land rights of the Saramaka Maroons.» However, the Government responded that it was «not prepared to implement new laws recognizing indigenous land rights, as they could exacerbate existing political tensions between ethnic groups in Suriname» (www.cidh.or.cr).

A second lawsuit was filed in 2007 by the Kaliña and Lokono peoples, which was accepted in October of the same year. In the judgment issued in 2015, the Court ordered Suriname to legally recognize the collective ownership of the Kaliña and Lokono peoples of their lands and traditional resources. In the ‘Prior Consultation, Free and Informed’ section, the Court instructs the State of Suriname: «In the context of large projects and development plans, invest, exploration, exploitation, and extraction, the Court has established (…) the obligation to consult indigenous and tribal peoples to the extent that such projects affect both their territory and their way of life within that territory.»

Indigenous parliamentarian Edwards is precisely the representative of the Lokono people and points out that there has been no consultation by the Government about the arrival of the Mennonites, whose agricultural activities have affected indigenous peoples in other countries, as testified by Chiquitano indigenous people from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, which we will see later. On the other hand, Rudi Van Kanten, director of the NGO Tropenbos Suriname, notes that «even speaking only of the first stage of 30 thousand hectares, this should be approved in parliament and by the national Council of State.»

And it sounds again: Without consulting anyone / they prepare the destruction / playing with our lives / selling to the highest bidder… (I)

After the State’s non-compliance with the judgments of the IACHR, the indigenous people continued their protests in 2016, achieving the organization of teams with members of their tribes and the Government a year later to draw up a ‘Roadmap for the legal recognition of the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples,’ which resulted in draft laws that were not discussed (let alone approved) in parliament.

Iona Edwards, in an interview with Nómadas, stated that in mid-October 2023, she said in parliament, «the indigenous community will fight for their rights because things have exceeded their limit. I only hope that our indigenous brothers and sisters are not jailed for opposing this injustice.» She also questioned the government’s contradictory discourse that «on the one hand talks about carbon credits and on the other is giving land to the Mennonites, of whom there are reports that they destroy nature with their farming practices.»

And how are indigenous protests in Suriname? The most recent precedent was the so-called ‘silent march’ on May 14, 2023, precisely claiming their rights to the land as the country’s first inhabitants.

«The governments come and go, and we never obtained recognition, and today is the day when we, as indigenous women of Suriname, will fight side by side with our men,» Sharmaine Artist, spokeswoman for the Native Power group, told AFP. «Due to the lack of legal recognition of land rights, the situation is confusing, leading to many illegal economic activities, including gold extraction,» reported the EFE agency.

The silent march followed disturbances on May 2 in the village of Pikin Saron, at a government-owned mining company. According to press reports, Two people died. «Despite promises from President Chan Santokhi and Vice President Ronnie Brunswijk to resolve the land rights problem during this administration, conflicts persist,» AFP concluded.

In the independent Dutch magazine De Groene Amsterdammer, on June 21, 2023, Lloyd Read, president of the Suriname Indigenous Collective, stated that the indigenous community «will not allow» the Mennonites to settle in their territory. «We cannot import foreign ideologies into our community,» he told the press in his country. On October 27, after a meeting with environmentalists from Suriname, Read was more radical and told Surinamese media that they will «allow it over our dead bodies» to give land to foreigners.

Nómadas contacted Read at his phone number and informed him of their questions, but no response was obtained. The same happened when contacting people around Tribe Chief Thomas Podina.

In what political and economic context does the arrival of the Mennonites take place?

The Mennonite project in Suriname is detailed in a document held by a group of environmentalists, providing information such as the first 50 Mennonite families comprising 246 people and the aim to reduce Suriname’s food imports from 67% to 50%. Environmentalists question the lack of specificity regarding the job opportunities mentioned in the project and observe that the Mennonites do not hire people for agricultural work, relying on third parties for certain resources.

On the other hand, they warn of consequences such as ecosystem degradation, reduced biosafety, disruption of the water cycle, an increased risk of forest fires, and the introduction of genetically modified crops.

In essence, the pristine jungle and its wild symphony will not only be vulnerable to deforestation but also to forest fires and pollution, as occurs annually in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where the Mennonites originate.

Environmentalists question that in the project, there is talk of job opportunities without specifying their nature. They observe that Mennonites do not hire people for agricultural work and only rely on third parties for the supply of certain inputs.

Moreover, this occurs in a post-pandemic political-economic context that led to a foreign exchange (dollar) crisis in Suriname. In 2020, presidential elections were held, and Chandrikapersad (‘Chan’) Santokhi, the former Minister of Justice, assumed office.

The new president is characterized by his openness in seeking partners: bilateral relations with the Netherlands normalized, and he is strengthening ties with the U.S., although China and Russia still play a significant role in the country, according to the analysis by the Information and Diplomatic Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Spain.

Alcides Vadillo, director of the Tierra Foundation in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, warns that there is a global dynamic that is the business of agriculture versus human rights and the environment. «There are sectors and companies that see profit and don’t care about the consequences, and there are states that enter into that logic» and pave the way through laws.

On the other side are the human rights of indigenous populations that can be victims of environmental impacts, such as the expansion of crops like soy, which comes with a ‘package’ of technology and the use of agrochemicals that prevent any other type of production in neighboring lands.

This is the theory of what Julio Egüez, chief of the Chiquitano indigenous community of Santa Teresita in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, narrated about their experiences over the past five years when a Mennonite colony settled on 35 hectares adjacent to their territory.


What experience is there regarding the impact of the Mennonites on indigenous peoples? Although the Mennonites, being closed colonies, have limited contact with indigenous peoples and any other social group, they can indirectly affect them. Alcides Vadillo of the Tierra Foundation in Santa Cruz states that “they are extreme deforesters”. They don’t leave a tree even for a sample,» and they use transgenics and agrochemicals, modifying the environment.

The Concepción lagoon in Santa Cruz, dry and surrounded by deforestation.

He cites the example of what happened at Concepción Lagoon in Santa Cruz: «We have seen how the Mennonites make drainage channels from lagoons to enable them for planting, drain river streams; then, they alter the environment to have greater productive capacity. The clearest example is that Concepción Lagoon has dried up due to the actions of Mennonites and other groups settled around it.»

On May 22, 2022, Nómadas Magazine reflected on this environmental tragedy as follows: «Being a protected area and RAMSAR site of global interest has been of no use. The Bolivian lagoon, spanning over 5,000 hectares, has turned into a graveyard of dry land. Rampant deforestation, the construction of drainage channels carrying chemical residues, forest fires, and the diversion of its tributaries have devastated it to the point of drying up.»

Chief Julio Egüez points out that five years ago, a group of Mennonites acquired a property of 3,500 hectares adjacent to their territory. «They arrived and cleared everything; it was practically virgin forest. Now, there is not a single piece of untouched land; everything is soybean cultivation .

Another example is what happens in the municipality of San Rafael, also in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. The Chiquitano indigenous community of Santa Teresita, composed of 20 families, is located 18 km from that town. Chieftain Julio Egüez states that five years ago, a group of Mennonites acquired a property of 3,500 hectares adjacent to their territory. «They arrived and cleared everything; it was practically virgin forest; now, you can’t find a single totaí (local palm tree); everything is soy cultivation. They don’t respect the laws and don’t leave windbreak curtains,» he denounces.

He also mentions that many pests attracted by soybeans have appeared, but since the Mennonites use insecticides, «the ‘bugs’ flee and attack our organically grown corn, rice, cassava, and plantain crops

Indeed, despite the proximity, the Chiquitano indigenous people have virtually no contact or cultural clash issues with the Mennonites. However, the effects of their production methods are direct, says Egüez. As a community, they make the necessary contacts with Mennonite ministers, explaining the problem, but nothing changes. «They don’t take any care; they are only interested in producing at all costs. We, who were born and raised here, know that these are lands with a forestry vocation,» says Egüez.

Vadillo believes that the Bolivian state should be more demanding of the Mennonites in how they work the land, both in forestry and the use of agrochemicals.

On this last point, Barbero pointed out: «Glyphosate is not allowed in Suriname, and my transfer prohibits it in writing. Someone may ask me for it, and we won’t allow it. It took so much effort to make a road, and for one asking for glyphosate, we will have a problem. Most are very environmentally conscious because of the laws.»

But with these precedents of the Mennonites in other regions, why would one think that something different will happen in Suriname’s virgin jungle, which will be cleared for cultivation? Everything points to the wild symphony having to go, as they say colloquially in Santa Cruz, «take its music elsewhere.»


«Friends sometimes ask me why I talk so much on social media about my business, and I tell them: because it’s a legitimate business, and it can be talked about,» says Barbero, known for disseminating information, addressing inquiries, and responding to attacks related to his business on his TikTok account.

Barbero argues that everything is done within the framework of the law. In practice, it is observed that his company seeks mechanisms to do so. For example, the law states that concessions can only be granted to residents, and Barbero became a resident and has a resident partner. The HFLD status is maintained if no more than 30,255 hectares in Suriname are deforested, and the initial project is for 30,000 hectares. Land cannot be granted to foreigners, but the Mennonites, according to Barbero, will seek to become naturalized Surinamese.

«I take care of my business,» Barbero emphasized a couple of times in the interview with Nómadas.

The Argentine-Bolivian states that his business involves identifying opportunities for buying and selling land or ‘fields’ to act as intermediaries. «We have investment funds from all over the world, but adapted to the place and with whom we go. We set our rules, not because I’m the nicest guy in the world, but because I know what my business is, and I don’t want problems later,» he emphasizes.

Some friends ask me why I talk so much about my business on social media, and I tell them: because it’s a legitimate business, something you can talk about,» says Barbero, who is known for sharing information, addressing inquiries, and responding to attacks related to his business on his TikTok account.

Thus, the virgin jungle of Suriname faces an entire business structure that pays attention to details to transform forested lands into crops. In his TikTok videos, for example, he says that you can buy land, clear it, and let it appreciate in a couple of years.

The land trader explains that in Bolivia, he works with farmers, people who ask him for land, and agribusiness entrepreneurs, many from La Paz, Potosí, Oruro, who come to Santa Cruz to buy fields. And the Mennonites? «Of my clients, 50% are Mennonites. We don’t sell (land) to foreigners in Bolivia,» he asserts.

For this work, legal security is required, which the institutions in the area must provide. Therefore, Barbero was asked how he interacts with INRA (National Institute of Agrarian Reform) and ABT (Forestry and Land Authority) in Bolivia, and he stated that he has a legal team that goes to these institutions to find out if the settlement process is complete or not. Then, in Royal Rights (Bolivian Deed/title entity)  to check the alodial, taxes; to ABT for clearing permits or if there was a fine or report of illegal burning. «With these requirements, we carry out a commercial transfer,» he explains.

On the role of his company in changes in land use from forestry to agriculture, he says that in Bolivia:

– «No one in their right mind would clear land today without permission because ABT gives you the permit in three months, complying with the requirements.»

– So is it easier to clear now than before? He is asked, and he points out:

– «It’s not that it’s easy, but the legal framework allows it. If people question that it’s simple, talk to the government and tell them they are making it simple; we never use a side window or door to do the paperwork.»

Finally, he said that his company operates under the legal structure of a Joint Stock Company (he avoided giving the name of the legal entity) and mentioned that it is registered and pays taxes to the National Tax Service.

Barbero affirmed that his company pays taxes to the National Tax Service and operates under the legal structure of a Joint Stock Company. When asked  as to why the name, as ‘Adrián Barbero Agronegocios’ doesn’t appear in the business registry, he stated that it is not the name of the company. So, what is the name of the legal entity? «I don’t remember, I’ll pass it on later,» he committed. However, when pressed via WhatsApp to provide the name of his company’s legal entity, he did not do so.

From another perspective, Alcides Vadillo, from the Fundación Tierra, believes that these intermediary companies earn around 3% in transactions, and there are others that go further and assume other business modalities, thus earning more.

He explains that buyers are not interested in acquiring land with a forestry vocation but are interested in intensive agricultural activity, with very few interested in livestock. So, these companies start providing legal and technical services to change the Land Use Plan (PLUS), transforming them from forestry properties to properties for agricultural activity.

For this, agricultural real estate companies have technical, legal, and networking capabilities that allow them to navigate the bureaucratic and administrative processes.

As is happening in the virgin jungle of Surinam, where there is a whole logistics chain for both legal administrative matters and the visits of Mennonites to the properties that have been and will be deforested, the flights, camps, clearings, and everything necessary for the the bulldozer to overshadow the wilderness symphony.

«While they are within legal parameters, we should examine some other more sensitive points, not necessarily illegal, but where that legality begins to be in quotation marks. What do I mean? We don’t know how clear, transparent, and essentially technical these procedures (institutional paperwork) are to change land from forestry to agriculture,» questions Vadillo.

From his point of view, the most delicate aspect is that there are public institutions like ABT and INRA, which are sinning by action (approving PLUS and POP), creating a highly questionable mechanism, «and we don’t know to what extent they are pushing the legal framework.»

Deforestation is gaining ground on the cruceño forest. Photo: Revista Nómadas.

According to Fundación Tierra, in Bolivia, the authorization for deforestation increased from an average of 76,000 hectares per year between 2005 and 2011 to 212,000 hectares per year in the period 2016-2021.

Vadillo comments that the State should be concerned about the common good and should detect if there are public officials who, through these legal instruments, generate a level of irregular business by approving procedures that are not properly carried out or technically justified.

He also points out that, according to the Patriotic Agenda 2025, the Bolivian State has one of its challenges to increase the agricultural frontier from 3 million hectares in 2013 to 13 million hectares in 2025, one million hectares per year!

According to the Tierra Foundation, in Bolivia, the authorization for deforestation increased from an average of 76,000 hectares per year between 2005 and 2011 to 212,000 hectares per year in the period 2016-2021.

«These companies promote a discourse of food security, but what they are really safeguarding is their business, which is used to justify policies that do not preserve the greater good, which is to continue having water, the fertility of our soil, and the quality of life for all citizens of a country,» says Vadillo.

(III) «Where usury finds its place / Ambition and power are born / And these germinate in the land / Which agonizes for the sake of interest.»


This is how the path is being paved for the Mennonites to convert, first 30,000 and then 300,000 hectares, of the world champion in having the highest percentage of forest in its territory: Surinam. They are only 50 families at the beginning. But they will grow and won’t stop. They need a million hectares, and there is a company for which this need is a business, and, frankly and without remorse, they will take care of that business.

To get an idea of how the Mennonite expansion is unfolding, let’s take the example of the department of Santa Cruz in Bolivia, which is the place from where the ‘founders’ of the colonies in Suriname are coming. Almost seven decades ago (in 1954), the first Mennonite colonies were established in Santa Cruz, and together they did not exceed 50 thousand hectares. Currently, in Santa Cruz, there are more than 120 colonies covering 850,000 hectares. However, that’s not all; Barbero points out that the Mennonites in Santa Cruz need an additional one million hectares. That’s why they are now looking towards Suriname.

A new Mennonite colony in full construction process in the Chaco cruceño region. Photo: Revista Nómadas.

These 850,000 hectares of Mennonite land in Santa Cruz are areas that have been deforested and turned into soybean fields. They are no longer the realm of brown giants with green manes where the wild symphony of nature is heard. Instead, the ecosystem has been altered, rivers diverted, temperatures increased, and indigenous communities affected by agrochemicals.

Almost seven decades ago (in 1954), the first Mennonite colonies were established in Santa Cruz, and collectively, they did not exceed 50,000 hectares. Currently, in Santa Cruz, there are over 120 colonies covering 850,000 hectares.

Due to deforestation in Bolivia (Mennonites contributed to 23% in the last 20 years, particularly associated with soybean cultivation, the crop causing the most deforestation in Bolivia), and wildfires, on October 22, 2023, Santa Cruz ranked third as the city with the worst air quality in the world. Its inhabitants have been breathing smoke for weeks. All of this had a beginning. While the Mennonites are not the sole culprits, they bear a well-defined percentage.

There are two opposing views in the world: the environmentalist and the agroindustry.

In Santa Cruz, some people fight against wildfires every year out of love for their land, for their children, and because they have the words of the poet etched with fire (what irony): «I am the man of the jungle (…) I am a standing river.»

There are also people who think more about business, about agroindustry, with the discourse of food security, which is a business. Yes, we need to eat, but deforestation is not the future. Humanity also needs to breathe, and that, so far (still), is not a business.

The jungle of Suriname, so vast, seems to have no end, but it does. And every end has a beginning, which could be the arrival of the Mennonites, who need a million hectares and have someone to take them to the virgin forest, to disrupt the wilderness symphony.

To deforest 30 thousand or 300 thousand hectares, you start by felling the first tree. In Suriname, it has already begun.

The wilderness symphony must not fall silent, and the trees should die standing, not be obliterated by a bulldozer.

(IV) «What have we done to the world? / Have you ever thought about this weeping earth? / What about the value of nature? / It’s the belly of our planet / What about the animals? / What about us? / I can’t even breathe.»


(I) The beginning of the end. Ángeles del Infierno (1984).

(II) Gaia. Mago de Oz (2003).

(III) La costa del silencio. Mago de Oz (2003).

(IV) Earth Song, Michael Jackson (1995).


* Miguel Aguirre Hodgkinson: Translator virtual simultaneous interpretation service via Zoom, in Spanish, English, and Portuguese at a native level.


El presente reportaje de investigación fue realizado por Revista Nómadas.

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