Tobias Roberts: Tobias has lived in Latin America since 2003. Living amongst the Wayuu Indigenous group in northern Venezuela as a teenager was a first, eye-opening experience to a different way of life. Despite what many outsiders might consider abject material poverty, he discovered a vibrant culture rooted to community and the land that set its own terms as to what constituted a wholesome existence. In early 2006, he moved to El Salvador begin working with the Mennonite Central Committee and a local NGO born from the Catholic Base Community movement. He spent five years there, accompanying the formation of multiple associations comprised of families living with HIV in marginalized urban communities. He also assisted groups of rural women to organize and develop community-based business proposals.
In 2011, Tobias and his wife Yasmin, moved to the Ixil Region of Guatemala to work with a local Ixil youth network, ancestral authorities, and an indigenous organization called Fundamaya. Tobias had the privilege to accompany loca indigenous leadership in a fight against several multinational energy companies attempting to build mega-hydroelectric dams on Ixil ancestral territory. He participated as an international observer in the pioneering dialogue between the Italian energy conglomerate ENEL and the Ixil ancestral authorities over the right to consultation and autonomy in indigenous territory. His work with the local youth network was focused on helping the to develop a diversified, ancestral agriculture program aimed at reconstructing agrarian identity amongst youth and strengthening local commercialization opportunities for diversified and traditional agro ecological production. This project also focused on reestablishing traditional, community-oriented forms of land tenure centered on inheritance and strengthening relationships between elders and youth. Lastly, Toby was involved in the creation of the Ixil University, a local, indigenous university intent on preserving and revaluing traditional Ixil knowledge.
In 2015, Tobias and his family moved back to El Salvador to begin developing their own agro-ecological farm and natural building business in the El Trifinio Biosphere. They have helped to start a small community ecotourism cooperative with their neighbors in the mountains of El Salvador and are researching and applying agroforestry techniques that increase the carbon sequestration potential on small parcels of farmland.
Tobias has also worked as a freelance writer for several years and writes regularly for online publications such as the Huffington Post (https://huffingtonpost.com/author/tobiasroberts20-985), Latin American online news sites such as Alainet (https://www.alainet.org/es/autores/tob%C3%ADas-roberts), and other natural building and permaculture websites. He also has recently worked as a research assistant for a group of Canadian professors conducting a three-year long research project into the effects of International Service Learning (ISL) on indigenous and campesino host communities in Guatemala and Nicaragua.
Juan Ramirez: Juan is a Tz’utujil local leader from the small village of Panabaj, located on the outskirts of Santiago Atitlan. After Hurricane Stan devastated Panabaj in 2005, he was fundamental in starting Anadesa, a small, community development association that helped to respond to humanitarian needs as a result of the natural disaster. For the next decade, he continued in a leadership role with Anadesa and spearheaded the development and implementation of a diversity of initiatives that sought to serve the needs of the local community. He is most proud of the public-private K-6 school that he and the Anadesa team helped to launch. Both the school and Anadesa continue to flourish today.
For years Juan has been a local leader in the Catholic Church. Rather than seeing his Tz’utujil identity and Catholic faith as opposing forces, Juan has sought to model and give voice to a synergetic relationship between the two. In this way he is an esteemed local authority.
In recent years, he has been one of the visionary leaders in the development of the Utz K Collective. Among many things, Juan offers the collective a wealth of knowledge about Tz’utujil culture and history, the Lake Atitlan ecosystem and watershed, and sustainable living practices. As an experienced master builder, practitioner of traditional agriculture, and veteran of the coffee production business well established in the region, he has guided the natural construction process and ecological design of the Utz K property on the southwest corner of the Lake.
Yasmin Mendez: Yasmin was born in El Salvador in the 1980s when the civil conflict there was at its peak. Due to her family’s involvement in the Catholic Base Community movement of the 1980s that had its origin and inspiration from Liberation Theology, her vision for the future was formed by the persecutions that plagued the country until peace accords were signed in 1992.
As a young professional, she worked for several years as a community development promoter in the marginalized, indigenous regions of western El Salvador. She accompanied groups of women advocating for greater gender equality and also helped to organize and develop an agro-ecology school that sought to encourage small farmers to reduce their dependence on agro-chemical inputs.
In 2011, she moved to the Ixil Region of Guatemala where she accompanied a local community struggling against a proposed barite mine that was planned to be built on community forestland of the Ixil People. She also worked with several groups of organized women in the municipality of Cotzal searching for ways to promote more access to political leadership for women within the traditional Ixil structures of authority and justice.
For the past three years, together with her husband Tobias, she has worked to develop a small, agro-ecological farm in the mountains of El Salvador. When not working on the farm, picking peaches, weeding flower beds, or tending to the sheep and geese, she has been involved in developing a community-based ecotourism initiative. The aim of the initiative is to maximize and spread benefits across the broader community by reframing and restructuring how tourism services are offered and operated locally.
Nate Howard: Nate has spent more than 13 years in Latin America, living, studying, and accompanying a diversity of grassroots indigenous and campesino initiatives. Nevertheless, he is the first to assert that before he could offer anything, he had to spend years unlearning and deconstructing many of the presuppositions that he brought with him from the North about economics, development, politics and life, and then relearn them from the very people he was working alongside.
After finishing a master’s degree in economic development, Nate got his start in Guatemala with an international NGO, the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), accompanying a humanitarian relief program in response to the destruction caused by Hurricane Stan in Central America in October of 2005. One of the areas most devastated by the storm was the village of Panabaj, a Tz’utujil community located on the south side of Lake Atitlan. It was through this relief effort that Nate and Juan Ramirez, fellow Utz K founder and Tz’utujil leader, became friends. In all, Nate spend a year and a half in Panabaj working with Juan and a team of local leaders to rebuild their home village. In addition to learning about community organization, this experience provided Nate with the opportunity to learn about the greater Tz’utujil community and culture, and to begin friendships that last until today.
Thereafter, Nate moved to the far western department of San Marcos to begin work with the social arm of the Catholic Church, known as the San Marcos Diocese. In San Marcos, he spent 4 ½ years accompanying primarily two processes in indigenous territories set in Central America’s tallest and most rugged mountains. The first was a rural development program centered on the formation of two agricultural cooperatives in the municipality of Sibinal. The second was an indigenous resistance movement against a transnational open-pit mining operation in the municipality of San Miguel. Both of these experiences taught Nate about the perplexing highland indigenous-campesino reality, the primacy of grassroots organization and social movements, and the necessity for creating an ontological framework that respects human rights rooted in indigenous epistemologies.
In 2012, Nate moved further south to Colombia to assume a coordinating role, again with MCC. For 3 ½ years he facilitated a vocational training program for practitioners from North, Central and South America, in which participants worked with partner agencies on grassroots projects in different regions around Colombia. The cornerstone of the program, a training curriculum that Nate crafted and implemented, sought to provide practitioners with the conceptual framework and practical tools to effectively accompany the work being done in their host communities. Above all, what he tried to impart to his team of practitioners was that one, the most effective and enduring motivations for grassroots accompaniment originate from love and respect for the people, community, culture, even the physical space, where and with whom we work, and two, love and respect are virtues that are slowly developed by rubbing shoulders with people who demonstrate with wisdom and dignity what it means to be human in the day-to-day grind of a particular context.
In addition to working on the creation of Utz K, over the course of the last 2 years, Nate has kept busy helping to develop and launch a foundation in Colombia, The Wájaro Foundation, that is given to supporting the recently initiated post-conflict reconciliation process.