Tens of thousands of community groups across the world are enriching and empowering their communities as they work to protect the planet.
On the peripheries of the Yum Balam reserve in Mexico, a group of women sell natural, homemade soaps and toiletries.
Relying on the rich biodiversity of the region for their primary materials, it’s an enterprise that puts them on the front line of conservation efforts in a region where close to 96% of the flora is endemic.
“We learnt about the medicinal plants from our grandparents,” stated Maria Piedad Tuz Ramirez, President of Maya Dzak. “Now we are learning how to use them to make new products, but always mindful of the environment.”
Indigenous communities have long depended on woodlands for their medicinal herbs a tradition which still survives today. According to Conservation International over 40% of the revenue world’s top-selling pharmaceuticals still depend on nature-based products.
Standing forests are far more valuable than their weight as timber, but with the expansion of agriculture responsible for 70% of tropical deforestation, conservation efforts in affected regions focus on incentivizing activities which promote maintaining the forest in its natural state.
One such example is the GEF/ UNDP Small Grants Programme which empowers community groups to take practical steps to protect and repair the unique ecosystems which have traditionally supported them.
“Our projects go hand in hand with the environment,” affirms Ariana Torres Quiros from the Association of Organized Women in Biolley, Costa Rica (ASOMOBI). “Once we built a greenhouse for the region’s native trees for the participants to plant them close to springs and water sources in order to protect them,” she added.
The women of Maya Dzak y ASOMOBI represent just one of the tens of thousands of community groups and organizations across the world, who have received direct funding to develop skills, build capacity and undertake projects with the potential to produce global environmental benefits.
“The programme has provided many innovative local solutions to environmental problems,” highlighted Pilar Barrera Rey, Operations Officer at the GEF. “Many of the projects in the programme have been awarded coveted environmental prizes which attest to their effectiveness,” she continued.
Over the past 20 years, more than $460 million has been distributed in small grants directly to community-based projects, generating nearly $600 million in co-financing for projects in over 120 countries world-wide.
“By managing the financing themselves they [the beneficiaries] have much more control over decision making,” explains Nick Remple, Global Technical Advisor for the UNDP-GEF Small Grants Programme. “Consequently, they can exercise agency in a way which builds ownership, responsibility and ultimately sustainability.”
What’s more by handing responsibility for results to the project beneficiaries, communities are able to take ownership at a grassroots level. This then builds the capacities of organizations to plan, implement, monitor and evaluate the impacts in their own community.
“We have created a guide to help women find and apply for grants,” explained Ixim Jacks, a SGP beneficiary from Guatemala. “It encourages women to look at the needs of the community and come up with proposals to solving them. “
Similarly in Costa Rica, communities have discovered new opportunities through the SGP.
“When we began most of us were housewives, we were afraid of speaking in public. This has helped us to believe in ourselves and in that we are capable to do this and much more,” Quiros described.
At a global level, over 20,000 small grants have been awarded directly to civil society and community based organizations. Some other examples include:
- Bamboo bike production in Ghana
- The restoration of land degraded by open landfills in Minsk, Belarus
- Promoting organic farming in Zimbabwe to reduce the use of agro-chemicals
- Rehabilitating endangered fish species in Albania
In Mexico’s Yucatán province, over 60 communities are working together to stimulate honey production in the region, and by doing so help protect the native bee populations and the flora they depend on. It’s a sign of things to come within the SGP.
To date, five Latin American countries have been promoted to ‘upgraded status’, meaning that along with having more resources to disperse and greater autonomy; the programs in Brazil, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Mexico have also taken a more programmatic approach to lending in order to address wider ranging environmental issues. These include:
- Ecotourism development in Costa Rica
- Sustainable use of biodiversity in Brazil
- Landscape planning and resilience in Ecuador
“For the GEF, the SGP is a valuable component of the overall strategy, since it reaches important stakeholders at the core of many of the environmental problems in regions of global importance. These communities are some of the most affected by those problems and are certainly part of the solution,” Pilar Barrera Rey said.
Systematically developing the capacities of local and national civil society stakeholders to address these problems will be one of three core foci for the GEF-6 period. The other two pillars center around the protection of globally recognized landscapes and seascapes as well as setting up institutional and financial support mechanisms for the SGP.