- As science has increasingly shown the importance of conservation led by Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs), donors have begun to steer funding toward supporting the work these groups do.
- In 2021, during last year’s COP26 U.N. climate conference, private and government donors committed $1.7 billion to secure the land rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities.
- But a recent assessment of the first year of the pledge shows that little of the funding goes directly to them, often going first through international NGOs, consultancies, development banks and other intermediaries.
- Most aid intended to support IPLC-led conservation work follows this path. Now, however, donors and IPLC leaders are looking for ways to ease the flow of funding and channel more of it to work that addresses climate change and the global loss of biodiversity.
The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 caught Costa Rica’s Cabécar Indigenous communities at a precarious time. Amid the species-rich forests of the Talamanca Cabécar Indigenous territory, climate change had already begun to rattle farmers, bringing higher temperatures, flooding and new pests. In response, an organization called Kábata Könana — Cabécar for “Women Defenders of the Forest” — had been working to revitalize traditional methods that rely on a wider variety of crops best suited to local climate conditions.
But then, pandemic lockdowns halted local markets, threatening important sources of staples and produce for subsistence and income. With the help of funding from the Ministry of Culture, Kábata Könana developed online markets for the sale and trade of dozens of types of produce with communities of Cabécar and Bribri, another Indigenous people living in Talamanca Cabécar.
The project helped ensure food security throughout the pandemic, and Kábata Könana received the U.N.’s Equator Prize in 2021, given out for sustainable efforts to counter poverty. The group’s work demonstrates the power of direct support to Indigenous communities for climate adaptation and mitigation, said Levi Sucre Romero, a Bribri leader from Talamanca Cabécar.
But rights advocates say too little funding flows directly to organizations led by Indigenous, Afro-descendant, and local communities, or IPLCs — and numerous obstacles to receiving that funding directly stand in the way. Yet, science has demonstrated that forests and other biomes are healthier when these communities are in charge, even though their customary rights aren’t always recognized.
Scientists from both the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have singled out the role that IPLCs must play in facing down the climate and biodiversity crises. Customarily held lands house around 80% of the world’s biodiversity and more than a third of remaining intact forests, according to a 2022 report from the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), a global network of IPLC organizations and academic institutions.
“We have been conserving,” said Nadino Calapucha, an Indigenous youth representative of the Global Alliance for Territorial Communities (GATC), a network of Indigenous organizations that manage more than 9.5 million square kilometers (3.7 million square miles) of tropical forest — an area larger than the United States. “We have all the capacity to fulfill these conservation projects with or without funding, and science recognizes this.”
More direct funding, however, would deepen the impacts of the work they do, Calapucha told Mongabay.
World leaders acknowledge the importance of IPLCs on the international stage, and they have started to back up their pronouncements with funding: In 2021, five countries and 17 private donors made a five-year commitment of $1.7 billion to support IPLC land rights at the COP26 U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
“Crises are not solved with announcements and words but with actions,” Calapucha said.
Yet, only a trickle of promised funds ends up directly with IPLC organizations — less than 1% of climate-related funding, according to a 2021 report by the NGO Rainforest Foundation Norway. And that historic $1.7 billion commitment from COP26? Just 7% of the roughly $322 million disbursed in the first year went directly to these organizations, according to the fund’s first annual report.
Observers say that too many hurdles block the path of funding to these organizations. Burdensome administrative requirements, minimal communication and trust between donors and IPLCs, and other challenges have created a system in which few projects are led by IPLCs. The aid instead typically runs through “intermediary” organizations with whom donors tend to be more comfortable liaising, such as international NGOs, development banks, and consultancies.
Today, IPLC leaders say, in spite of its shortcomings, the COP26 forest tenure commitment has sparked a new conversation.
“The nature of this pledge started to change the rules,” said Sucre, who is also the coordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (AMPB) and co-president of the GATC. The focus is now on greater flexibility in funding, IPLC input on funding priorities, and fewer administrative hurdles. The end result, donors and IPLC leaders hope, will be projects tailored to the knowledge and needs of specific communities.
But many say the process will take time.
Delivering more money to IPLCs “requires a structural re-plumbing and a major cultural change in the way that funding flows, all of which are not easy things to do,” said Brian O’Donnell, director of the Campaign for Nature, a U.S.-based group that advocates for the conservation of 30% of the world by 2030.
Roadblocks to funding
A lot of funding, including part of the 2021 forest tenure pledge, is aimed at bolstering IPLC land rights. Formal recognition of their claims to the landscapes they control, manage and rely on will lead to climate and biodiversity gains, rights advocates say. Adding a legal basis to customary claims will likely help pull in more funding. But currently, the often long-held rights of these communities aren’t meaningfully acknowledged by authorities in the countries where these territories lie.
“For us, it is important for the state to recognize Indigenous peoples and translate [this recognition] into legal frameworks,” said Monica Ndoen, special envoy to the secretary-general of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), which represents more than 2,000 Indigenous communities in Indonesia.
Meeting global targets to safeguard nature and limit the rise in temperatures will necessitate securing IPLC tenure of some 4 million km2 (1.5 million mi2) of tropical forests, or an area twice the size of Mexico, according to RRI and the Campaign for Nature. Such an effort will cost at least $10 billion by 2030, the groups estimate.
Beyond the tenuous foundations on which IPLC land claims sometimes lie, IPLC leaders say the restrictions to aid limit their ability to carry out meaningful work, in some cases disqualifying their organizations from receiving funding altogether.
Grants from private and public donors alike typically require stringent project monitoring. Recipients must submit frequent progress reports in English, obtain several quotes for purchases with donor funds, and establish multiple bank accounts for fiscal transparency. If a donor loans the organization the money, interest rates can be too high for IPLC organizations.
“These mechanisms are not designed to be implemented by Indigenous peoples and local communities,” Sucre told Mongabay. “They’re instead designed for [international] NGOs.”
But many IPLCs don’t have ready access to markets where they can seek quotes from multiple vendors, and banks may be far from project sites. In many communities, few people speak fluent English or have experience in development work.
“It requires very specific skills to access these funds,” along with access to tools and infrastructure needed to comply, said Anne Lasimbang, executive director and a founding member of the Partners of Community Organizations in Sabah (PACOS) Trust in Malaysia.
These requirements levied by donors on IPLC recipients may indeed be intended to encourage accountability and quality programming, said Torbjørn Gjefsen, policy team leader with Rainforest Foundation Norway and the lead author of the 2021 report revealing the minuscule amount of funding that goes to IPLCs. “But the whole weight of it becomes too much.”
Taxpayer-supported government grants, for example, require “significant scrutiny and accountability to ensure all funds are spent efficiently and effectively and to minimize the risk of funds being misused, regardless of who the recipient is,” Chris Penrose Buckley, senior adviser in the U.K.’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, told Mongabay in an email.
The necessary “rigorous due diligence processes” can sideline any organization that doesn’t have “the necessary systems or capabilities,” Penrose Buckley added.
Often, IPLC organizations must rely on small, short-term grants that don’t provide the kind of sustained support necessary to tackle big problems, according to a report commissioned by several funders of the COP26 forest tenure pledge. The authors, from the Danish company Charapa Consult, found only six IPLC organizations out of 75 surveyed with annual budgets of more than $1 million. One organization in Asia reported receiving financing from 17 donors, noting the challenges brought about by the different requirements from each funder.
Donors may be leery of the risk associated with larger grants, citing concerns about the chances of corruption or the mismanagement of funds. Part of AMAN’s development as an Indigenous-led organization in Indonesia has been the institution of a policy that lays out how it will address the corrupt use of funds, should such a case ever arise, Ndoen said.
Valérie Courtois is the director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, a Canadian organization supporting leadership and nationhood, and a member of the Innu Nation. She said Canada’s Indigenous peoples have faced such issues in attracting funding.
“There is a general sense … that Indigenous peoples were not good money managers, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” Courtois said of her experience in Canada.
Penrose Buckley said there’s a need for “a massive scale-up” of the capacity required to access and manage funding from government and private donors.
Nadino Calapucha said he agrees.
“We need global funds urgently, yes, for conservation projects,” Calapucha told Mongabay. But, he added, “We also need financial commitments for capacity building so that we have solid structures in place.”
AMAN, for instance, received money in 2017 from the Ford Foundation’s Building Institutions and Networks Initiative that helped provide communication systems, internet access and computers for IPLC organizations in Indonesia.
The role of intermediaries
In some cases, IPLCs may not want direct funding, said Kevin Currey, a program officer at the Ford Foundation. They may seek out partnerships with intermediaries “because it takes the burden off of their shoulders and allows them to focus on the work.”
When NGOs take on that role, it can allow IPLC organizations to focus on key project work, said O’Donnell of the Campaign for Nature. As an intermediary between donors and its community partners, his organization is often better placed to carry out reporting and shoulder some of the accountability with donors.
“I wouldn’t want to have Indigenous communities [spend] most of their time figuring out the tax structure in the United States or Europe,” he told Mongabay.
But the relationship isn’t always beneficial, as RRI has found in some of its research into how IPLCs view intermediary support, said Bryson Ogden, director of rights and livelihoods at RRI.
“The flip side of the coin is that, in some cases, [intermediaries] might insert their own priorities into projects that they’re passing through,” Ogden added. “They might absorb disproportionate shares of funding to cover overhead and other costs.”
O’Donnell said one approach international NGOs can take is to reduce or eliminate the amount of money they receive as part of their relationship with IPLCs. The Campaign for Nature recently partnered with the GATC and RRI on a grant application to the Bezos Earth Fund. Should the proposal be accepted, the Campaign for Nature will receive none of the funds. But it will still have to support its IPLC partners on the project and “have some accountability that the grant succeeds,” O’Donnell added.
Still, some IPLC organizations, like the PACOS Trust in Malaysia, may want to share in the responsibility for meeting donor requirements so that they can be more self-sufficient in the long run, said Lasimbang, the trust’s executive director. Outsourcing donor requirements to NGOs or consultancies usually leads to good results, she said, “but then you do not get the knowledge and experience.”
Encouraging the development of knowledge and experience in partners is an important role intermediaries can play, Monica Ndoen of AMAN told Mongabay. Rainforest Foundation Norway had been a longtime partner of AMAN. Eventually, though, the Indonesian Indigenous alliance began to receive direct funding from the government of Norway. In effect, Ndoen said, the organization was able “to graduate” to forming its own direct relationship with donors.
“That’s what we should be doing — trying to build capacity within these organizations so that we become obsolete,” Gjefsen said of the role of intermediaries.
‘Flipping the script’
IPLCs shouldn’t be the only part of the system to change, many observers say.
“What are the shifts that need to happen on the donor side?” RRI’s Ogden said. “That’s … maybe the $1.7 billion question,” referring to the COP26 forest tenure pledge.
Critics argue that the current structure is top-down and perpetuates an imbalance in priorities.
Kennedy Odede is the CEO of Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) in Kenya, which he calls a “grassroots movement.” He said the emphasis on IPLC capacity building is “an excuse” to maintain the paradigm in which donors control the money and how it’s spent. This approach puts the onus on IPLC organizations to conform to donor stipulations, even though they know the problems the world is facing the best, Odede said.
He pointed to the recent climate change-linked floods in Pakistan as an example. Elsewhere, he said, “People are dying from drought in local communities.”
But often, the priorities for funding — and the requirements for accessing it — are determined at government committee meetings and in boardrooms in the Global North, with scant, if any, input from IPLC members, critics of the current system say.
“It’s a new colonized way of dealing with the relations,” Fernando Matthias Baptista, Brazil policy adviser at Rainforest Foundation Norway, told Mongabay. “I am the donor, I have the money, I give you the rules. If you want to access this money, OK, but these are the rules.”
Odede said donors need to acknowledge the systemic discrimination that exists in the current system.
“For us to have a big shift and an honest conversation, they have to accept, yes, we have been biased,” Odede said. “It is about giving away the power.”
“It’s about kind of flipping the script and changing who’s in control of dialogues and discussions with donors,” the Ford Foundation’s Kevin Currey said. “We need to continue to simplify our systems and make them more flexible.”
AMAN’s Ndoen echoed the need for better communication.
“If you want to talk about access to climate finance for Indigenous peoples, then there should be direct dialogue with Indigenous peoples,” Ndoen said, adding that donors “have to do the dirty work.”
“When we meet donors, we always tell them to visit Indigenous communities so you know the real situation,” she said.
Finding ways for IPLC representatives to attend international meetings like the recent COP27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, so that they can interact face-to-face with donors, and international NGOs can provide a forum for exchange, leaders say.
Penrose Buckley said the U.K.’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the other donors that were part of the COP26 Forest Tenure pledge have set up regular meetings with IPLC organizations as part of an effort to strengthen communication and accountability.
IPLCs have begun to take the lead in increasing their access to project financing by setting up regional funds like the Mesoamerican Territorial Fund in Mexico and Central America, and the Nusantara Fund in Indonesia, that in turn provide funding to community organizations. These mechanisms allow donors to make a single grant to a centralized fund instead of smaller, individual grants to hundreds or thousands of IPLC organizations.
There are broader IPLC-led efforts to improve both communications and access to funding, such as the Shandia financing ecosystem, which includes the Mesoamerican Territorial Fund and the Nusantara Fund.
“It’s really to provide space for donors to directly fund Indigenous people,” Ndoen said, as well as the chance to connect with and learn from IPLC organizations in other parts of the world.
In Brazil, the Rio Negro Indigenous Fund channels money donated by Norway. The first tranche of around $182,000 went to 15 Indigenous-led culture, food security and sustainability projects in the region, according to the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), which works with the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of Rio Negro.
The Campaign for Nature and RRI have worked toward another portal for donor funding called the Community Land Rights and Conservation Finance Initiative (CLARIFI) aimed at easing “the complexity of the legal and financial frameworks” for IPLCs, O’Donnell said.
And in a similar vein, the Forests, People, Climate “collaborative” announced at COP27 in November brings together funders and NGOs in an effort to end deforestation by delivering funding to IPLC organizations.
The goal of Forests, People, Climate is to create the infrastructure to guide funding to IPLCs, “essentially a ‘plumbing’ system for this finance” Lindsey Allen, executive director of the Climate and Land Use Alliance, a member of the collaborative, said in an email.
‘Partners, not beneficiaries’
But the shift needed isn’t just about getting more money to local levels, Indigenous community leaders say. It’s also about how IPLC groups interact with donors and intermediary organizations.
Indigenous peoples are often viewed as “beneficiaries,” Nadino Calapucha said. “But we don’t want to be beneficiaries. We want to be partners.”
Ndoen said finding equal footing with donors is important. “It’s not that they give us money, and we work for them.”
Valérie Courtois of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative said Canada has provided a “great example” of this sort of relationship.
Despite a painful history with the government, Canada’s Indigenous First Nations now work with the national government on conservation initiatives. First Nations play a leading role in managing and protecting the country’s vast, sparsely populated boreal and arctic regions, home to the world’s largest intact forest, through the Indigenous Guardians program.
In 2018, the Dehcho of the Northwest Territories protected 14,218 km2 (5,490 mi2) of culturally important land. That’s nearly the size of Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, and it’s home to wetlands and wildlife including moose, caribou and bison. In May 2022, the Canadian government followed the Dehcho Nation’s lead and formally recognized this land as the Edéhzhíe National Wildlife Area, and the two governments agreed that the Dehcho K’éhodi guardians would be integrally involved in caring for Edéhzhíe.
“When the financing goes direct to the nations, and it is done in a way that recognizes nations as nations,” Courtois said, “the successes on the ground tend to increase.”
The guardian program and other collaborations provide jobs and economic jump-starts for remote communities, Courtois said. But they have also changed the relationship between nations. The Canadian government now works with First Nations for the protection of the landscape, instead of providing aid programs in one direction to these communities.
“Canada would never presume to program something for the United States,” Courtois said. “The same is true of Indigenous nations within Canada. We prefer to approach it as a partnership.”
As important as the impacts of the guardians is why these communities do their work, Courtois said. That motivation stems from “a duty of responsibility to our relationship with lands,” which is often sacred.
“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for those landscapes, and we understand that value,” Courtois said.
The world is slowly awakening to an appreciation for how IPLCs interact with their environment, Indigenous rights advocates say, in large part because it may provide the best chance to survive the climate and biodiversity crises.
“The global community is asking us to invoke our ancestral teachings,” Calapucha said, “the teachings that our grandfathers and grandmothers passed on to us.”
The leaders of these communities say they stand ready to help; now they just need the world’s support.
“We Indigenous peoples and local communities are sitting at the table. We are willing to work. We are willing to address those issues that need to be addressed,” Levi Sucre said. “If people have goodwill, if the funders have goodwill, we will figure it out.”
Banner image: An Arhuaco Indigenous leader in a former coca-producing area in Colombia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article mistakenly equated the amount of land under management by Indigenous communities that are part of the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities (GATC) as larger than the area of Canada. In fact, GATC communities manage more than 9.5 million square kilometers of tropical forest, which is larger than the area of the United States.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We look at how the Shuar Indigenous community in Ecuador recently won a major victory to protect its ancestral territory of Tiwi Nunka Forest from cattle ranchers, loggers and miners. Listen here:
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