Punching well above their weight

MEDA could be shorthand for "Mutuality, Empowerment, Dignity, Agape love." — Werner Franz | Photo by Michael Swan

Paraguayan Mennonites have made major contributions to their country in the decades since MEDA’s initial investments

Mennonites in Paraguay have achieved disproportionate influence in the country’s economy in the 70 years since MEDA’s investment in the Sarona dairy there. But that key role often goes unrecognized. “We are hardly existing in the minds of many people,” Werner Franz said in a seminar presentation at MEDA’s annual convention. “The reign of God, the power of God is in the middle of us.” Franz is a retired pastor, author, seminary president, and professor. He witnessed the founding of MEDA Paraguay in 1986 and the creation of a number of other organizations “with this MEDA idea.”

Mennonites make up only about half a percent of the population of Paraguay, a country of six million inhabitants, about half the size of Ontario, Canada. There are 20 Mennonite immigrant communities in the South American nation. Those communities are responsible for 70 percent of all of the processed milk consumed in the country. They also provide between 25 and 30 percent of meat exports, 20 percent of the country’s cattle, and close to 10 percent of its soybeans, Franz said. “They are there everywhere with the gospel of progress, business solutions to poverty in many ways.”

He has identified 150 or 200 Mennonite businesses that employ between two and 2,000 people each but admits that he has stopped counting. He also listed a series of schools, hospitals and other Paraguayan institutions started by Mennonites. Mennonite assistance in the country predates MEDA by two decades. In 1932, the Mennonite Central Committee began playing a “crucial role in the first 20 years for Mennonites to survive in Paraguay.” MCC helped to build the Trans-Chaco highway and a number of organizations in Paraguay, he said.

Once MEDA was created in the early 1950s, after MCC director Orie Miller gathered together a group of Mennonite businessmen, it started working both in the Chaco region of western Paraguay and Friesland in the east. “MEDA members wanted to share their faith, their abilities, and their resources to meet human needs through economic development.” The acronym MEDA, the shorthand for Mennonite Economic Development Associates, could also have an alternate meaning, he said. “Mutuality, Empowerment, Dignity, Agape love.”

MEDA helped many businesses besides the Sarona Dairy in Paraguay. These included the Sinfin Tannery and the Fortuna shoe factory, a foundry smelter to cast machinery parts, a bottling plant, and a separate project with indigenous people. Some projects were very short, with one being transferred to local people after a few months, he said. Over time, the Mennonite communities acted like magnets, attracting people to the economic opportunities their enterprise offered. “There’s work there, there’s development there, there’s food there, and there are good people there,” he said. The same dynamic played out in other areas where Mennonite colonies are concentrated.

ASCIM, the Association of Services for Indigenous Mennonite Cooperation, promotes indigenous groups. It works with 17,000 indigenous people in 19 communities through partnership programs. That is less than 20 percent of the indigenous communities in Paraguay. Franz’s younger brother, who heads ASCIM, thinks another 250 years of support for indigenous people will be required.
In 1975, Fecoprod, the Federation of Production Cooperatives, was established. This organization, initiated by Mennonites with MCC assistance, now has 175,000 members. It is a large part of the Paraguayan economy, he said.

This organization has $3 billion in sales and employs almost 13,000 people. It operates four meat processing plants with export capacity, a tannery, seven dairy plants, and two powdered milk plants. “What happened with MCC, and what happened with MEDA, was kind of putting a chip into us, a DNA, that was there already, but it was reinforced.” After MEDA ended its work in Paraguay, new organizations and businesses in the same spirit carried on. In 1996, MEDA Paraguay was formed as a separate organization. It initiated several domestic projects. These included the Codipsa starch factory, Dirssa, which works with charcoal, ProDir, which does loans, TobaSia, a brick factory that works with indigenous people, and the Apissca honey/beekeeping initiative.

“A number of these today don’t exist anymore. They were started and then discontinued.” Codispa, the largest MEDA-created, North America-supported business that survives and thrives, now operates four plants, with about 200 employees, he said. It produced on 10,000 acres of land last year, buying manioc from 1,500 farmers, with about 10,000 people affected positively by its operations, he said. Sales in 2022 reached $51.1 million US.

The 2023 projection is to produce on 15,500 acres and pay over $8 million to its supplier farmers. With a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of about $5,000 US per person, Paraguay is one of the poorer countries in South America. But poverty in Paraguay is now much lower than in the rest of Latin America, he said.

In 2002, 58 percent of Paraguay’s population lived in poverty or extreme poverty — people living on less than $1.90 a day. By 2019, that had dropped to 27 percent, compared to 30 percent in Latin America as a whole. That said, Mennonites in Paraguay face a number of challenges. The economic progress they have helped to promote can be a blessing or a curse, Franz said. The average Mennonite income is probably at least 10 times that of the average Paraguayan, he said.

Cultural differences and economic inequalities are sometimes obstacles and are also opportunities to share progress, he said. There is also the question of whether businesspeople will be key players for shalom — a Hebrew word meaning peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare, and tranquility — or agents alienating people from God. The church can be a help and sometimes a hindrance for people in business, he asked. Given that governments, the church, and business all target the same people with similar goals, “why should we not work together in synergy?”

“We have often, in the churches, complained about business and corruption, but we have forgotten that churches, without business, would almost not exist. And the other way around, probably too, in our context.” Forty-three years after MCC ended its efforts in Paraguay on good terms, mission complete, conversations are taking place on whether MEDA Paraguay can work together with MCC and MEDA as partners rather than as recipients. While it is unknown what form that might take, there is an understanding that partnership is critical, he said.

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