An unlikely feud between beekeepers and Mennonites simmers in Mexico

Survival is at stake as Mennonite colonies’ illegal soy farms threaten the livelihood of Maya beekeepers.

Photograph by Nadia Shira Cohen, National Geographic
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Maya beekeepers in the Mexican state of Campeche say their bees are dying and honey harvests have declined since the expanding Old Colony Mennonite communities started planting genetically modified soy. Mennonites, who are the state's main soy producers, arrived in the late 1980s in search of farmland.
Photograph by Nadia Shira Cohen, National Geographic

“How did it start?” asks Everardo Chablé. He’s propped on a stool in his living room as the daylight fades outside. The only noise in this tiny Mexican town in the Yucatán Peninsula—where there’s no cell signal and little electricity—comes from the music his father is blasting in the yard. He speaks up. “For thousands of years the Maya people had bee culture. Then the Mennonites came with large machines and started to deforest large parts of land where the bees feed. We had virgin forest with very delicate ecosystems—deer, toucans—but most importantly bees that keep up life. When deforestation started they destroyed everything from millennia back.”

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Luciano Chablé Puc, a beekeeper in Komchén, lives in a house that his son describes as "made of honey." Thousands of families in the state of Campeche rely on bees for their livelihood. The encroachment of Mennonite farms and use of transgenic crops are seen as a threat to the region's beekeepers.

He pauses. Chablé is a stocky and serious 27-year-old beekeeper who can often be found in the office of a local environmental NGO making videos about deforestation, water contamination, and pesticide use. What he’s describing is a simmering battle between a growing community of Old Colony Mennonites—the insular religion’s most conservative Low German-speaking members, who eschew modern amenities like electricity and cars—and indigenous Maya beekeepers. It has electrified this sliver of the Yucatán Peninsula.

“On this land all original plants are gone and animals are gone, and there’s a different species," Chablé says. "Transgenic soy.”

Since the 1930s, Maya beekeepers have made the Yucatán—a peninsula covered with the largest remaining tropical forest in Mexico, sacred cenotes, and endangered wildlife—into a world-class honey producer. But the rapidly expanding presence of Old Colony Mennonites, who are transforming large swathes of land into agricultural fields, could change that.


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Beekeepers say that the large-scale agriculture and the genetically modified soy, also called transgenic, planted by the Mennonites is killing their hives and contaminating the supply of honey with pesticides. In 2012, the beekeepers sued the government and won—resulting in a supreme court ban on transgenic soybeans four years ago. The win, with its David and Goliath qualities, made international news. But on the ground, little has changed.

“If the situation with agriculture keeps developing we will lose our bees,” Chablé says. “In 20 years everything here will be destroyed.”

Growing colonies

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A 10-year-old Mennonite boy named Peter rides in his father's truck with last fall's soy harvest. He's heading to the Nuevo Durango colony's silo, where the soy will be weighed and deposited. The colony recently bought enough land to expand by 50 percent—allowing the next generation to build their homes and farms.

The sleepy town of Hopelchén is the epicenter of this conflict. As the agricultural and beekeeping hub of the state of Campeche, it’s the main producer of GM soy of the three states in the Yucatán and home to some 6,000 beekeepers. Cell networks disappear as soon as the town ends and time rewinds a century. During the day, the plazas of small Maya villages are desolate, their inhabitants deep in the forest tending to traditional farm plots—called milpa—where they grow corn, beans, and pumpkins. Nearby many keep beehives to pollinate the plants.

The roads turn to dirt at the entrance of the Mennonite colonies, and the landscape flattens into fields of corn and soy. Tractors rumble past single-level farmhouses and lawns strewn with machinery on their way to towering silver silos that process the harvests. Leather-skinned men in cowboy hats steer rickety horse carts while children in bonnets bounce in the back. They give passing vehicles a two-finger wave.

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Silo workers in Nuevo Durango shovel soy beans through a grate. Last year, the colony planted 3,200 acres of soybeans, most of them transgenic, despite the seed currently being illegal in the region.

Some 8,000 Mennonites first arrived to northern Mexico in the 1920s from Canada, where they’d settled after leaving Russia and Ukraine, and, earlier, western Europe. Since the 1700s, the conservative sect has been on the move, skirting military conscription and mandated public education, while also seeking fertile land for farming.

In Mexico, they were free to keep to themselves and in the 1980s some gravitated toward the Yucatán peninsula, where water was plentiful. Dedication to agriculture made them attractive settlers, and the government sold off land at low prices to expand corn cultivation. Now, more than 100,000 Mennonites live in colonies throughout Mexico.

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A family of Mennonites inspect their crops. While the religion prohibits them from driving cars, they can operate tractors and other heavy machinery necessary for farming.

In 2008, the Mexican government began offering soybean subsidies in an effort to lower imports for livestock feed from the United States. Three years later, the first permits were issued for the agro-giant Monsanto to sell genetically modified soybeans, and nearly 150,000 acres in the Yucatán Peninsula were authorized for planting. (Transgenic corn is still illegal in Mexico.) The traditional Mennonites could afford the amount of land and industrial machinery to plant, spray, and harvest GM crops. They seized this surprisingly modern opportunity.

Today, around 10,000 Mennonites live in more than a dozen colonies in Campeche, where they control a large amount of farmland and produce 90 percent of the soybeans. Electricity, phones, and cars are mostly forbidden, and they speak a unique type of Low German with roots in 16th century Prussia. (Many of the men also speak Spanish, but fewer women do, since local interaction is confined to drivers and farmhands.)

Mexico is the world’s fourth largest producer of honey and much of that comes from the Yucatán, where indigenous Maya have kept bees for centuries. Today, it’s a main source of income for thousands of families. Some 15,000 tons of honey leave the Yucatán annually for the European Union. At the same time that Mexico approved GM soy plantings, Europe announced that honey shipments would be tested for GMO traces, labeled, and possibly rejected. This foray into transgenics and the accompanying harsh pesticides made beekeepers nervous. Then, as they began to observe the effects on their bees, it made them furious. (Read about Nepal’s last death-defying honey hunter.)

A gift from the gods

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An aerial view of deforestation in Campeche. In 2017, the state lost 173,000 acres of forest cover, according to Global Forest Watch.

“They’re not awake yet; we’ll wake them,” says Leydi Pech, entering a small enclosure in a shady forest, flanked by a group of female beekeepers. A low wooden stand holds a row of hollow logs, each with a tiny hole in the center. One by one, they’re sliced open to reveal a golden honeycomb. Bees swarm the air as Pech quickly pries the honeycomb loose and transfers it into a larger log. This will allow the hive to grow, she explains.

The new trunk is sealed with mud and returned to the stand below a swarm of displaced bees. Her hands dripping with honey, Pech nods approvingly as they begin to make their way inside. Bees, she notes, have an excellent sense of direction.

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Abia Sarita Huchin Maas (left) and Socorro Pech Moo (right) are part of Leydi Pech's all-female beekeeping collective. They work with the native stingless Melipona beecheii bee, which have been pushed out of the Yucatán due to an invasion of foreign bees, deforestation, and large-scale agriculture.

Maya beekeepers believe that these native bees, a stingless species called Melipona beecheii, were a gift from the god of bees and honey, Ah Muzen Cab, and a link to the spirit world. The bees thrive in the dense foliage that is rapidly disappearing in the Yucatán. They’re also particularly sensitive to pesticides, and their population has been declining for decades. Pech, a small woman with cropped hair, and her six-woman collective tend to 100 hives in the forest. In turn, the bees maintain nature’s delicate equilibrium. Running alongside the forest’s edge are acres and acres of sprawling soy fields. (Read about a journey to follow the endangered Melipona bee.)

Pech’s brother, Jorge, says he’s watched as new crops, pesticides, and deforestation took the number of hives needed to make one ton of honey from 12, around 20 years ago, to between 30 and 40 today. Soon after transgenic soy was planted in the state, he and other beekeepers say they saw a sharp dip in honey production and increase in bee deaths. In 2012, Pech and a dozen other beekeeping collectives filed a lawsuit against the government agencies who issued the permit, on the basis that planting of GM soy was illegal because the indigenous communities had not been consulted. Other lawsuits were filed at the same time.

Beekeepers argued that their bees travel up to five miles in search for food and the increasingly common sight of Mennonite-piloted small planes spraying large swaths of land with pesticides is a death sentence to feeding bees. In 2012, scientists collected samples of honey from Campeche and published a study showing that soybean pollen was widely consumed by bees near the fields, and some samples showed small traces of transgenic soy—though another (unpublished) study recorded minimum contamination. Foreign researchers have found that glyphosate, the herbicide sprayed on transgenic soy, impairs the navigation of honeybees.

The case bounced through the courts until, in 2015, the National Supreme Court of Justice suspended Monsanto’s permit to sell GM soy in three states, including Campeche. Monsanto, which has since been absorbed by the Bayer company, was the only company with a permit to sell transgenic soybeans in Mexico. After the suspension, it destroyed its seed inventory. But in 2016, an inspection found two kinds of GM soybeans still being planted in the area (Monsanto says this was not sold by them). The next year, Monsanto’s permit to sell GM soy in Mexico was fully revoked. But today, transgenic soy continues to be planted and pesticides are still sprayed from the sky and from large machinery.

“Legally speaking things were going well, but in reality things are very different,” says Naayeli Ramirez, an indigenous rights lawyer who worked on the beekeepers’ case. “We know there are still genetically modified soybeans being planted and harvested in the area. The authorities don't have capacity to solve these problems. The seed is everywhere already.”

Mistrust spreads

In the late 1990s, a group of Mennonite families set out from northern Mexico in search of more land and founded Nuevo Durango about an hour outside Hopelchén. Today, there are around 1,400 people living in a cluster of small communities that form the colony. It feels like stepping into Depression-era Middle America. The dusty road leads straight to the grain silo, where farmers in nearly identical overalls and plaid shirts wait next to a small shop selling tubs of agrochemicals and piles of seed bags.

As night throws the Nuevo Durango into darkness, a dim light illuminates a woman making dinner in the home of one of its two governors. Hans Henriek Tiek Brown, a lanky cowboy-type, comes outside of his single-story home trailed by his eight children. Swarmed by a halo of shrill bugs, he pulls a chair into the yard and describes his colony’s operations.

Two years ago, Tiek says, government officials visited to announce the ban on planting transgenic soy. “They said the bees are dying because of liquids we use on soy,” he says. After they were told to stop, says Tiek, Nuevo Durango’s farmers mostly respected the ruling. But in 2017, when the government checked the fields, they weren’t fined for the small amount of transgenic soy they’d planted anyway. (Other Mennonite communities were fined for illegal clearcutting.) So the next year they decided that to protect against disease the majority of their 3,200 acres of soybeans would be transgenic seeds. Then he says something repeated by others in various Mennonite colonies: that he'd heard the beekeepers were paid to make up the claim by Monsanto's rivals (the company's patent on GM soy expired around this time, allowing competitors to develop the seed—but not legally sell it in Mexico).

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In the Mennonite colony of El Temporal, 14-year-old Peter Ham watches his father fix their tractor. The family oversees a small health clinic where the Mexican government provides vaccines and checkups.

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Ana Ham cleans a pig's head at the Temporal Mennonite Camp in Mexico. The family gives the head and the interior parts of the pig to their Mexican employees as they do not eat those parts. The Mennonites believe that when pigs are slaughtered during the small moon, the meat is dryer and therefore easier to handle when butchering.

Now, blackened weeds interspersed through soy fields across the colony are a sign of the powerful chemical glyphosate, which kills everything but GM plants. Earlier that day, as a harvesting machine chewed through stalks of soy, a Mennonite farmer waiting in the shade tallied that over the previous four months he’d sprayed 22 acres of soy four times, each time with 27 liters of glyphosate.

The issue of transgenic soy is not on the minds of Nuevo Durango’s farmers. The main problem, says Tiek, is a lack of land left for the younger generation to farm and raise their own families. And so, colonies are looking to expand. The colony recently bought nearly 10,000 acres from the traditional council of landowners—called the ejidatario—in a nearby town of Xmaben. It boosts their land holdings by more than 50 percent and gives space for three more camps, Tiek says. It also edges them closer to Xmaben.

By a vote, the land can be sold, but to turn the land into agricultural fields requires a special permit. Those permits, says lawyer Naayeli Ramirez, are currently not being granted in Campeche, making many of the farms illegal. Some 70 to 80 percent of forest and jungle in Mexico are owned communally by these councils, and often this has proven key to their conservation. But in Campeche, forest is turning into farmland. In 2017, 173,000 acres of forest cover disappeared in the state (which covers around 14 million acres).

Tangled relationships

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Luis Canul, a local teacher, cuts down tree limbs used to cook the traditional Day of the Dead meal. Like most Maya, Canul cultivates a plot of land with a seasonal rotation of crops called the milpa.

Five miles away from the newly purchased land, in Xmaben, a young beekeeper who prefers not to be named is in a race against this development. Down a skinny dirt path through the forest he keeps 30 hives in wooden boxes. Soon, he’ll take them to a more insulated area, further from the encroaching Mennonite farms.

“As far as I know the land cannot be sold,” he says, peeling an orange under a tree in his orchard. “But I’m seeing it being sold. When the law is not being applied then everyone wants to sell.” At some point, he says, money and machines outweighed indigenous rights. “What our ancestors left for us, they’re killing it.”

The 250 landowners of Xmaben who approved the sale include his father and brother. They will each get a payment of nearly $13,000. Local communities are embedded in the agribusiness economy built by the Mennonites, and many families rely on both beekeeping and the type of agriculture they say harms it. Beekeepers, even those strongly against their methods, describe an admiration for the Mennonite work ethic and business acumen.

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Eighteen-year-old Beatriz combs her son's hair after giving him a bath. Beatriz learned how to keep beehives from her grandfather, Anastacio Balan Osalde, who passed away two days earlier.

Edi Alimi Sanchez is the embodiment of this complicated relationship. The lifelong beekeeper sits on a plastic-covered couch, turns down his blaring TV, and describes a common situation in his town of Komchén: For more than 10 years he’s been renting his land to the Mennonites—just like the majority of his neighbors. Now they’re planting transgenic crops 22 yards from his beehives.

“They’re good people,” he says, “it’s just that they destroy nature.” Alimi won’t kick them out because he can no longer afford the machines and manpower to harvest his own land. And he knows there’s no recourse to stop the transgenic planting. “We can’t do anything. The supreme court can’t do anything,” he says. “It’s politics. There’s money.”

Old Colony Mennonite communities are extremely insular, with no overarching governing body. The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), run by modern members of the religion, plays a largely humanitarian role in the region. Though she has little involvement with the Old Colony settlements, Bonnie Klassen, who oversees most of Latin America for MCC, offers perspective on their relationship with the land. Most Old Colony Mennonites get five or six years of education, centered almost entirely on religious teachings, she says. “This idea that what they do is going to affect others is a fairly abstract notion. Nothing from the Bible or catechisms will lead them to understand how ecosystems work.”

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The Ham family burns wood from the forest surrounding the El Temporal Mennonite colony and then sells the charcoal they produce.

MCC has mediated land conflicts and deforestation issues between Old Colony Mennonites and indigenous peoples in Bolivia and Klassen believes that they will abide by the law—if it’s enforced. “Unless they’re pushed to comply with those laws they’re reluctant to pay a lot of attention,” she says. “If you live in a country where laws are not implemented, you prioritize the ones that are.”

Pesticides and health

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Guillermo Schmitt Thiessen, the father of a young baby suffering from cysts, travels to the town of Hopelchén to ask for a loan for his son's treatment. The Mexican government runs mobile units to do health checks in Mennonite colonies, where few get sufficient medical care.

The question of how pesticides and genetically modified crops affect honeybees has lead activists and researchers to wonder if they’re also harmful to humans working and living nearby.

Early on a Wednesday morning, a truck pulls into a small clinic in a Mennonite colony called El Temporal, where horse buggies have been lined up for more than an hour. Their occupants sit divided by age and gender in the shade of the porch, waiting for check-ups and vaccines provided by the Mexican government.

Klaus Ham, a ruddy faced father of five whose land hosts the clinic, runs a typical farm: Five years ago he started phasing out corn in favor of soy, which garners a higher price and is more resistant to changes in the climate. Now he grows 47 acres of it. Ham says he and other farmers drive the pesticide-spraying machines against the wind “so they don't get bathed in it,” but never wear protective clothing.

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In the central plaza of Hopelchén, Helena Schmitt Thiessen waits as her husband gets a loan to pay for an operation to remove three-month-old Isaac's cysts.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies glyphosate, which was first brought to market by Monsanto and is now the most popular pesticide in the world, as likely nontoxic to humans and to honeybees, but the World Health Organization has classified it as “probably carcinogenic.” Studies have gone back and forth: One from 2017 showed no link between long-term exposure and developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma, while another in February found that it increased odds by 41 percent. In Hopelchén, researchers found glyphosate traces in the groundwater, bottled drinking water, and urine of farmers, indicating “excessive use” of the chemical.

A white truck pulls up to the El Temporal clinic with a medical team. The health promoter, Luis Aguirre Jaramello, perches on a horse cart while a doctor and nurse begin check-ups. Aguirre has been working in Mennonite communities for nearly two decades, seeing more and more cases of health issues that he attributes to pesticides. It might be that their frequency has increased or that the trust of the Mennonite communities has—he can’t know for certain.

“We need labs in the region with specialists that can say: ‘You have these chemicals in your body related to agrochemicals,’” he says. “Then maybe the government would stop the excessive use of chemicals in this region.”

Looking toward the future

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Mennonite kids play in the sprawling fields of El Temporal colony. Most families are large, with at least five children. As the colonies grow, they have begun looking for new land for future generations to live and farm.

In the Yucatán, issues of pesticides, deforestation, and land ownership tangle into one, and both beekeepers and Mennonites see their livelihoods at stake. The governments of all three Yucatán states have pledged to end deforestation and begin restoring land on the peninsula by 2030. But a recent effort by the local Yucatán government to create a statewide GMO-free zone was challenged in court by the federal government. A new administration took power this year and some beekeepers see promise in it. In meetings this winter, they asked officials to ban chemicals known to harm bees, along with aerial spraying, and to support organic farmers.

For now, the region is left in limbo. The court-ordered consultations with indigenous beekeepers have not moved past the first of a five-stage process and a petition the Hopelchén communities filed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to intervene is pending. In the meantime, there are more questions than answers. For one: Where is the GM soy coming from?

The legal advisor for Greenpeace Mexico has argued that the plantings "would not be possible if the company Monsanto were not distributing GM seeds without the consent of the Federal and State authorities." Monsanto’s lawyer, Rodrigo Ojeda, speculates the seed may be smuggled in from Central America. Since the company no longer holds a permit for the bean it is unable to investigate or bring illegal supply chains to court," he says. “That’s why it’s necessary the government intervenes in applying Mexican law because they have the authority and resources to inspect fields and make decisions on the findings.”

During a visit to Campeche in April, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador responded to the allegations of GM soy planting, saying: "The Mennonites have been here for 20 years, we have to respect them and they also respect the original communities, all together, because we need each other." He also announced a military operation in the surrounding forest "so that the jungle of Campeche will not be looted." SENASICA, the agency responsible for enforcing food safety, says it will undertake a verification program this year to detect illegal soy and will "punish those responsible for the sowing."

Monsanto, now Bayer, says it will challenge the Mexican government’s revocation of its transgenic soy permit until it’s reinstated. Then, says Ojeda, they will complete the stalled community consultations and strike a deal. “We believe there’s a way to have GM soybean coexist with production of honey by local producers,” he says.

On a warm fall afternoon, beekeepers from across the state gather to discuss business in the cultural center of Hopelchén. Outside, a group of women sell sticky honey candies. José Manuel Poot Chan, who oversees communications for a Campeche-wide beekeeping collective, sits on a bench. Some recent harvests have been painful, he says, recalling one in 2014, when so many bees were killed by fumigations while they were out feeding in the fields that four villages lost a combined 4,000 hives.

Its keepers are eager to fight for the tiny bee with an outsized presence. A hit to their honey means not having money to buy clothes or food, Poot says. More than that, it represents an imbalance in the natural world.

“We were initiating a defense as beekeepers to protect the honey,” he says, reflecting on years of lawsuits. “Later we realized we’re protecting the climate, which is for everyone."

This story was updated on April 15, 2019, to reflect a response from Mexico's president and comment from SENASICA.
Nadia Shira Cohen's work in Mexico was funded by a grant from the International Women's Media Foundation.