Big Promises to Indigenous Groups from New Global Nature Fund—But Will It Deliver?

A traditional fishermen in an Indigenous territory on the Tapajós River, in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo credit: Marcio Isensee e Sá. Licensed via Adobe Photo Stock
Vancouver, Canada
Big Promises to Indigenous Groups from New Global Nature Fund—But Will It Deliver?

The devastating wildfires in the interior of British Columbia, Canada, in mid-August, forced the province into a state of emergency and gloom. But just a few days later, as the smoky skies of Vancouver began to clear up, environmentalists found a reason to cheer.

About 1,500 delegates representing environmental ministries, youth, women, Indigenous Peoples, and civil society gathered in the coastal city to promise a slew of actions to save the planet’s biodiversity. One of them came on August 24, 2023, when 185 member countries officially launched the Global Biodiversity Framework Fund (GBFF).

The new fund, announced during the four-day-long 7th Assembly of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), plans to raise nearly $250 billion to help budget-strapped countries meet the targets of the Global Biodiversity Framework to restore nature worldwide by 2030 as agreed during last year’s U.N. biodiversity conference, COP 15. The fund will be managed by GEF—the world’s largest source of multilateral funding for biodiversity. Canada has already pledged $146.8 million (CA$200 million), and the UK committed to invest $12.58 million (£10 million) into the fund.

Another promise made came during the announcement of the fund. In a first-of-its-kind move for the GEF, 20% of the GBF fund will be channeled to non-state actors, like Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs), to support their initiatives to conserve biodiversity. Today, Indigenous peoples conserve nearly 80% of the world’s biodiversity.

This part of the funding, said GEF CEO Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, would be directly accessible to IPLCs.

The GBFF also promises to prioritize support for small island developing states and least developed countries, which will receive more than a third of the fund’s resources.

However, during last year’s biodiversity conference, industrially developing countries and Indigenous communities expressed concerns with the GEF’s current funding mechanisms: the applications are tedious, documentation is stringent, and there are delays in the flow of funds. This doesn’t yet even touch the sticking point that the money promised fell far short of expectations. Financial negotiations became so fraught that some countries staged a walkout out and there was a near-collapse of the final agreement at the last round of talks.

While the IPLCs representatives at the assembly that Mongabay spoke to welcomed the promises of 20% direct funding, they expressed similar apprehensions with the GBFF’s funds, whose funding procedures have not yet been made public.

“I’m glad that the world is putting more resources,” says Maria Pia Hernandez, Manager of the MesoAmerican Terrestrial Fund created by the Mesoamerican Alliance of People in Forests, “but I will be happier if we are critical [about] how we really transfer those resources and what is the real impact and where.”

Meanwhile, some Indigenous delegates feel like IPLCs receiving 20% of funds is not enough, given they are estimated to hold 80% of the world’s biodiversity on their lands. Other civil society activists criticize that the 20% goal is solely “aspirational,” suggesting that this portion of funds to IPLCs may not even be met.

It’s a step in the right direction, said Lucy Mulenkei from Kenya’s Masaai community and the co-chair of the International Indigenous Forum On Biodiversity (IIFB) in an interview with Mongabay. “It’s not a good percentage, but I want to believe it’s a starting point.”

Concerns remain for many Indigenous communities

During the assembly, the GEF’s CEO hailed the announcement of 20% direct funding for IPLCs as a ‘game changer’ in the GEF’s funding experience, which has possibly never provided direct financing to IPLC groups at this scale.

While an increasing number of international funding programs support Indigenous-led initiatives, only a tiny fraction — sometimes as low as 10%, according to Hernandez — actually trickles down to the communities. Most are spent on intermediary agencies and NGOs, which liaise between the funding agencies like the GEF and the communities that receive the funds.

“We need to be vigilant that there have been cases in the past where projects were in the name of Indigenous peoples, and they were unable to access much of it,” says Terence Hay-Edie, program advisor for biodiversity with the UNDP-GEF Small Grants Programme (SGP).

Leader Vanda Ortega, of the indigenous Witoto people, in a forest area in the western zone of Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil. Image by IMF Photo/Raphael Alves via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Leader Vanda Ortega, of the indigenous Witoto people, in a forest area in the western zone of Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil / Credit: IMF Photo/Raphael Alves via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

In its three-decades-long history, GEF has worked directly with IPLCs, primarily through its Small Grants Program, which provides grants of up to $50,000 directly to communities in nearly 135 countries. Among these projects, about 30% have been directed towards Indigenous-led initiatives, says Hay-Edie in an interview with Mongabay, with communities receiving about 70% of the allocated fund. This is because the program works with national NGOs and agencies recommended by Indigenous communities as they have developed trust, experience, and knowledge of the local cultural and political contexts.

Earlier this year, the GEF announced the Inclusive Conservation Initiative, under which $25 million was invested through Conservation International and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to fund 11 global Indigenous-led conservation programs.

Minnie Degawan, former director of Indigenous and Traditional Peoples Program at Conservation International, who has managed GEF-funded projects through the Inclusive Conservation Initiative in the Philippines, says delays in the flow of funds are a big challenge in implementing projects on the ground.

“If this is the same system that will follow the disbursement of funds from the GBFF, I don’t think it is fit for Indigenous peoples,” she says.

Some communities, like the House of Ariki, a statutory agency in the Cooks Islands comprising 24 traditional Ariki (High Chiefs), are concerned with their lack of capacity to engage with the GEF in the best possible way.

“We didn’t have the capacity to engage, to document, to submit the required documents to be considered when the interest for the [GEF’s Inclusive Conservation Initiative] fund was announced,” says Tupuna Rakanui. While the House of Ariki managed to submit the proposal and receive the grant, it hasn’t been a smooth journey. “It is very, very time-consuming. But that was the only way forward for us,” he says.

Indigenous leaders from many parts of the developing world attend a press conference to share their thoughts about GBFF and the 20% direct allocation to IPLCs. Image by Spoorthy Raman for Mongabay.
Indigenous leaders from many parts of the developing world attend a press conference to share their thoughts about GBFF and the 20% direct allocation to IPLCs. Image by Spoorthy Raman for Mongabay.

Pricila Monireh Kapupu, from an Indigenous conservation association in the Democratic Republic of Congo (ANAPAC), expressed similar needs for capacity building for GEF-funded projects in the DRC. Citing examples of how some projects did not materialize as funded communities did not know how to use them, she calls for GEF to address this gap with GBFF.

On GEF’s part, Hay-Edie says it’s a tough balancing act. While the Small Grants Programs come with fewer documentation requirements and have tried innovative ways of monitoring and reporting with participatory videos, bigger funds like the ICI, which are in the order of millions of dollars, will have more stringent procedures.

He did not confirm if any of these requirements would be eased with the new GBFF.

In light of the GBF fund’s big promises, the Indigenous Peoples Advisory Group (IPAG) at the GEF, an advisory arm of Indigenous leaders across the globe, will play a bigger role going forward in helping develop processes that recognize Indigenous peoples’ needs, says Mulenkei.

“We see the GBF fund as an opportunity to improve the speed and efficiency of the project cycle, [and] simplify access [procedures] and reduce turnaround time from the applications stage to funds getting to the communities,” says Giovanni Reyes, the Chair of IPAG.

Most funding organizations, including the GEF, take a one-size-fits-all approach to allocating funds and monitoring the progress of funded initiatives across the world. “Indigenous peoples organizations have distinct strengths and distinct qualities,” says Tunga Bradra Rai from the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities, also a recipient of the GEF’s ICI funds.

Botum Sakor National Park is habitat to a considerable population of the endangered pileated gibbon (Hylobates pileatus). Image by วิชิต กองคำ via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Botum Sakor National Park is habitat to a considerable population of the endangered pileated gibbon (Hylobates pileatus). Image by วิชิต กองคำ via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

He urges the GEF to consider the differences with IPLCs while rolling out the GBFF, “Those kinds of funds and initiatives should flow through multiple channels and [procedures],” he says, “There should be several windows, several kinds of partnership and also different kinds of modalities to channelize those funds.”

According to a Mongabay report, key barriers that IPLC organizations face in gaining and managing funds also include receiving funds that lack the flexibility to adapt to different priorities on the ground and language barriers when communicating directly with donors. Important barriers also face donors who may find it risky to deal directly with some organizations that lack the capacity to securely manage large funds or to manoeuvre stringent tax requirements.

While the GBFF promises to be transformational for IPLCs in its allocation and the speed at which it is being rolled out since its announcement in COP 15, the communities reiterate that they are keeping an eye on the promises and will hold the GEF and other partner organizations accountable to their pledges.

“Governments and businesses should not expect that by establishing this fund, they have been liberated of being culprits of what is happening,” warns Dario Mejia Montalvo, chair of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the leader of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC).

The GBF fund is one slice of an annual $200 billion goal by 2030 earmarked to pay for international costs related to meeting all the goals and targets laid out in the global biodiversity framework. However, according to a report by The Nature Conservancy, an NGO, this is still short of the annual $700 billion required.

This story was supported through Internews’ Earth Journalism Network's Reporting Fellowship to the 7th Global Environment Facility Assembly in Vancouver, Canada. It was originally published by Mongabay on August 29, 2023 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Considering the importance of hilsa fish in the country’s dietary needs, economy, and the livelihood of fishermen, Bangladesh has made several conservation attempts to increase the production of the fish / Credit: Muhammad Mostafigur Rahman.

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