A Tightrope Between Helping and Harming: Indigenous Philanthropy

Laura Zúñiga Cáceres knows only too well the risks she faces in the struggle for land rights for her Lenca people in Honduras. Her mother, Berta Cáceres, was murdered in March, just a year after winning an international award for her efforts to block construction of a dam on the Gualcarque River.

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Several colleagues have been murdered since then, and indigenous leaders throughout Latin America face threats in similar struggles, Zúñiga says.

While the public recognition that comes with high-profile awards can help protect leaders, some fear the increased visibility could make them easier to target. The dangers worry both indigenous leaders and people who support their causes.

Security issues are increasingly urgent and complex in Latin America, while funding for indigenous organizations are becoming scarcer, activists and representatives of donor organizations said at a conference in Lima, Peru.

Organizations need safety equipment—security cameras, vehicles, satellite phones in places where there is no mobile phone service, electricity to charge devices—to protect individuals, Zúñiga told participants at the conference, which was held October 24-27.

The event was sponsored by International Funders for Indigenous Peoples (IFIP), an umbrella organization of philanthropic groups.

But technology can only go so far, Zúñiga said. Groups like the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), which her mother helped found, need help lobbying the governments, corporations and lenders that are behind projects like the controversial Agua Zarca dam that cost her mother her life.

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And they need legal aid when they are harassed or arrested. Gloria Ushigua, president of the Sápara Women’s Association of Ecuador, and several other Sápara leaders face legal proceedings in Ecuador for their opposition to oil drilling in their territory along the Pastaza River.

Ushigua’s community can only be reached by days of river travel or by small plane, an onerous expense for the leaders. The tiny Sápara tribe, which numbers only about 500 people, needs legal assistance to defend its territory, defend its leaders and provide transportation to and from the town where the court is located, Ushigua said.

Riding a boom in prices of commodities such as oil, minerals and timber, Latin American countries grew wealthier over the past two decades. As countries such as Ecuador, Peru and Brazil move into the middle-income bracket, many philanthropic organizations are reducing their funding for projects there.

But Latin American societies are also among the most unequal in the world, and Indigenous Peoples remain the most disenfranchised, said Astrid Puentes, co-executive director of the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA, for its Spanish initials).

Increasingly, mining, oil drilling, hydroelectric dams, oil palm plantations and other large-scale projects are encroaching on indigenous territories in Central America and the Amazon basin, and indigenous people are often on the front lines.

Brazil leads the world in number of environmental activists murdered in 2015, according to a report by the non-profit organization Global Witness, but Honduras had the highest number of murders per capita.

Lawyers are needed for litigation, defense of indigenous activists and defense of territorial rights, but funding for legal aid is drying up and lawyers face harassment for their work, Puentes said.

The new challenges are forcing philanthropic organizations to rethink their strategies for supporting indigenous groups and communities.

Networking with local organizations in various countries can help donors respond quickly when an activist or group is threatened, said Maria Amalia Souza, executive director of the Brazil-based Casa Socio-Environmental Fund.

When threats arise, “the only people who can do the work are the people who are living in the fragile ecosystems,” Souza said. “They need the cash, and they need it quickly.”

Listening to local communities’ needs and building relationships of trust is crucial for donors, she said, while networking with other donors helps her group identify funding gaps, where a small grant can make a big difference.

Indigenous organizations are playing a larger role in handling grants, seeking greater control over how the funds are used, said Myrna Cunningham, a Miskito woman who has served in the Nicaraguan legislature and health ministry and as governor of that country’s Autonomous North Atlantic Coast Region.

That trend, known as indigenous-led philanthropy, also helps make the relationship between funders and grantees more equal, said Jessica Brown, executive director of the New England Biolabs Foundation and a member of the IFIP board.

Philanthropic groups are making a greater effort to ensure that their own investments do not harm the groups they seek to help, Brown said. Many are divesting from fossil fuels, for example.

But even “green” projects can harm indigenous communities. In Mexico, wind farms have reduced cropland and displaced indigenous people, said Nashieeli Valencia Núñez, a member of the Assembly of Indigenous Peoples of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Defense of Land and Territory.

Funders should urge governments to move toward “an energy transition that is really just,” Valencia said.

“If Indigenous People’s autonomy and decision-making power are respected, we will go far,” she said.

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A Tightrope Between Helping and Harming: Indigenous Philanthropy

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