The noise of busy street traffic outside the Japantown, San Francisco hotel belied the serene atmosphere inside, where a remarkable group of philanthropists and Indigenous Peoples gathered last month for four days of what many agreed was “the best yet,” 11th conference of the International Funders for Indigenous Peoples (IFIP).
Valentin Lopez, chair of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of the Ohlone, welcomed participants to his territories with a prayer to the Creator, and a song that filled the room with spirit. The May 15-18 gathering attracted a record 200 participants from the U.S. and around the world—50 percent of them donors, 27 percent non-governmental organization (NGO) partners, and 23 percent Indigenous Peoples (IPs).
The event showcased innovative investment strategies in both the Indigenous and philanthropic worlds. IFIP’s community of donors thinks globally, acts locally and operates holistically, in partnership with the communities they seek to fund, IFIP’s executive director Evelyn Arce said. IFIP is the only affinity group solely dedicated to international IP philanthropy.
The conference is one of the few places Melina Selverston, program officer at the Goldman Environmental Prize said she can count on, “to jump directly into a piercingly honest discussion about philanthropy.” She said she enjoyed hearing a representative of the Mitsubishi Foundation say that when at IFIP conferences she learned the big international conservation NGOs, or BINGOS (big international NGOs) were violating the rights of Indigenous peoples, it completely changed her frame of grant making.
“Kicking Indigenous people off from their land is not a sustainable environmental policy,” said Selverston. “Refugees are not good for the environment. Building fences and locking people out of nature is not improving our relationship with Mother Earth.” Many of the large conservation groups have initiated policies regulating their work with Indigenous peoples, Selverston said. “Indigenous peoples will continue to defend their homelands. IFIP is bringing these conversations out into the larger world of donors.”
Author and Native leader of the Aleuts of the Phibilof Islands Larry Merculieff’s presentation about the Sacred Feminine so inspired participants he volunteered to lead two informal circles, both highly attended and deeply personal for all who were there.
Amarilis Guamuch, born and raised in El Pachali village near Santiago Sacatepequez in Guatemala is director of the Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepéquez (AFEDES), an organization that promotes the political and civic participation and social empowerment of over 1,000 indigenous women in Guatemala. Guamuch is also an active member of the national women’s movement that successfully helped pass the historic Anti-Femicide Law in 2008, which formally penalizes gender-based violence.
AFEDES agroecology program focuses on sustainable agriculture and soil recuperation to achieve food security for their communities. The Guatemalan government’s unfavorable financial and political policies pose serious security challenges to organizations such as AFEDES and to indigenous women leaders, Guamuch said.
Indigenous women leaders like Guamuch are part of a growing movement of women leading the way for agroecology and food sovereignty. “When we started our School for Political Education for indigenous women, we knew it would change families, communities and our country for good,” Guamuch told IFIP’s audience. “We knew that patriarchy would be challenged, so would the church and the economic system. We knew that together women would recuperate not only the soil and seeds on our land, but in fact, the soul of our society. This is our struggle.”
There is a clear need for continued cooperation among participants between conferences, Arce said. Participants expressed a willingness to join a committee to address a particular issue, such as shareholder activism, or to work on a clearinghouse of viable IP projects. For their part, IP participants echoed the refrain that they need to network with each other to learn from each others’ experiences, such as negotiating with an oil company or setting up a private enterprise. “There is a critical need for an organization like IFIP to transform philanthropy to support both bio- and cultural diversity, human rights and social justice,” Arce said.
San Francisco was the chosen venue because of its role as a key nexus for Indigenous and Social Venture philanthropy, said Arce. This year’s theme, Toward a Better World: Strengthening Indigenous Sustainability, recognized important contributions from the Indigenous, philanthropic and investment worlds to honor and defend our Mother Earth. “IFIP addresses, in particular, the exclusion of Indigenous Peoples from sustainability policymaking as it is mirrored by the disproportionate lack of attention they receive in philanthropy,” she said. “They are five percent of the world’s population, yet they receive less than 2/100 of one percent of philanthropic dollars.”
IFIP’s 2013 conference is set to take place in Copenhagen, Denmark.