Mennonite farmers are facing million-peso fines for illegally clearing forestland in the municipality of Bacalar, Quintana Roo.
The federal environmental agency Profepa has filed claims against three different Mennonite communities for clearing 1,145 hectares of land acquired from local community landowners, or ejidatorios, without first applying for the relevant authorizations to change the land use.
The farmers used the slash-and-burn method, reducing land previously covered with palm and mahogany trees to ashes and are now using it to cultivate crops including corn, beans, barley and wheat.
They say they did not apply to the Environment Secretariat (Semarnat) for permission because they don’t have the economic means to do so.
“Authorities ask for 40,000 pesos per hectare. [So] I would pay 2 million pesos for . . . the 50 hectares I bought for my six children and their families,” explained David Bergen, one farmer who has recently arrived in the region. The amount is well above what the land sold for.
Now a legal representative from Profepa says they could face large fines or even imprisonment for their actions.
“The economic sanction on the Mennonite community for environmental damage to the Bacalar Jungle would be on average 3 million pesos [US $168,000] for each proceeding, they would have to restore the affected zones and if judicial authorities consider it necessary they would impose jail terms between three and six years.”
Ecosystem damage is the main concern for Profepa, whose officials say the Mennonites’ actions will affect the refilling capacity of aquifers in the area, directly affecting Laguna de Bacalar and causing species endemic to the area to be displaced.
Patricia López, a legal representative for ejidatorios in the municipality, says that land was sold at bargain prices of 3,000 to 5,000 pesos per hectare out of necessity but landowners made little profit from the sales because the money was divided between so many.
Most of the Mennonites have arrived from Chihuahua and more families are expected to arrive soon from Zacatecas and Celaya.
One of the first Mennonites to arrive, Cornelio Fehr, says that a lack of agricultural land in their places of origin forced them to look further afield.
“The land here is good and abundant. That’s why we came, to have a place for the family, children and grandchildren.”
In 2013, several parcels of land were also closed due to deforestation although they were reopened in a matter of months. But this time, Profepa is determined that there will be no impunity.
Quintana Roo environmental protection agency head Miguel Ángel Nadal denies that the fines represent a tax grab on the Mennonites, adding that damage caused by the land clearing is considerably larger than the fines they are facing.
“The value of a hectare of land beyond [its price] is all the vegetation found there, all the flora and fauna. That is the real value, the value that is added.”
Source: Milenio (sp)