Field Visits, Partner Organizations & Issues

Our team has longstanding relationships with indigenous and agrarian communities and organizations in three highland regions of Guatemala. Each region allows learners to engage with different cultural perspectives and responses to a wide range of pertinent issues.

Around Lake Atitlan

Solola: The Indigenous Municipality of Solola has an enduring tradition of ancestral governance which asserts indigenous control and autonomy over their territory. As a result, Solola boasts numerous examples of solidarity economics, social movements and indigenous politics. The Kakchiquel University is an indigenous university located in Chimaltenango whose main purpose is to form young people in the practice of living well. Utz K has a longstanding relationship with the rector of the University and other faculty members.

Santiago and San Juan: Despite being surrounded by a multicultural tourist influence, Santiago and San Juan remain staunchly indigenous municipalities. This Tz´utujil region offers learners the unique opportunity to learn about Mayan spirituality and cosmovision, the history of the Civil War, and autonomous organization efforts by the Tz´utujil people to harness the burgeoning tourist industry so that it benefits the people who have ancestrally called the Lake home.

IMAP: Unlike other permaculture projects around the lake that are owned and operated by foreigners, the Mesoamerican Institute of Permaculture is run by a group of Mayan Kakchiquel leaders and works with local farmers. Their small demonstration farm in San Lucas Toliman is an excellent introduction to the wisdom in traditional Mayan forms of agriculture.

Department of San Marcos

San Marcos Diocese: Rooted in a tradition of liberation theology, since the early 1980s the San Marcos Diocese has been a dynamic actor working for peace and justice in the western highlands, and defender of indigenous rights. The Diocese is located in the capital city of San Marcos and has programs in as many as half of the the 30 municipalities that make up the department. The Diocese’ strategic focuses are alternative and holistic development, social organization and political advocacy.

Transnational Mining: In 1999, the construction of what would eventually become the controversial Marlin Mine, an open pit gold mine owned and operated by the Canadian Goldcorp, was initiated in the Mam indigenous municipality of San Miguel Ixtahuacán. As soon as 2000, local indigenous farmers and townspeople began raising concerns about the health and environmental impacts of the mine, including the controversial use of cyanide to extract the gold. According to the locals, communities were never adequately consulted from the start. They worry that their water sources have been contaminated. They claim that the mine, which displaced hundreds of families, has contributed to serious health problems, and most troubling has been the nexus social conflict. Since the mine’s inception, hundreds of clashes have been documented between opposing factions, some leading to loss of lives.

Goldcorp from the onset promoted the view that not only do the economic gains of its mining operations outweigh environmental impacts, but also that operations such as the Marlin Mine are legitimate and promising economic strategies for Western Highland communities. However, the historical complaints and local demonstrations against Goldcorp strongly suggests that the “Marlin scenario” was never the development alternative that highland indigenous communities seek.

More than 10 years later, at the end of 2016, after countless protests failed to stop production, the mine ceased to operate. Just this year however, Goldcorp sold the Marlin Mine to another Canadian mining giant, Golden Reign, indicating that the operation will likely resume, and with it the peoples resistance.

Utz K has a longstanding relationship with the leadership of the resistance movement.

Sibinal: The municipality of Sibinal boasts a rich mixture of Mam culture, land-based traditions, sustainable use of natural resources, and cooperative communities with considerable economic potential. Utz K has a longstanding relationship with multiple cooperatives in the region that have alternative visions for place-based development. Through cooperatives, communities have been engaged in very successful development strategies that utilizes available natural resources in a sustainable manner and where local efforts are valued and local people are the primary actors.

Migration: Roughly 85% of working aged men and women in the Sibinal area migrate to Mexico and/or the US to survive. Sibinal is on the route for migrants from all over Central America headed north to work as day laborers on Mexican coffee farms, or pursue the income generating possibilities of menial work in the US.
On a national level, everyday around 150 people from Guatemala leave their families to migrate to the US, in hopes of starting a new life that will help lift their families out of poverty and live a more dignified life.

Utz K is passionate about helping learners to understand the underlying causes of migration, the challenges that migrant faces, and structural and policy considerations that have led to an increase in migration. Above all, Utz K seeks to humanize those who migrate through creative contact.

Ixil Region

Ixil University: Utz K maintains a strong relationship with leadership of the Ixil University. The Ixil University breaks with western-dominated concepts of education and was created to help rescue and revalue the traditional knowledge and wisdom of the Ixil people. In a nutshell, the Ixil University seeks to help young people of the Ixil Region to learn to value their culture, their land, and their identity. Instead of education being a force that drives young people away from the region, the Ixil University is intent on helping young people to discover the wealth of knowledge that their elders hold, and learn to incorporate that knowledge into a learning how to live well in their territory. The Ixil University offers a unique glimpse into the territorial wisdom of a place-based culture.

Fundamaya: Besides being one of the regions hardest hit by the genocidal actions of the army during the Civil War, the Ixil Region is also one of the regions where indigenous identity is firmly rooted and entrenched. Whereas much of the Lake area has been overly exposed to western culture (mostly through tourism), the Ixil Region still has traditional and community oriented land tenure arrangements, forms of traditional justice, collective resource management, etc. Utz K has a strong relationship with Fundamaya, an indigenous organization and protagonist in the Ixil region that promotes ancestral forms of diversified agriculture, collective management of the commons, and other indigenous-identity related themes.

Hydroelectric Mega-Dams: The Guatemalan government is in the process of selling off its rivers to various multinational energy corporations as they seek to build upwards of 75 new mega-hydroelectric dams, in addition to the 19 that are already built.

These dams are mostly being built on the ancestral lands of indigenous communities in the Mayan Highlands. The rivers on which these dams are being constructed have provided local communities with clean water and food sources for thousands of years. However, once the dams have been built, the rivers often become polluted as heavy metals and other sediments build up behind the dams and then contaminate the river downstream, thus robbing rural communities of their primary water and food source.

It is ironic that most of the indigenous communities affected by the construction of these dams have no electricity. The electricity produced is sent to the major urban/industrial centers of Guatemala, and to mining operations around the country. One of the main, unstated objectives of increasing energy potential in Guatemala is not to bring electricity to rural, impoverished communities, but rather to attract more foreign investment in the extractive industries.

Utz K is connected with numerous actors in the Ixil Region involved in navigating the complex issues behind mega hydroelectric projects in indigenous territories.