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Despite pledges, obstacles stifle community climate and conservation funding

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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.

The launch of the Rio Negro Indigenous Fund in Maloca, Brazil. Image courtesy of Ana Amélia Hamdan/Instituto Socioambiental.

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 barriers faced by Indigenous and community organizations in securing direct funding from donors. Image by Andrés Alegría/Mongabay.
The barriers faced by Indigenous and community organizations in securing direct funding from donors. Image by Andrés Alegría/Mongabay.

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.”

An Indigenous park guard on forest patrol in Suriname. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
An Indigenous park guard on forest patrol in Suriname. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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.”

Nuxalk Guardian Watchmen monitoring coastal waters, British Columbia. Credit: 'Qatuwas Brown
Nuxalk Guardian Watchmen monitoring coastal waters, British Columbia. Image courtesy of ‘Qatuwas Brown/Indigenous Leadership Initiative.

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.

The barriers faced by donors in funding Indigenous and community organizations. Image by Andrés Alegría/Mongabay.
The barriers faced by donors in funding Indigenous and community organizations. Image by Andrés Alegría/Mongabay.

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.

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