Christine and Hans Hostettler

From the Bernese Oberland to Paraguayan rainforests

Imagine leaving the comfort of Switzerland for a place with no roads, electricity, or running water. To pursue their environmental dreams, the Hostettlers moved to South America 40 years ago…but it has not always been an easy ride.

“Do we want to go back to Switzerland? Definitely not,” declares Christine, without hesitation. “Here, there is a sense of freedom and the possibility of creating things that we could never have imagined in Switzerland.”

The couple has certainly made full use of their opportunities in Paraguay. They have created a nature protection organisation, an eco-tourism programme, and an organic farm called ‘New Gambach’ – an homage to their Swiss village of origin – where we meet to look back at their 36 years as Swiss expats.

The couple talk about nostalgia, family and friends. They talk about orderly Swiss society, where everything has to be perfectly in place. Despite all that, this is the place they call home, they insist. Hans built their home with his own hands in Alto Vera, in the Itapúa region, near the San Rafael National Park.

A dangerous endeavour

Their proximity to the national park speaks volumes. The Hostettlers’ story is closely tied to the fight to defend Paraguay’s rainforest, which is one of the richest ecosystems in the world, but also one of the most endangered.

And when talking about the dangers, Christine can never forget a fateful Sunday back in 2008.

“There was football on the TV. I was alone at home and I heard noises outside. I went out and found myself face to face with someone in a balaclava pointing a 38mm revolver at me,” she recounts. Christine still doesn’t know whether someone up above was watching over her, or if the gunman simply aimed badly. But fortunately, when the gun went off, the bullet didn’t hit her.

Hans also escaped unhurt from a similar episode when unknown individuals shot at his plane as it flew over the forest trying to detect illegal logging operations, fires or farms.

“They imagined that by killing us the fight would be over. They now know that there are many more of us,” says Christine.

The cold Oberland          

But let’s go back to the start of their adventure at the end of the 1970s in the Bernese Oberland. At that time, the Hostettlers enjoyed a calm family life in Gambach, near Rüschegg.

But it was much too calm for them, and when Hans learned he could buy a plot of land in Paraguay, the couple jumped at the chance. With support from their family, they bought 250 hectares.

“It was like life 50 years ago,” jokes Christine, remembering the inhospitable paradise with no basic infrastructure that they encountered. In Switzerland, it was cold and boring, but at least it was comfortable and safe.

In February 1979, Christine flew to Paraguay with their eldest daughter Brigitte, who was still a young baby at the time. Hans had arrived six months earlier. The former sailor had cleared the land of trees and weeds in order to build the family’s new wooden house.

Hans enjoys working with his hands, and over the years, he has transformed their home. He fitted it with an electrical system, powered by water from a nearby dam and lake, which he built himself. He also maintains the family’s combine harvester and built an ultralight plane, which he received in parts in the post.

The Hostettlers and their Guarani jungle paradise

It has been 36 years since Christine and Hans Hostettler decided that they preferred comfort to freedom and settled in an idyllic but inhospitable part of southern Paraguay. (Images: Rodrigo Muñoz)

Years of struggle

The small plane, known as ‘Lucy’, only arrived in 2005. Before that, the family were confronted with regular difficulties and disappointments. Mosquitos, humidity, and Brigitte’s health problems made them question whether they had paid too high a price for their life abroad.

But despite these challenges, their farm started to bear fruit – or rather, milk. While in Paraguay, Christine learned how to make cheese. And Brigitte was joined by a baby sister and brother, Teresa and Pedro. Their organic soya crops proved to be a success, and environmental activities started to become a full-time job for the couple.

The plane, purchased with support from the environmental group WWF, has been an asset to the Pro Cosara association, which has been fighting to protect the rainforest for years. The group was formed in 1997 by a young couple to keep an eye on the region, which became a protected zone in 1922. It attempts to acquire land from private owners whom the government has not paid, to stop the 73,000-hectare area from becoming an ecological park.

There are threats from large intensive farms – mainly soya, but also illegal farms – and illegal logging activities.

A new front

Christine and her team have worked tirelessly to develop Pro Cosara, which now has an extensive international support network. It does research programmes for the national park, and environmental education to raise awareness and develop sustainable activities.

Pro Cosara is on the right track. Christine left their management board in February 2016, but she is still a member of its advisory committee. She has a new ecological challenge: ecotourism. Recently, American students visited the area and identified 70 different species of birds living nearby.

Their Paraguay home is a real paradise. But isn’t the Bernese Oberland equally idyllic? Was it such a good decision to emigrate?

“The best,” replies Christine immediately. In addition to the freedom, the couple are delighted that their children can grow up with such close contact to and respect for nature.

Switzerland: always on their minds

Home, family, farm, crops, environmental battles: the Hostettlers have an incredibly busy life. But they have never forgotten the country where they were born.

Their two daughters now live in Switzerland and the couple regularly visits. In Paraguay, they take part in activities alongside fellow Swiss expatriates, and Christine has helped for five years as a volunteer to ensure that Swiss citizens who have retired in the region still receive their Swiss pensions.

Forty years after leaving Switzerland, what does she think about her homeland?

“There has been a radical change,” she declares. “It is no longer the Switzerland we remember. Our parents worked for years with foreigners who had rights and didn’t try to impose their cultures. Today the situation seems different and I fear for a loss of Swiss identity.”

What would she say to any Swiss person considering moving abroad?

“Before making a definitive decision, they must travel to their chosen country and live there for at least three months,” she says. “There are people who send their containers of stuff in advance, who spend their savings and then realise too late that their destination doesn’t correspond to the place they imagined.”

In spite of their youthful enthusiasm, the Hostettlers didn’t take everything immediately with them when they moved to Paraguay. Their furniture, for example, remained for years in Rüschegg. And their last few Swiss possessions arrived not so long ago. They may well have emigrated, but they have not totally lost contact.