Civil society organizations play an irreplaceable role in shaping environmental policy and outcomes, and are critically important to global efforts to address climate change, chemical pollution, biodiversity loss, and more.
This was the main message shared by representatives of local and national organizations, community groups, women, and young people who joined Civil Society Organization Consultations hosted by the Global Environment Facility ahead of the 63rd GEF Council meeting.
GEF CEO and Chairperson Carlos Manuel Rodriguez stressed during the session that also included several Council members that strong and meaningful partnerships between governments and civil society were needed for multilateral environmental agreements to achieve the goals they seek.
Addressing more than 140 participants in the consultations co-hosted with the GEF CSO Network, Rodriguez described his priority to engage closely with young people, women, Indigenous Peoples, and vulnerable communities, as well as with those who make a living in farming, fishing, and natural resources, to ensure needed progress.
“System change cannot happen if we only work exclusively with central governments. System change means investing in the new generation of political and economic leaders,” he said in the session focused on civil society organizations’ work with international environmental agreements.
Sano Akhteruzzaman, Chair of the GEF CSO Network, opened the meeting by noting that civil society groups are committed to influencing and improving the outcomes of multilateral environmental agreements, such as those negotiated at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the Minamata Convention on Mercury, and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.
“We want to continue to engage and work closely with the conventions,” he said.
Marcos Montoiro, Civil Society Liaison for the UNCCD Secretariat, pointed to the UNCCD process as one that ensures civil society plays an influential role. Montoiro said the UNCCD includes a specific mandate that established civil society organization partners to the convention, enabling CSOs to participate in meetings, processes, and reports. “Civil society can see themselves represented and highlight what they are doing in the UNCCD process,” he said.
Oyéoussi Charles Balogoun, Africa Civil Society Representative at the UNCCD, agreed that civil society engagement works well at the UNCCD and suggested others could learn from its example, leading to more learning from on-the-ground knowledge of how environmental projects and conditions are progressing. “We should consider civil society in its rightful role. It has to play a greater role because we have to increase the resiliency of the population and all of that has to be done by civil society,” he said.
For example, civil society organizations can play an important role as countries transition toward land degradation neutrality, added Bora Masumbuko of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “If we want to achieve land degradation neutrality we need to mobilize civil society organizations, especially people who work on the ground, and CSOs have the capacity to mobilize such actors,” she said.
The European Environmental Bureau’s Elena Lymberidi-Settimo, Co-Founder of the Zero Mercury Working Group, underlined the important role for civil society in implementing and enforcing environmental conventions. “They can play a really important role alongside governments – building the capacity, the technical knowledge, support in the negotiations and also in the implementation and the enforcement of environmental conventions,” she said.
Mrinalini Rai, Co-Coordinator for the Convention on Biological Diversity Women’s Caucus, told the consultations that her caucus is working with other women’s groups to ensure gender equality in and across the multilateral environmental agreements.
Noting that the GEF ensures that gender equality is prioritized in the projects it funds, Rai said her and her colleagues at the CBD are working to ensure that all international environmental financing can be similarly gender responsive.
Mirna Inés Fernández, Policy Co-Coordinator of the Global Youth Biodiversity Network, called for better funding systems to ensure conventions’ agreements are implemented well. She said it was currently easier to get funding for young people to attend the Conference of Parties than it was to get funding to implement projects that are part of the convention that engage the youth.
“It is key to change the funding mechanisms to eliminate bureaucratic barriers for youth-led implementation,” said Fernández, who noted that there were many bureaucratic hurdles for young people, particularly in developing countries, to overcome to get funding for actual implementation of projects.
Joan Carling, Global Director of Indigenous People’s Rights International, said Indigenous Peoples groups have an increasingly organized and effective way of engaging with international environmental processes, pointing to the UNFCCC and the CBD as good examples.
“My observation in terms of the processes is that there’s a disconnect between the global process and what I call the realities on the ground,” she said. “Because many of the discussions are more in line with specific targets for example on climate mitigation and adaptation. But they aren’t really aligned to the local realities, particularly of the most vulnerable or the most marginalized and that includes Indigenous Peoples.”
“Indigenous Peoples’ engagement in the climate change process is recognized in a way that we are a recognized constituent. But we need to be able to better influence the result of the negotiations through our meaningful participation and ensure the rights and welfare and well-being of vulnerable and marginalized people are also integrated.”
Maria Leichner, Co-Chair of the GEF CSO Network and founder and president of Fundación Ecos in Uruguay, urged civil society groups to trust one another and work together in support of shared goals in order to be most successful.
“We have to put on the table that we need to work inside the multilateral environmental agreements and the conventions. That mechanism works and is there - we have to use it and link it between us. All the networks have to get together, working in this dynamic,” she said.
The Global Environment Facility is committed to working closely with a wide range of civil society organizations as it deepens its engagement with non-state actors, said Paola Ridolfi, GEF Manager of Policy, Partnerships and Operations.
“It is symbolic and meaningful that the semi-annual GEF Council always opens with consultations with civil society. This session comes at an important time as we reaffirm and redefine a very clear pathway in our partnership with civil society, with and beyond the work of the conventions,” she said.
As they look toward the Convention on Biological Diversity COP15 in Montreal, where the GEF will host events related to youth and nature, and further Conferences of the Parties to conventions, Ridolfi encouraged civil society representatives to “bring issues from the advocacy space into a space that has to do more with action.”
The GEF holds CSO Consultations before each meeting of its governing Council, which occur two times a year. Each civil society gathering has a distinct focus, with past sessions examining themes including green and inclusive microfinance, youth engagement, and traditional knowledge.
Youth and civil society engagement in environmental stewardship will also be a major theme of the next GEF Assembly, to be held in Canada in 2023.