Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

berta_squareLast spring, Global Witness published a report called How Many More? about the killings of environmental activists around the world. The NGO trained a spotlight on Honduras, the world’s most dangerous place to advocate on behalf of the environment, and especially on a prominent activist named Berta Cáceres, who told the group:

They follow me. They threaten to kill me, to kidnap me, they threaten my family. That is what we face.

Now Berta Cáceres is dead. A 42-year-old mother of four and the winner of the prestigious 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, Cáceres was murdered by armed gunmen who burst into her home at about midnight on the night of March 2-3.

Her killing was not an anomaly. More than 100 environmental activists were killed in Honduras between 2010 and 2014, according to Global Witness. Even so, her supporters in the US were surprised that Cáceres was killed even after gaining international visibility.

David Kaimowitz, director of natural resources and climate change at the Ford Foundation, told me: “Personally, I never imagined they would be brazen enough to kill Berta.”

Tatiana Cordero Velasquez, who leads the Urgent Action Fund Latin America, which made grants to Cáceres, said: “Being an international figure — so well known by so many organizations — we thought that could be a shield, to some extent, for her. It was shock for all of us.”

It is widely believed, but far from proven, that Cáceres was killed because the organization she led, which is known as COPINH, opposed powerful government and corporate interests in Honduras. COPINH has been”a driving force in preserving the country’s cultural and environmental heritage – and earned it the ire of loggers, dam-builders, palm oil interests, and others whose wealth depends on the depredation of the natural world,” Jeff Conant of Friends of the Earth wrote last year.

US funders of Cáceres have expressed sadness and outrage. The Goldman Environmental Foundation (which posted here), the Ford Foundation (here), the Novo Foundation  (here), the Global Greengrants Fund (here), American Jewish World Service (here) and the Urgent Action Fund (here) all directly or indirectly supported Cáceres and COPINH.

What more can they do? I called several funders and allies of Berta Caceres to ask them, and several themes emerged.

1. Demand that the killers of Berta Caceres be brought to justice. Last week, more than 200 human rights, environmental and religious groups, including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, called on US Secretary of State John Kerry to support an independent international investigation into Cáceres’s assassination. They also asked the US government “to suspend all assistance and training to Honduran security forces, with the exception of investigatory and forensic assistance to the police, so long as the murders of Berta Cáceres and scores of other Honduran activists remain in impunity.”

Cáceres’ nephew, Silvio Carrillo, a freelance journalist, wrote in The New York Times:

The Honduran police and government have begun a campaign of information obfuscation. They first claimed the attack on her was a botched robbery, then a “crime of passion.” Then, a lawyer for our family in Honduras told me, they detained a friend of Berta’s who saw the murder as a material witness, and have asked to question leaders of [COPINH], while making an outrageous claim that there might have been a power struggle in the group. The most obvious suspects — the public and private agents who attacked and harassed Berta and the council for years — don’t seem to be on the investigators’ radar.

Absent persistent international pressure, the Honduran government is unlikely to bring the killers to justice. Writing in Foreign Policy last year, Dana Frank, a history professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, described Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez as “a terrifying thug.” She went on to say:

A little more than a year into his presidency, it’s clear he is perpetuating an ongoing human rights crisis while countenancing a cesspool of corruption and organized crime in which the topmost levels of government are enmeshed.

Yet despite overwhelming evidence of Hernández’s dangerous record on human rights and security, the Obama administration has decided to lock down support for his regime, and even celebrate him. U.S. development, security, and economic funds are pouring into Honduras.

The letter to Secretary Kerry was signed by small, local groups, for the most part, although Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and did sign on. It would be nice to believe that more powerful foundations and environmentalists are quietly deploying their Washington networks to lobby for justice in Honduras.

(There’s a Hillary Clinton connection, too, that I won’t go into here, but if you’re curious about the Clinton state department’s tacit approval for the 2009 coup in Honduras that deposed democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya, laying the foundation for the repression to follow, see this and this from The Nation and this from The Intercept. Longtime Clinton pal Lanny Davis has lobbied for the Honduran business elite.)

2. Provide more support for grass-roots activism. Only about 4 percent of all US giving goes to international organizations, according to Giving USA, and only a small fraction of that goes to human rights and environmental groups.

courtesiaocotefilmsCáceres’ death is a sobering testament to the power of grass-roots organizing. COPINH’s fierce but peaceful resistance to the Agua Zarca dam helped convince Sinohydro, a huge Chinese dam-building firm, and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) to withdraw from the project.

“Environmental protection, social change, human rights–they all depend on grass roots organization and grass roots empowerment,” said Conant of Friends of the Earth, who worked alongside Cáceres as an international forestry campaigner.

The biggest and wealthiest US foundations say it’s difficult for them to support grass-roots groups because of the foundation processes, bureaucracy, regulatory requirements and costs. To their credit, well-endowed foundations like Ford and Novo (the philanthropic arm of Jennifer and Peter Buffett) support groups like COPINH through intermediaries such as the Global Greengrants Fund and the the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The Global Greengrants Fund,  the Urgent Action Fund and its Latin American affiliate make small grants, often with remarkable speed — as little as a few days — to environmentalists and human rights defenders. Cáceres advocated for women’s and LGBT rights in Honduras, as well as for the rights of indigenous people.

Justine Reed, the vice president and executive director of Global Greengrants, says making grants to small, grass-roots groups requires donors to put a great deal of trust in grantees. “This isn’t about us determining what these communities need. This is about listening,” she told me. “It’s to help people find their own voice. They don’t need our solutions. They often have their own.”

Grantmakers that finance activists in the global south typically operate with modest budgets. Global Greengrants Fund will make about $7 million in grants this year, and Urgent Action Fund Latin America will disburse less than $1 million.

By contrast, the environmental BINGOs (big international NGOs) that work from the top down rather than the bottom up attract vast sums of foundation money. The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International and WWF US all do good work, but their conservation and climate-change efforts rely, for the most part, on the good will of elites–governments and corporations. To protect forests, for example, they are likely to promote certified wood products or encourage big companies to incorporate the value of nature into their decision-making. They are less likely to stand with local protestors seeking control over their land.

But even if your theory of change relies on pulling the levers of power, those levers become easier to pull when there’s pressure from below. (This is true in the US as well as in the developing world. See Round Up the Usual Suspects, my blog post about the MacArthur Foundation’s climate change grant-making, which overlooked activists like Alas, foundation executives are more comfortable supporting people like themselves — Ivy educated, with graduate degrees — than they are funding people like Berta Cáceres.

3. Recognize the connections between the environment and human rights. In much of the global south, the environmental movement isn’t about LED bulbs or plug-in hybrids. It’s about protecting land rights, fighting corruption and assuring due process of law.

Many activists in the developing world live in remote isolated areas, says Billy Kyte, a campaigner for Global Witness. “They wouldn’t necessarily define themselves as environmentalists,” he told me, “but they become that after the first time they hear a chainsaw in the forests or a bulldozer on their land.”

“The lack of recognition for indigenous land rights is a root cause of these killings,” he said.

US foundations committed to environmental protection can play a  a constructive role by supporting human rights and anti-corruption groups like Frontline Defenders and Protection International, as well as Global Witness. A coalition of NGOs, including Oxfam and Greenpeace, recently launched a movement called Land Rights Now to give indigenous people control over their land.

Tatiana Cordero Velasquez of Urgent Action Fund Latin America says funders need to get out of their comfort zone. “It’s crucial to take a broader and more holistic approach when dealing with issues relating to the environment,” she said. “It is vital to listen to women and indigenous people, and hear what they have to say. It is only through an open ear and an open heart that funding will make a difference.”

Here’s a video about the work of Berta Cáceres.

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