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Investing in the Unseen Environmental Movement

Originally published on Re:Philanthropy! The Council on Foundations’ Blog on March 21, 2012.

Roughly 80 percent of the coastal mangroves around the coastal Colombian town of Tumaco have been lost through deforestation, urban development, and contamination from frequent oil spills. The area is a hub for industrial storage and transportation of petroleum, and during most of the last 15 years, the remaining mangroves were preferred hideaways for armed groups to stash drugs or even bodies.

They don’t sound like your typical conservation target, but in addition to their high biodiversity, Tumaco’s mangroves play a vital mitigation role in the carbon cycle and serve as a buffer to the storms and rising seas associated with climate change. And the conservation of this vital ecosystem continues to be led by a dedicated group of afro-descendent women and girls who have managed them for generations so they can harvest crabs and mollusks by hand. Last year, these women reached out to policymakers, industry, and their own community members about the environmental, cultural, and even culinary importance of Tumaco’s mangroves. They hosted a mangrove festival, led fieldtrips, and organized policy briefings, all with just a $5,000 grant.

The shellfish harvesters of Tumaco are emblematic of the unsung environmental heroes around the globe, the other 99 percent you might say, who have long occupied the world’s most biodiverse and critical ecosystems and protected them, often for their own survival. They are also rarely funded for this work.

In a recent report commissioned by NCRP, “Cultivating the Grassroots: A Winning Approach for Environment and Climate Funders,” Sarah Hansen writes that more than 50 percent of U.S. environmental grants and donations go to organizations with budgets greater than $5 million, which represent only 2 percent of environmental groups. Moreover, only 15 percent of environmental grantmaking benefits lower income communities and people of color.

Internationally, the scenario is similar. In a 2010 report, the Foundation Center tracked $1.05 billion in international funding for “environment and animals” in 2009. And $461 million of this was a five-year grant by the Hewlett Foundation to Climate Works. Four U.S.-based international conservation organizations, whose 2010 incomes together exceeded $2 billion, received much of the rest.

However, what’s more remarkable is the investment that the unseen environmentalists make in conserving the planet. In “Who Conserves the World’s Forests,” Arvind Khare estimates that community investment in forest conservation, including time, labor, and financial inputs, is between $1.2 billion and $2.6 billion per year globally. This includes the unfunded work of Tumaco’s women who look after the mangroves, actively manage them, and report on oil spills, illegal deforestation, and other threats.

These groups also make crucial investments in climate change mitigation and adaptation. A study of more than 80 community forests across Asia, Africa, and Latin America found that forests sequestered more carbon when communities had secure ownership and greater autonomy over their management. Secure tenure to common property resources, strong local resource management institutions, and the capacity to build networks and resolve conflicts with neighbors are also variables that increase the ability of communities to adapt to climate change.

As new mechanisms for financing the environment are developed at the global scale, such as the proposed $100 billion per year Green Climate Fund in the 2010 UNFCCC Copenhagen Accord, what can be done to ensure that some of those resources reach the environment’s unseen protectors?  As grantmakers, we have an obligation to share our strategies for funding these groups. Whether it’s trash sorting instead of garbage incineration, seed banks instead of GMOs, community forestry instead of biofuel plantations, we don’t know if the other 99 percent have the best solutions for our planet’s future, but they certainly have most of them.

Peter Kostishack is director of programs at the Global Greengrants Fund, a member of the Council on Foundations.


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