Foundations and Governments Pledged $1.7 Billion to Indigenous Land Protection. How Are They Doing?

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Twelve months ago, nearly two-dozen private funders and governments pledged $1.7 billion over five years to help Indigenous communities protect tropical forests. This week, initial results came in — offering reasons for celebration and concern. 

The group is on track in getting money out the door, with almost one-fifth — $322 million — of the committed funding distributed, yet only 7% of those grants went to organizations led by Indigenous peoples or local communities. Roughly half went to international nongovernmental organizations, and geographic distribution was also uneven, according to a new report from the funders.

While the lack of direct support was deeply concerning to both Indigenous leaders and grantmakers in the partnership, known as the Forest Tenure Funders Group, there are some reasons for cautious optimism. Almost 80% of this first block of funding went to technical support and capacity-building of organizations led by Indigenous peoples and local communities, including bolstering the administrative and financial systems that funders require of grantees, and there’s growing support to expand the network of grantmaking intermediaries led by those communities, according to the effort’s first annual report, “Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities Forest Tenure Pledge.”

“The fact that there’s still only a single digit percentage funding that’s going directly to Indigenous peoples and local communities is quite striking and, frankly, quite alarming,” said Kevin Currey, a program officer with the natural resources and climate change team at Ford Foundation, which will chair the funders group in the coming year. 

“One thing we know is that change takes time — and the report is only on the first year of the pledge. So even though the amount of funding going directly to communities is unacceptably low, it’s not surprising,” he added.

There are indications that both funders and grantees are taking steps to counter the imbalance. The report suggests funders are working to reconsider requirements and typical practices, as well as trying to build direct relationships with the communities they seek to fund. Currey noted that creating the report, thereby following through on a commitment to monitor progress, is a promising step for accountability. Indigenous communities, meanwhile, are bolstering their processes and starting to create central funds for their regions. It’s been a steep and frustrating learning curve, particularly in accessing the funds promised by the participating governments.

Levi Sucre, coordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests and co-chair of the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities, likened the past year to a “school” for would-be participants in learning how the pledge works. “I always say that… communities have to raise their level a little, and foundations have to lower theirs a little. If not, we’re not going to align,” he said in Spanish.

Notable findings

Even if attempts to make more direct grants are underway, it’s telling that international NGOs were the largest beneficiary of the pledge so far, getting 51% of all the money given out to date, while Indigenous groups received only 7%. Most other recipients also received small portions, including international regrantors (8%), national NGOs (5%) and multilateral agencies (10%), with the exception being governments (17%).

The proportions seem to reflect the challenges of getting large sums of money out quickly to new recipients — particularly rural and informal Indigenous community groups — and the limited infrastructure and relationships that exist, as well as funders’ self-imposed restrictions. This reflects long-standing criticisms of philanthropy, which often clings to bureaucratic requirements regarding grantee budget, administrative capacity and tax status, thereby sloshing funds around among the same well-established NGOs, while rarely putting them directly into the hands of people who need them most.

Geographic distribution has also been lopsided so far. The largest portions of the funding went to either Latin America (39%) or global projects (38%), with smaller shares to Africa (16%) and Southeast Asia (7%). 

This first grant round is potentially laying the groundwork for future shifts in who receives funding. Most funding went either to capacity-building (53%) or technical support (23%), including buying computers, getting policy analysis, and paying for legal advice on the land tenure process. Much smaller shares went to local communities mapping, documenting and registering their rights (5%) or supporting national land and forest tenure reform (5%). 

Some of the capacity-building funding boosts groups’ ability to receive funds, but it also helps in securing tenure. In Indonesia, for example, for a community to claim rights over a forest takes more than a dozen steps involving nearly two dozen ministries and government departments, so legal expertise is often essential, according to Currey. 

More funding needed

The pledge, while a massive figure in abstract, will need to grow further if it is to shift historic funding levels. Indigenous people and local communities manage half the world’s land and care for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity, yet over the past decade, they have received about 1% of annual global funding for climate change mitigation, with barely a sixth of that funding going directly to those communities, according to a report last year by Rainforest Foundation Norway. The imbalance comes despite increasing scientific recognition that such communities are among the most effective guardians of nature.

The good news is the pledge added three new funders: Wellspring Philanthropic Fund, Bobolink Foundation and the International Conservation Fund of Canada. The latter two are members of the $5 billion Protecting Our Planet Challenge, which has allocated a fifth of its funding, or $1 billion, to back Indigenous communities in securing land rights.

They join the original pledgers: the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, Christensen Fund, Ford Foundation, Good Energies Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Oak Foundation, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Sobrato Philanthropies, and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Those involved through the Protecting Our Planet Challenge include the Bezos Earth Fund, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Wyss Foundation and Rob and Melani Walton Foundation. About 44% of the first year’s funding came from private donors versus governments and other bilateral donors.

The Ballmer Group is not a part of the pledge, but the funder recently made a multiyear, $217 million pledge for climate action, most of it to curb deforestation. The Ballmers backed two groups also favored by the larger pledge, including the Climate and Land Use Alliance ($118 million), whose members include Ford and other pledge participants.

A pledge that may be changing its members

It’s important to remember this pledge is “not a new fund,” as the report specifies. Instead, each of the donors is making grants guided by its own criteria and team. Yet the act of making a collective commitment, though somewhat symbolic, may be leading some philanthropies to venture into new territory.

One pledger, the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), added a new tactic since making the commitment. The London-based fund began backing legal strategies for Indigenous land rights for the first time, according to its donor statement in the report, stating, “The pledge commitment has encouraged CIFF to think more broadly about the different ways in which we could support [Indigenous peoples] and [local communities].” 

Others, like the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, do not explicitly tie their recent moves to the fund, but have made changes aligned with the pledge nonetheless. Packard “plans to increase its support for work aimed at increasing direct funding to organizations representing IPs and LCs,” according to the foundation’s report statement. Specifically, Packard is helping to set up a network of funds led by those communities. 

Even Ford, which is considered a leader among major funders in supporting Indigenous communities, found the internal data it collected for the report eye-opening, said Currey. Only 17% of its funding went directly to Indigenous peoples and local communities, he said.

“For us, one of the benefits of doing annual reporting was that we were able to see that, even though we think we’re good at working with communities, we still have a long way to go, as well,” he said. “So it’s a wake-up call for us.”

Can funders step up fast enough?

The report is particularly honest about the glacial nature of this work, even as the pledge has led funders to expand their discussions with Indigenous communities. “We realize that the pace of change resulting from these discussions can be frustratingly slow,” it states. 

One promising trend is that a growing number of groups run by Indigenous peoples and local communities are setting up alternative organizations, funds and partnerships that “make it easier for donors to fund them,” Currey said. 

One example is the Nusantara Fund, based in Indonesia, which will be able to accept larger grants for redistribution, while providing centralized financial management and reporting for donors, according to Currey. It is an initiative of three groups: AMAN (the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago), WALHI (Friends of the Earth Indonesia) and KPA (Consortium for Agrarian Reform). 

“Funders putting money into the Nusantara fund would be able to give control over where those funds go into the hands of communities who know best where the funds are needed in Indonesia,” Currey said. 

Sucre said it’s vital that foundations make lasting commitments to Indigenous communities over long periods of time and not only for specific projects, as well as remain flexible given changing conditions, such as when a new law is passed. He points to his experience with Ford’s Building Institutions and Networks (BUILD) initiative, which was one source for its pledge-related grantmaking, as a model for such relationships. 

“We have an opportunity with foundations to build something different,” said Sucre, an Indigenous Bribri leader from Costa Rica, of both the pledge and the growing pool of funding for climate change mitigation. “But much depends on the dialogue. Both have to arrive willing to listen to the other’s point of view.”