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Defending Environmental Rights: Funding Priorities in the Global South and East

July 21, 2016

In December, the United Nations awarded its Equator Prize 2015 to two Munduruku leaders from the Brazilian Amazon in recognition of their struggle to protect ancestral territory and sacred rivers from a mega-dam. What caught my attention about the prize was the way it acknowledged a struggle that is ongoing, not a battle won. What inspired the UN to do that? And what message is it sending to the world as it recognizes the need to preserve the last intact forests in the Amazon basin and the knowledge possessed by their ancestral caretakers?

Report_ihrfg2016This year's edition of Advancing Human Rights: Update on Global Foundation Grantmaking offers an interesting in-depth look at the priorities of funders based in the Global South and East. The key findings shows that environmental and resource rights rank as the second-most funded issue area by Global South and East funders, compared to ninth for all funders. Another interesting — and, in my opinion, directly related — finding is that Global South and East funders dedicate a larger proportion of their support to capacity building, coalition building, and collaboration, compared to human rights funders overall.

Because my organization, CASA, is what we call a "socio-environmental" funder, the report really speaks to us. And as we've reviewed the findings in it, a few things have suggested themselves. We operate within a fragile global system held together by increasingly frayed  threads, and what seems to keep it from collapsing altogether is a clever subterfuge in which:

  • Capital flows continue funding the cheapest raw materials that can be found (often in the Global South and East), with a premium on minimal extraction costs (i.e., unregulated and exploited labor) and easy-to-access lands (territories that can be clear-cut, mined, or drilled no matter their environmental importance or who lives there).
  • Capital develops infrastructure to enable the extraction and export of those materials — including mega-dams, pipelines, roads, rail- and waterways, and ports.
  • Pliant local political structures facilitate the removal and transport of these materials as quickly as possible to global markets, regardless of who or what might object (i.e., poor countries with weak institutions, a history of corruption, and leaders whose territories hold the great majority of what is left to extract on the planet).

Add to this the insecurity that climate change is producing around food supplies and access to fresh water, and you have an ugly, and increasingly unsustainable, picture.

How can Global South funders (I'm guessing the Global East is not so different) deal with this mess? For starters, we can collaborate among ourselves, and with Global North partners, to fund grassroots resilience, empowerment, and solutions; support local/regional/national/international monitoring; and call for greater transparency and accountability with respect to international financial institutions' investments, and everything in between.

Building a culture of philanthropy in the Global South and East is a herculean job, and it is only through collaboration that results will be achieved. We must build different alliances to support different aspects of our work. CASA, for example, is part of the Global Alliance for Green and Gender Action (GAGGA). Led by Fondo Centroamericano de Mujeres, Mama Cash, and Both ENDS, the initiative involves more than thirty women’s and environmental funds and NGOs in Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa, and Latin America that have come together to strengthen the capacity of grassroots organizations to advocate for women's rights to water, food security, and a clean, healthy, and safe environment.

We also work with major international funders to make cluster grants related to a number of mutually complementary strategies, from strengthening groups affected by mega infrastructure or energy projects, to supporting indigenous rights and legal defense, to investing in women's co-ops based in fragile ecosystems that produce oil and pulp sustainably at market rates. These solutions not only ensure indigenous land ownership and improve organizational capacity, they help maintain the integrity of communities. To help support the Brazilian philanthropic field, we are also co-founders of the Brazil Philanthropy Network for Social Justice.

What have we learned as a South American grassroots fund? Ten years, ten countries, and more than fourteen hundred grants later, we see some advances that point to useful strategies like those mentioned above. One of them relates to how local knowledge is crucial to making each dollar count.

In the Peruvian Amazon, for example, oil spills have contaminated thousands of miles of pristine rivers on which traditional people depend. Funding indigenous communities' access to legal advice so that they can demand reparations and compensation in court has proven effective time and again. In Bolivia and Paraguay, a strong agroforestry movement has worked quietly to help protect small farmers' lands from producers of commodities for export such as soy and cattle and has proven effective in securing land rights and income for indigenous communities in places where open confrontation is a not-infrequent, and often deadly, occurrence. Even locally produced film documentaries can force local governments to take action.

Global Witness published a report last month which found that, between 2010 and 2015, two hundred and sixty-six environmental and indigenous activists around the world had been murdered. The map shows that all those deaths happened in the Global South and East, led by Latin America, with Brazil topping the list with two hundred deaths.

In the last few weeks, the Munduruku people have won a number of battles. CASA was one of many funders of  a complex process that has dragged  on for nine years. And trough that engagement, we have clearly seen the impact that many small grants across the basin have had, not least in terms of enabling the Munduruku people to meet regularly with public attorneys and develop a formal protocol that protects their right to free, prior, and informed consent under the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (C169). In the most recent domino to fall, last month the Fundação Nacional do Índio (National Indian Foundation) issued a decision to recognize the Munduruku's ancestral territories, which led in turn to the Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis (Brazil's environmental protection agency) to deny a license for the mega-dam that would destroy a major part of those territories.

Nothing is certain when the forces in a struggle like this are so strongly opposed. But it is important to celebrate small victories — that is what gives us the motivation to keep pushing. There can be no question about the critical role of targeted funding in this struggle. "There is no Planet B" is a cliché, but it is true. We must not destroy the priceless bounty that has been given us, nor can we afford to lose the knowledge preserved by our oldest and wisest caretakers — or those who put their lives on the line every day to protect the planet for future generations.

Headshot_Maria Amália SouzaPerhaps last year's Equator Prize was trying to signal just that.

Maria Amália Souza is executive director of the São Paulo-based CASA Socio-Environmental Fund, which works to promote environmental conservation and sustainability, democracy, and social justice by supporting and strengthening the capacity of civil society in South America.

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