‘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 on 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.”
Chablé, a stocky and serious beekeeper in his late 20s, is describing a simmering dispute that has unsettled this sliver of the Yucatán Peninsula. Since the 1930s, Maya beekeepers have made this peninsula, site of the temples of their ancestors as well as the largest remaining tropical forest in Mexico, into a world-class honey producer. But since the 1980s, they’ve had to share the region with another tradition-rich—and rapidly expanding—community: Old Colony Mennonites. The most conservative members of an insular religion, these Mennonites speak the Low German of their 16th-century ancestors and eschew modern amenities such as electricity, phones, and cars—but not the tools of industrial agriculture. They have transformed large swaths of Yucatán forest into crop fields.