Feature Story

Communities and COVID

At the forefront of the response to COVID-19, learn how local communities and indigenous peoples are coping with the pandemic

July 9, 2020

Boats docked outside a town
Photo: SGP Mexico

The world has ground to a halt in ways few could have predicted, due to the impact of COVID-19 - a pandemic like no other in several decades. For many, COVID represents the first global crisis that they have ever had to experience in their daily life.

The necessary policies and plans formulated by global leaders and organizations are complemented by the actions of local communities, who have taken the initiative and responded to this global health and humanitarian crisis and its devastating effects.

From Asia to Europe to Latin America, local communities and indigenous peoples around the world are responding to the effects of the pandemic in resilient and innovative ways to protect their communities and support one another. Local communities have demonstrated their knowledge and capacity to respond to these shocks and emerge stronger than before.

At this critical time, the GEF Small Grants Programme - implemented by the United Nations Development Programme - has immediately reached out to local communities to assess the situation and provided necessary support, including sharing reliable information on COVID-19, bringing community voices for policy development and planning, and undertaking concrete activities to address both environmental and livelihood needs. Below are examples from SGP grantees in different regions of the world and how they have adapted to the virus.

Solar food cart turned disinfecting facility: A story of women in Afghanistan leading the way

In just a few months, Banu’s kitchen, a solar-powered mobile food cart collective and social enterprise supported by SGP to empower women in Kabul, has transitioned from serving food to serving as a sanitation station to fight the pandemic by disinfecting businesses and facilities, as well as distributing masks and offering free soap and water.

Women in a mobile food cart, Afghanistan
Photo: SGP Afghanistan

Over 40 of these women-owned carts are supporting women and their families while also helping to combat the virus.

'This project shows the innovation and environmental awareness of Afghanistan’s youth. These solar carts are helping the Government of Afghanistan respond to the COVID-19 crisis. At the same time, they are empowering women, reducing air pollution and decreasing carbon emissions.'

Schah-Zaman Maiwandi, Director General of the National Environmental Protection Agency of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and GEF Operational Focal Point

In Afghanistan, to combat social exclusion and the marginalization of women, a SGP project empowered women by launching a first-of-its-kind social enterprise by supporting small solar powered food carts for underprivileged Afghan women. Prior to this project, no woman in Afghanistan had ever been able to earn money as a cart vendor. 

[Before lockdown] ‘I was very nervous to ride the solar-powered carts at first, because I was regularly harassed and people made fun of me. For a moment I thought I should quit but then I realised that only weak people quit. I am strong and I must continue to work not only for myself but for the sake of other women who can’t work due to the stigma attached to working women in Afghanistan.’

Marzia Sikandar, Project Beneficiary

Initially, the initiative had to overcome resistance from cultural norms that precluded women from becoming cart vendors. However, in a short period of time, the project received 610 applications from underprivileged women who are eager to gain a livelihood through cart vending. The solar-powered carts are made in Afghanistan by using recovered motorbike spare parts. They can travel 95 km on a charge of only six hours of sun light - perfect for Afghanistan’s climate, which has an abundance of sunny weather.

[During lockdown] ‘I feel morally satisfied to serve my countrymen in such turbulent times. I see happiness on people’s faces when they receive a free mask or when they wash their hands and get disinfectant sprayed on their clothes, hands, and shoes. They pray for me and I am sure those prayers will help me achieve my dream of becoming a successful woman entrepreneur one day.

The initiative has also employed the carts to educate people about climate change, and will continue to do so after the pandemic.

Man getting mask from women
Photo: SGP Afghanistan

On a daily basis, the 40 solar-powered carts disinfect 2,400 businesses/shops and around 14,000 people receive sanitizing services including free handwashing facilities and masks.

Because the initiative has been such a success, the Afghan Government is planning to allocate an additional 700 salvaged motorbikes to Banu’s kitchen, which will be converted into 700 disinfecting and sanitizing carts with a mission to provide free sanitizing services to every corner of Kabul.

As the national capital, with a dense population of over five million people, the city is at risk of becoming an epicenter for the outbreak if preventative measures are not taken. SGP Afghanistan is helping the grantee partner in mobilizing additional funds to make this happen.

The solar-powered food carts Initiative has been featured by Thomson ReutersBBC, Aljazeera, and Voice of America, as well as in the New York Times.

Bartering, masks, and agroecology: Local solutions from Mexico's indigenous communities

SGP Mexico has been working in the Yucatan Peninsula for 25 years, and ecotourism development has been a key long-term strategy to conserve biodiversity and improve livelihoods.

Now, with a near-total shutdown of the economy, the co-operatives that have relied on tourism need to find alternative means to support participating families.

Fruit and honey are abundant in Miguel Colorado, and fish and shrimp are easy to harvest in Isla Aguada. The two communities, linked though a network of SGP projects that promotes alliances between ecotourism projects, started to barter the products while the supply chain for food products was halted during the pandemic.

Fisherman on boat
Photo: SGP Mexico

Doña Esther Canul, a member of a small ecotourism co-operative in the Mayan community of Miguel Colorado, is en route to Isla Aguada, a fishing community. This is a two-hour drive for a very special purpose: Doña Esther is going to barter products from the Mayan forest for products from the ocean. She is received by Jesus and Raúl, two fishermen who would normally be offering tours in the Laguna de los Terminos protected area.

Like every ecotourism co-operative in the area, the two have not received any visitors in the last two months. Doña Esther is also from a community that promotes ecotourism, called Miguel Colorado, where visitors can kayak in a beautiful lagoon in the middle of the jungle.

Jesus, from Isla Aguada, is very happy with what Esther put on the table and set for the exchange, which had been disinfected in advance with chlorine. Among the products are several kilos of honey from the Mayan forest. When his turn came, he first provides her with 4 liters of seawater, and explains to Esther that it can be used for gargling to reduce throat inflammation. Jesus then put 100 kg of fresh fish on the table, in plastic bags that had been disinfected. Within 30 minutes, the barter is completed.

Normally, the co-operative would share a lunch, or at least a drink, but these are singular times, so everyone has to return home quickly and start the distribution of the products in their own communities.

In San Augustin, Yucatán, another Mayan woman is taking action to respond to the pandemic. With the support of SGP, Doña Rita Canul was going to promote apiculture as part of an attraction for the visitors as 'apitourism.'

The project was ready to begin receiving tourists, but the pandemic means that no one can visit San Agustin at this point. Rita, being a member of a co-operative of women weavers, have decided to weave face masks instead during the lockdown.

The first mask she produced included embroidery showcasing the flora and fauna of Yucatan by using a traditional technique called 'punto de cruz,' or cross stich. They also produced 3,000 masks in just 10 days, so that SGP Mexico can distribute them among projects in the region.

Cloth mask
Photo: SGP Mexico

The mask, with beautiful embroidery representing the biodiversity of the area, started to draw widespread attention. SGP supported the community in creating a dedicated website, and provided capital to produce the masks. They are now receiving orders online, and are able to deliver masks to interested clients.

Rita knows that face masks are only part of the prevention against the spread of the coronavirus. They decided to work together to make a video in Mayan language, which explains the importance of social distancing and protection, which SGP Mexico is sharing among diverse audiences though social media and text messaging systems.

Fighting COVID on a bicycle: Volunteer cyclists are delivering supplies to housebound and elderly members of their community in Bayraklı, Turkey

BisiKoop is the only cyclist co-operative organization in Turkey, with a mission of reducing carbon emissions as part of efforts to mitigate climate change and promote sustainable cities. With SGP support, BisiKoop further expanded their rental bike initiative to deliver food for the needy during the pandemic in coordination with the Izmir Metropolitan and Karşıyaka Municipalities, under the rubric of the BisiDestek initiative.

Bicycle co-operative delivery in Turkey
Photo: SGP Turkey

The initiative aims to mobilize cyclist volunteers and provide them with appropriate training and routing information to transport daily shopping needs and medicines for people over 65 years old, persons with disabilities, and disadvantaged groups who have limited mobility during the lockdown in Turkey.

As a result,120 volunteers were gathered with social media in the first few days and trained by relevant experts to distribute food and aid packages.

Mr. Ozan Veryeri, project coordinator notes: 'This local action created an opportunity to inform the importance of bicycle use in the cities, as well as help authorities to foresee transportation needs in crisis situations. In addition, volunteer cyclists are receiving high praise from the public.'

Explanatory video and more information can be found at https://www.citiesonbike.org.

Traditional knowledge, creativity, and resilience

These examples are just a few of the many creative responses led by local communities and indigenous peoples around the world. Many of these initiatives are built on their traditional knowledge and practices.

While the world is exploring how to build back better after the pandemic, it is important to position local communities at the center of these plans.

Since the early stages of COVID-19, the Small Grants Programme has engaged and reached out to local communities by building on its vast networks in the 125 countries where we operate. As we move forward with the recovery phase of the pandemic, we will continue to explore how best to support communities in their efforts in service of green recovery in the short, medium, and long term. Please join us in supporting community-level recovery efforts as we emerge stronger together.

This piece was originally published by The GEF Small Grants Programme.