Conservation projects in Mesoamerica make the case for Indigenous climate funding

  • Research shows that national governments, investors and development organizations consider direct funding to Indigenous-led organizations as too risky, though a new report shows that Indigenous communities with good project management skills exist.
  • The report from El Salvador-based nonprofit PRISMA showcases examples of how Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) in Mesoamerica have successfully managed limited financial resources to conserve forests, revive traditional nature-based solutions and respond to rising sea levels.
  • In light of growing recognition of the role of IPLCs in mitigating and adapting to climate change, a Mesoamerican Territorial Fund is providing a mechanism for climate funding to be directly received by Indigenous organizations and rapidly allocated to organizations on the ground.

One of the major announcements from the United Nations climate summit in Scotland last month, known as COP26, was the Glasgow Declaration on Forests and Land Use, along with the related funding it will set in motion. The declaration pledged $19.2 billion to end deforestation by 2030, and cited Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) as having a key role in forest stewardship. With plenty of studies already supporting this view, several governments and private funders have earmarked $1.7 billion toward IPLC land tenure and forest management.

While this seems to add credence to the assertion that these communities are the best guardians of the forest,research shows that only about 17% of funding for Indigenous land tenure and forest management actually reaches IPLC-led organizations.

Levi Sucre Romero, leader of Costa Rica’s Bribri community and president of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (AMPB), told Mongabay that they and other IPLCs, as part of the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities, have been increasingly demanding direct funding for years.

Breadnut seeds
Breadnut seeds, known as ramon, are ancestral seeds part of the Indigenous Mayan diet in Guatemala. Communities manage and sustainably forest products from more than 352,000 hectares (870,000 acres) of forests under 25-year community concession contracts. Image courtesy of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (AMPB).

But according to research by the U.K.-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), national governments, funders and intermediary organizations consider that one of the biggest perceived challenges in providing finance directly to IPLCs is that it is too risky. These entities cite concerns about fiduciary standards or policy stability in the local organizations, unsupportive public and private policies, and a lack of technical, business and financial management skills at the local level.

Yet the IIED’s research also shows that local communities with very good project management skills exist, according to Clare Shakya, the institute’s climate change group director. Big outcomes have been met despite the small investments they have received, she told Mongabay.

“We found that they don’t want to waste a single penny,” Shakya said. “They are willing to put in their own resources … and they are also really intent on influencing the policies and the wider change that is going to create the enabling environment they need to thrive.”

Shakya said the IIED began researching the challenges of getting climate finance to the local level some six years ago. Through consultations with more than 50 organizations covering the whole spectrum of adaptation stakeholders across governance levels and sectors of society, the IIED released a paper in January showing eight principles for locally led adaptation based on case studies from across the world.

Accomplishing REDD+ projects in Guatemala

In October, El Salvador-based nonprofit research organization PRISMA launched a report showcasing examples of how Indigenous communities in Mesoamerica, comprised of Mexico and the Central American states, are sustainably governing resources and providing bottom-up models of how international climate finance can be channeled to institutions working on the ground.

monitoring forests in Guatemala.
Members of the Association of Forest Communities of Petén (ACOFOP) monitoring forests in Guatemala.

Among the specific case studies in the report are AMPB-aligned communities in Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama. Each of these communities used their own unique governance structures and demonstrated measurable results in climate adaption and sustainable forest and resource management.

According to Andrew Davis, lead author of the report, Mesoamerica is unique in the sense that many Indigenous communities have benefited from having land rights and working in community governance issues going back up to 100 years. Other communities around the world can learn from the Mesoamerican examples to strengthen their own governance structures as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The Association of Forest Communities of Petén (ACOFOP) in Guatemala has become a global reference point for community-based forestry. Member communities manage and sustainably harvest wood and other forest products from more than 352,000 hectares (870,000 acres) of forests under 25-year community concession contracts.

ACOFOP is also one of the few REDD+ projects in the world being managed by forest communities. This means that in recognition of its efficiency in preventing deforestation and forest degradation, with annual forest loss rates of just 0.1% in the concession areas, ACOFOP will receive funds for the value of the carbon stored in the forests. As a vehicle to receive funds from the voluntary carbon market, ACOFOP created GuateCarbon, which is part of the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF).

Sergio Guzmán, ACOFOP representative and GuateCarbon project manager, told Mongabay that the organization receives, manages and spends about $1 million annually from international donors including USAID, the Ford Foundation and the European Union.

The Association of Forest Communities of Petén (ACOFOP) in Guatemala has become a global reference point for community-based forestry. Image courtesy of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (AMPB).

Additionally, the original participating nine concessions have reported cumulative incomes from sales of wood and other forest products amounting to more than $66 million over the past 15 years. Thirty-five percent of these profits then get invested back into the forests in the form of patrols and fire prevention and control teams.

“What is the sustainable way? Having a management plan for 30 or 40 years [and] having the least impact when extracting wood,” Guzmán said. “The government guarantees that the communities are going to make good use of the forest because the concession contracts need to be certified annually by a FSC [Forest Stewardship Council] forest audit, or you cannot continue on with your concession.”

Davis, lead author of the PRISMA report, said that what really stands out in Guatemala is that at the launch of the initiative, the government mandated local NGOs to support ACOPOF with business administration and technical forestry support. Today, these are functions that ACOFOP does all by itself.

Women lead revitalization of nature-based solutions

While ACOPOF is considered to have successfully managed and spent international climate funding, other organizations have been combating climate change with limited external financial support.

In Costa Rica, Kábata Könana, meaning “Women Defenders of the Forest” in the local Cabecar language, is a women-led organization that aims to improve the inclusion and empowerment of Indigenous women. A special focus is put on food security and territorial resilience.

Indigenous member of the Bribri-Cabecar Indigenous Network (RIBCA, in Spanish).
Indigenous member of the Bribri-Cabecar Indigenous Network (RIBCA). RIBCA is an organization formed by the Indigenous communities in the Costa Rican to empower and strengthen their participation in the decision-making processes that affect them, improve their welfare and access to public services. Image courtesy of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (AMPB).

Over decades, these communities moved from traditional polycropping farming systems that included diverse plant species, toward a dependence on generic crops such as corn, cacao, plantains, avocados, cassava and fruit trees. Climate change created challenging conditions for these crops, with increased variability of precipitation, higher temperatures, increased flood frequency and intensity, and changing conditions for humidity and pests.

According to the PRISMA report, this came to a head during the COVID-19 pandemic, when strict quarantine measures saw an 80% drop in demand for products from Cabecar communities, increasing pressure on local farmers and communities.

The German nonprofit Love for Life provided Kábata Könana with approximately $80,000 to support the women’s association to organize an online barter system, managed through WhatsApp. With the funds, they averted a food security crisis for more than 110 families and effectively distributed seeds, beans, rice, chayote and okra, among other goods, to those who most needed them.

The organization went on to create food fairs and held workshops, exchanges and trainings to revitalize knowledge of traditional polycropping techniques, provide access to seeds, as well as renew Indigenous knowledge about traditional medicine.

Woman planting in Indigenous Talamanca Cabecar territory
Woman planting in Indigenous Talamanca Cabecar territory of Costa Rica. Image courtesy of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (AMPB).

This work was awarded the United Nations’ Equator Prize for demonstrating the benefits of placing Indigenous and local communities’ knowledge and practices of nature-based solutions at the heart of local development. The prize included $10,000 which Kábata Könana has used to invest in expanding its work to neighboring communities.

“We rescued cultural knowledge and traditional and ancestral practices which were almost lost,” said Maricela Fernández, leader and founder of Kábata Könana. “This motivates me and so does seeing women come together and strive for an objective.”

At the frontlines of climate change in Panama

According to the PRISMA report, the coastal ecosystems in Panama’s Guna Indigenous territories are in exceptional condition. Home to 30,000 people spread across 49 communities, it also boasts well-preserved coral reefs and deforestation rates of just 1.38%, less than an eighth of the rate in territories that are not protected or Indigenous.

However, the effects of climate change are being felt with changing agricultural cycles and a sea level rise of 19 centimeters (7.5 inches) from 1990 to 2020. Further predictions show the need to relocate approximately 28,000 people from the coast further inland in the coming years.

As the Panamanian government does not have a national strategy to relocate the communities, the Guna began their own process more than 10 years ago. They leveraged internally generated revenues, strategic partnerships and their own autonomous governance systems developed over almost a century based on formal recognition of their territorial rights by the national government.

Fishing and playing, Isla Soledad Mandinga, Guna Yala, Panama. Coral is used around the island to extend the island. Image courtesy of If Not Us, Then Who.

Guna community leader Blas Lopez told Mongabay that what is unique about the community’s situation is that they can receive funds from tourism and invest the money based on their own development plan. This investment is done in areas like agriculture, territorial control, and political and governance structures.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) provided support for the Guna community’s relocation initiative by providing capacity building and technical studies and assistance. Young people from the community who went to university worked as professionals in creating the relocation plan and managing the partnerships necessary for its execution. The value of the IDB disbursements remains confidential.

The Guna General Congress, the community’s highest political and administrative authority, is drafting its development plan for the entire region, which includes the issue of relocation of island communities to the mainland. Although the community has demonstrated an ability to self-govern and handle funds, it now requires far greater levels of funding to effectively manage the relocation process.

“As much as the watchword of today is urgency and there is a need to advance very quickly, an important lesson is that the processes based in the community should be supported and developed over time,” said Víctor López Illescas, program officer for natural resources and climate change at the Ford Foundation.

The Ford Foundation, one of the largest international grant-making philanthropies, has been providing funding for biodiversity conservation in the region for more than 20 years, with a strong focus on the rights of local communities and including them not as passive beneficiaries.

Meeting takes place within the forest camp.
Meeting takes place within the forest camp. A map is used to show the Guna territory , that which is recognised by the state. The Guna are marking an extended area of territory which has been their ancestral home though which is not recognised as yet by the state. Guna Yala, Panama. Image courtesy of If Not Us, Then Who.

“They are rather sometimes thousands-of-years-old depositaries of knowledge, practices and local systems that are some of the most important assets which humanity has to deal with environmental degradation and climate change,” López said.

In 2010, the Ford Foundation joined a collaboration of donors to start the Climate and Land Use Alliance (CLUA), aimed at directing and leveraging more funds toward forests and sustainable land use as an essential part of the global response to climate change. This has included providing funding to AMPB.

López said that while the design of financial architecture is important, the channels of climate change funding operate within a very unequal system where, in Latin America, ruling elites receiving funding often aggressively engage in extractive activities in natural areas to entrench their balance of power. He said the push by Indigenous organizations for more autonomy over their governance, territories and finances often puts them at odds with those elites.

Looking ahead

The terrain for allocating funds to IPLC-led organizations remains complex. However, in light of growing recognition of the role of Indigenous people in conserving biodiversity and mitigating climate change, new mechanisms that aim to facilitate this process and reduce risks are emerging. This year, AMPB started a pilot Mesoamerican Territorial Fundthat will provide direct funding to Indigenous organizations on the ground. Gustavo Sánchez, AMPB’s commissioner for the fund and president of the Mexican Network of Forestry Campesino Organizations, told Mongabay that the fund’s first round will be of $600,000, and that it will aim to allocate about $30 million by 2025.

According to Sánchez, the funds will be used to support strategic community territorial processes so that they have the potential to be replicated or become public policies.

“We must be clear that the financing mechanisms of Indigenous peoples and local communities cannot replace the investment that governments must make,” Sánchez said. “But they can promote examples of good practices of how investment should be at the territorial level.”

On Patrol and marking territory, Guna Yala, Panama.
On patrol and marking territory, Guna Yala, Panama. The men use GPS and maps to cordinate the markings of their territory. Stakes are driven into the ground at various points outlining the route. Image courtesy of If Not Us, Then Who.

Banner image: Embera woman within the forest in Darien Province, Panama, on the shores of the Chuunaque, Sambu, Tuira Rivers and it’s water ways. Image courtesy of If Not Us, Then Who.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Cultural Survival’s Daisee Francour and The Oakland Institute’s Anuradha Mittal on the importance of securing Indigenous land rights within the context of a global push for land privatization. Listen here:

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