So what is Sustainable Development, anyway?


photo.ann-edited1-300x233Ann Conway has twenty years overseas experience in international development as Peace Corps Country Director, Program and Training Officer, and Training Director. She currently lives in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas and is a Natik Development Advisor.  

I first heard the term “sustainable development” as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines while sitting, rather sweating, in a meeting with our program manager. The term had just hit the scene and made an impact on those of us who were well aware of the abundance of slash and burn, tree cutting, and explosives dropped into the sea to harvest fish. Easy to understand that the destructiveness of these behaviors, and others, didn’t meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (United Nations’ 1987 Brundtland Report)

The “What is going on?” and the “What is the impact?” are usually relatively easy to identify. The challenge is to figure out “Now What do we do”?  It’s not easy to work in sustainable development. For eons do-gooders have swept down like Mighty Mouse in an effort to save the day. But those efforts have sometimes brought change that made situations worse, change that cost millions but with no positive results, change that worsened the balance between gender roles, and change that didn’t honor cultural differences. How do we act as catalysts of change without seeming arrogant, sometimes without even not knowing what we’re talking about, and certainly knowing more about our own culture and experience than that of the people with whom we are interacting?


This analogy makes sense to me: we need to ease into the pond slowly and with grace, sensitive that we are foreign elements that need to understand the dynamics of the water, the depth of the bottom, the breadth of its sides, where the water comes from, and where it is going. We need to discover how best to interact with it so as to keep its integrity and to help change it in a way that will protect it, improve it for the benefit of the people and animals that depend on it, the earth that receives it and swirls it around the planet and into the air above it. All the while realizing that it is not we who wear the mighty mouse capes, but the people who have lived there for generations.

All these considerations require investigation and communication that is sensitive to different expectations and rhythms, which takes time and effort. For those of us that serve as bridges in the quest for development that is sensitive to the needs of both humans and the environment, one of the biggest challenges is to brace ourselves against the influences of the outside world that clamor for bigger, faster, and more technological solutions. No solution is sustainable if the people who are implementing it are not comfortable integrating it into their lives and culture.


Women Sowing Life

mxyYolanda and Juana Bernarda Hernandez Gomez with their mother Magdalena (center), are leaders of Mujeres Sembrando la Vida (Women Sowing Life), an organization that brings together nearly 250 indigenous Tzotzil women from diverse communities in the municipality of Zinacantán in Chiapas, Mexico. Below, they explain the history of their organization, how they began to work together for self-management and self-development, and how they first began working with Natik’s partner program, Veredas.

Women Sowing Life has four areas of action:

  1. A savings and credit program
  2. Actions to restore the community and domestic environmental health
  3. Strengthening the organization and productivity of our organization
  4. Promotion and exploration of spaces to promote artisan products

For over twelve years, these four points have been integrated into our actions and given meaning to our union as a group.

In 2001, women in Zinacantan and eight other locations began working with an organization called Forum for Sustainable Development through a savings and credit program. In 2002, the women left the organization because the representatives were only men and the women were not invited to be an active part of the organization, including not being named in the legal charter. The number of members rose from 98 to 212 and organized into eighteen solidarity groups in nine communities. That year, we began environmental work to combat deforestation; diagnostic of landscape, seed collection and nursery building. In 2004, we formed a new organization under the name of Mujeres Sembrando la Vida (MSV, Women Sowing Life).

In 2005 we continued savings and credit and agro-ecological activities: seeding, planting trees, building stoves, storing and selling PET bottles, recycling, composting and vermin-composting. We held training sessions on gender issues and women’s rights and monitored the government program, Opportunities, to document and understand the impact of the implementation of this policy in the lives of the women.

From 2007, we began an intense process of organizational strengthening in order to gradually establish a formal, legal core capable of handling the administrative and logistical needs of our savings and credit program. In 2008, we established ourselves as a Cooperative Society, and were interested in starting to work together on other issues, such as production and collective marketing of textiles.

_MG_1156Between 2008 and 2011, the 250 members managed resources for workshops and trainings to improve product quality and marketing capabilities, environmental health restoration through the construction of wood-saving stoves, building and planting seedling trees to halt deforestation of our forests, dry composting latrines and the reduction and recycling of plastics in our community. In 2011, a Saturday tutoring program began with the help of Mujeres de Maiz Opportunities Foundation (MDMOF).

Our life is different now; those of us who were children when the organization began are now working together with our mothers. We have had new opportunities; we can now go to school, to work together and move forward together as a collective.

In 2012, MSV began a relationship with Natik on a microcredit project. We have also worked to improve the cooperative with different tasks such as selling crafts, leadership workshops and the sale of our handcrafted products in a small shop in the coffee museum in San Cristobal de las Casas.

sat programIn 2013, Natik began supporting the remedial education project in Zinacantan. The goal is to initiate a local and mobile library for children and young people Zinacantan and work together to achieve the best education for children of Zinacantan modeled after the Natik partner Puerta Abierta Library in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala. This is a collective vision of  the women in MSV and is a very important goal to establish and expand into other communities. There are many children whose families want them to study but often the parents don’t have enough formal education to help with their homework or get through the bureaucracy of the Spanish–language educational system. Natik has begun seeking support for this program and also initiated on-line sale of MSV artisan projects through Etsy.

In 2013, MSV began working with the government program “Without Hunger” on nine projects, including oyster mushroom production, cement cisterns and rain water capruting, low-smoke and fuel-saving stoves, and backyard kitchen gardens. Through the sponsorship of MSV, nine groups of men and women who are not members of MSV but live in Zinacantan benefitted from this program.

Throughout all of this work, our members are encouraged to improve and further strengthen our organization and are looking for opportunities to improve the quality of all of our lives and our families. We are always looking for ways to promote our crafts and to continue caring for the environment, health, education and organizational strengthening of our communities.


It’s all in the family!

jean2Jean Duffy is one of a group of women in Minnesota committed to supporting Natik’s e-commerce efforts. She is originally from Ireland and is currently the Director of Curriculum and Instruction in the Becker, MN school district. Her oldest daughter Roisin lived in San Cristobal from August 2012 to May 2013.

In August 2012 my daughter Roisin left to begin a six month fellowship with Natik. As we do with all our children, nieces, and nephews my husband and I along with our extended family eagerly followed her story and journey. Over the months Roisin shared the stories of the women of Zinacantan, Chiapas she was coming to know, and as the holiday season approached sent some pictures of the beautiful products they had created hoping that we could sell or purchase some of them for seasonal gifts. When our extended family gathered over Thanksgiving as we do every year I shared the pictures with some of my sisters-in-law. As we looked at the exceptionally detailed handiwork and read some of the stories of the cooperative Roisin was working with we began to talk about how we could leverage our time and skills in some small ways to help bring these wonderful products to an expanded marketplace. We envisioned a simple “women supporting women” model: What could we do as women and mothers in Twin Cities areas of Minnesota to support women and mothers in Zinacantan?

photo (2)We shared this dream with Roisin and through her efforts and the collective efforts of many others the Etsy shop was born! Roisin brought home some products at Christmas, our son travelled to visit her in April and brought back more, and over the subsequent months other  good-natured volunteers have been willing to lend us an empty corner of their suitcases. When the products arrive in Minnesota they are photographed by one of us and posted to Etsy.

My role consists of storing all of the products which have been listed on Etsy to ensure they are kept in high quality, air-tight, cedar scented containers. When a customer purchases an item I send a note, print a shipping label, wrap the item in pretty tissue paper and waterproof protection and ship it in a timely manner. My concern is always that a product that arrives at a buyer’s home is as beautiful as it was when it left the creators’ hands. I find great joy in doing this and hope that it serves Natik and the cooperative well; we want our buyers to open up a beautiful product and talk to their friends about it. The number of hands these items pass through to get to their final destination is sometimes a concern to me. It is important that the items are wrapped and shipped carefully from the very start of their journey.

We are  constantly brainstorming new ways to market the products and tell the stories of the women who create them. We recently purchased business cards to send with the projects and hope someday to be able to send artisan biographies with each purchase.

photo (4) We have found that potential buyers are eager to hear the stories of the products. For instance, a good friend of mine purchased a table runner to use on the guest book table at her daughter’s wedding and put little cards on the table with more information about the runner and the cooperatives–free advertising for us!

Two of my nephews were born in Guatemala, and one niece and nephew were born in Ecuador. Every year they attend La Semana. La Semana is a week-long culture day-camp for children in elementary through high school adopted from Latin America and their family members. One day during the week is designated a “Marketplace” day with vendors from various groups or organizations set up tables with items for sale from a variety of Latin American countries. This year we set up a table at with products from Zinacantan, Chiapas and Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala. We sold a few items and had many opportunities to pass out our business card to potential future customers.

Our goal is to be available for the e-commerce project as needed. Roisin and I primarily coordinate the work and we check in and consult with our Minnesota women’s group as needed. They bring a variety of experiences including marketing, communication, photography, accounting, human resources, non-profit board, and education to the table.

Dolores – the Intersection of Spanish and Tz’utujil

DSCF1570Project Development Intern Brittany Burton sat down with Dolores Vasquez Reanda, the Guatemalan General Manager of Just Apparel, and talked about her role with Just Apparel, some of the challenges of intercultural communication and development work, and how Dolores hopes to see the organization grow in the future. 

Brittany: When did you meet Heidi (the President of Natik’s Board of Directors and Just Apparel founder) and how did you begin working with Just Apparel?

Dolores: I met Heidi through my uncle. I think it’s been about six or seven years since we’ve known each other. When I graduated from university, I was looking for a job, and she was looking for someone to translate and teach the women here who don’t speak Spanish. So that’s when I started working together with her. Six years ago, we started Just Apparel.

Brittany: What is your favorite part of your job?

Dolores: Of course, to be with the women and the children.

Brittany: Your least favorite?

Dolores: Balancing the checkbook!

Brittany: What are some of your dreams for this organization in the future?

Dolores: Well, there are many. But, the most important is that I would like to that in the future the association could bring in more women. Obviously, we want more work and many more scholarship students.  The women have so many needs, and sometimes you want to help but you don’t know how.  So this is my idea— if we have more work, we would be able to look for more women to join the organization, and of course, we would help more people.

Brittany: What are some of the difficulties and the challenges that the women who live in Santiago have?

Dolores: The hardest thing is that the women don’t have any money. They suffer, because when there isn’t any money, this means that there isn’t anything to eat. And, if they are sick they can’t buy medicine, because there isn’t any money. The majority of the people here don’t go to school. Only a few of the people here say that they can speak Spanish. Since they don’t understand Spanish and don’t speak Spanish, its really difficult for the women to find work.

Brittany: Explain to me a little bit about the challenges of translating between Spanish and Tz’utujil. Do you explain things in both languages word for word, or in the same way?

Dolores: In Spanish, we may say one word, but in Tz’utujil we might say a variety of things, to one has to explain the significance of the word very clearly in Tz’utujil so that the people understand. I feel that Spanish is much easier, because if you say something, you only have to say one word.  When we say something, we all know what it means. For example, in Spanish we say “How are you?” but in Tz’utujil there are various ways to say “How are you?”

Brittany: How did you learn Spanish?

Dolores: I learned Spanish in school when I was 10 years old.

Brittany: Anything else you want to say about your life or your work with Just Apparel?

Dolores: I really enjoy working and sharing with the women, and helping the students. Throughout the course of my work, we have become friends. I feel that we women are like sisters.  We share with each other, we laugh with each other. And, it’s the same with the students. It’s a great experience, and a happy experience to be with them.  Of course, it’s a  little tiring, but overall I really love my work with the women.

Unexpectedly Finding Home


Anna Bramfeld

Anna Bramfeld is Natik’s newest board member and recently spent several weeks in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico visiting Natik projects. Today Anna shares more about her unexpected though immediate connection to the people and communities she visited.

The day after I arrived in San Cristobal in early June, Anita and I took a bus to Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala. I was accompanying Anita on her journey to welcome Brittany, a new summer project development intern. I was excited to be visiting Guatemala for the first time.

Anita and I met last August when I came down to San Cristobal to volunteer and take Spanish classes, on my first visit to Mexico. Because I teach English as a Second Language in Illinois public schools to children from Mexico, I was interested, last year, to discover that Mayan children often learn a second language when they begin school. For my students in the United States, the mother tongue is usually Spanish, and they must struggle with English when they begin in school. The Mayan children in Zinacantan speak Tsotsil at home and are immersed in Spanish as their second language at school. Like my students in the United States, some of the Mayan schoolchildren interpret for their parents.

Anita and I took a lancha, a boat, across Lake Atitlan from Panajachel to Santiago. Santiago was completely different from how I had imagined it. It is spread across hills sloping steeply to the lake. We rode a tuk tuk (like a motorcycle with a little hut with a bench on it). I had expected a sleepy little village, but Santiago is bustling and lively. The colors everywhere are amazing, beginning with the vegetation and including the textiles and other crafts for sale everywhere. The women all wear beautiful embroidered blouses.

Anita introduced me to Dolores and her family. Dolores is the amazing  coordinator of Just Apparel, the women’s textile cooperative, and the scholarship program. She of course speaks Tzutujil Mayan as well as Spanish, which puts her at the heart of all the collaboration and planning that goes into the programs.  Dolores had arranged  for Anita and me to stay at Dona Chonita’s pension while we were there.

The next day we used the little living space at Dona Chonita’s for a meeting of all the women, and Anita, Brittany, Dolores and I spent a couple of hours explaining an experimental project that we were envisioning for the women. We explained everything to Dolores  in Spanish, then she translated for the women in Tzutujil.

Twenty-some women came to the meeting and sat in chairs around the living room.  While Dolores described the proposed project, I listened intently to the Mayan words I didn’t understand, occasionally catching a Spanish word or phrase. The women had lots of questions, which Dolores translated, and the meeting  went on for quite some time. The women were very serious at first, but gradually, more and more  laughter filled the room. They passed around bowls of nuts, and several fed their babies. The women range in age from about 19 to grandmothers, and all of them qualify for the program based on both their high level of skill and of economic need.

At this meeting, I found myself in the position of some of my second language learners at home in the States, straining to understand any words at all, following facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice. I learn so much about my students from putting myself in challenging situations.

Anita returned to Chiapas the next day, but I spontaneously decided to stay in Santiago. There were so many details to work out with the women and the project, and I also wanted to learn more about the library. I wound up observing the school, travelling with a library teacher to a local public school, attending a scholarship student meeting, and a young adult book group.

I had the unexpected opportunity to spend more than a week in Guatemala, and my experience was amazing.  I am grateful that Natik gave me the opportunity  to step into a world so different from my own. I feel hopeful for the women in Just Apparel, and for Natik’s scholarship students, because a little help goes a long way for people with such determination. I met people who are mounting heroic struggles against the problems of poverty, and I also learned to see Santiago as my home.