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To Avert a Tipping Point, Philanthropy Must Decolonize Giving Practices

Date: March 7, 2023

Kathy LeMay

Director of Philanthropy, Amazon Watch

Caelin Weiss

Development and Partnerships Specialist, Amazon Watch

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Imagine coming home from working or from running errands, and there are people on your property. There are trucks everywhere. Your yard is being dug up, your valuables taken. When you approach them and ask them to leave, they attack you. They tell you they’re not leaving and they’re going to take what they want. You call the authorities. They tell you there isn’t anything you can do. They say that you no longer have legal rights to your land and therefore, no legal recourse. Later, you’ll learn that the government actually incentivized the violent trespassers to go onto your land and into your home. Your home and property are being destroyed. Your life and the lives of your family are threatened. What do you do?

If you can envision this, then you can envision the destructive violence that Indigenous peoples of the Amazon Basin face as they steward and defend the rainforest. The violence leveled against Earth Defenders, activists who protect ecosystems and the human right to a safe, healthy environment, resulted in the deaths of dozens of Earth Defenders and brought the Amazon to a state of emergency. Deforestation and degradation have pushed some areas of the biome to an ecological tipping point. If this destruction continues, the ecosystem will not be able to sustain itself, and the world’s largest and most bioculturally diverse tropical rainforest will convert to a savannah. This, Indigenous leaders and the scientific community know, will have a dramatic and irreversible impact on the world’s climate.

In response to invasions on their sacred territories, illegal land grabbing, and ongoing threats to their safety, and to help ensure a better climate future for us all, Indigenous communities throughout the Amazon have banded together to fight for a world where the remaining 80 percent of the rainforest is protected from invasion, extraction, exploitation, and destruction. Each day, Earth Defenders put their lives on the line to protect their homes, land, lives, and livelihoods and to fight for a better climate future for the Earth.

What then is the best role for the philanthropic sector? Which philanthropic practices provide critical solidarity and support to communities that are defending their lives and our collective future?

Decolonized Philanthropy: The Amazon Defenders Fund

The non-profit organization Amazon Watch mobilizes solidarity funds directly to Amazonian leaders and communities through their Amazon Defenders Fund (ADF). Guided by Indigenous principles of interconnectedness, relationality, and reciprocity, these funds provide an alternative to more colonial and bureaucratic funding models that ultimately limit the amount of capital that is accessible to Earth Defenders and Indigenous peoples globally and inhibit the transformational change that is necessary to shift toward a more climate-just and livable world.

In the past three years, Amazon Watch has dispersed $4.7 million USD directly to Indigenous communities through the ADF, and the Fund is supporting Indigenous-led initiatives with more than $2 million USD in direct solidarity funding over the course of the next year. They disperse the funds in acknowledgment of their partners’ ways of life, by reducing and preventing bureaucratic barriers to requesting and receiving grants. At the same time, Amazon Watch ensures that donors and funders receive the necessary reports, proposals, and documentation to facilitate the gift-giving process.

This kind of rapid-response, trust-based solidarity funding enables Amazonian Earth Defenders to focus on their resistance strategies, movement-building, wellbeing, and cultural care, and survival. Right now, there is a huge disparity between the amount of money pledged and given to environmental causes, and the amount of funding that actually makes it to the leaders and communities on the front lines defending land, water, and climate.

ADF offers an alternative to this model. When funders support solidarity groups like Amazon Watch, they are contributing key resources that Amazon Watch then mobilizes in accordance with their partners’ needs, and in turn Amazon Watch contributes their trusted partnerships with Indigenous peoples to meet funders’ goals of decolonizing philanthropy and protecting the Amazon, our climate, and Indigenous rights. This collaboration between funders, a solidarity organization, and Earth Defenders is a uniquely powerful way to transform how capital flows to uplift more life-affirming and justice-based relationships.

Indigenous self-determination is vital to any successful revitalization strategy. The transformational solutions we need at this critical moment for our planet must interrupt colonial power structures and systemic racism by centering the collective rights of Indigenous peoples and nature. This is a powerful intervention point for funders, who can directly advance the resistance and solutions of Earth Defenders through established solidarity funding networks.

What does decolonized philanthropy look like in practice?

Amazonian peoples can request funds without requirements that put additional pressures on Earth Defenders who are already responding to violence against their bodies, communities, and the earth. Amazon Watch receives requests in many ways, from written proposals to voice notes and WhatsApp messages. They respond to their partners in as little as two hours, distributing funds rapidly to address pressing threats, concerns, and opportunities. Indigenous-led organizations aren’t burdened with lengthy applications, long waiting periods for a decision, or bureaucratic practices that don’t actually improve efficiency or impact. Instead, the funds are delivered quickly and seamlessly into the hands of those communities on the frontlines.

Because of the stewardship and resistance of Indigenous, forest, and traditional peoples in the Amazon Basin, we still have time to permanently protect the remaining rainforest and avert the tipping point. It is critical that we work together to amplify the boldest calls and most ambitious commitments to keep standing forests standing. Amazon Watch and their allies continue working to ensure land rights and the permanent protection of millions of acres of Indigenous territories and sensitive areas across the rainforest.

Philanthropy has a unique opportunity at this most critical time to reimagine how we distribute capital to have the maximum impact possible. Time and again, the data show that community leaders know what they need to avert a crisis and to fight for a better future. Philanthropy can show up powerfully by removing hurdles and barriers, paving a path for a future where all people have the resources they need to thrive.

Kathy LeMay is director of philanthropy at Amazon Watch and Caelin Weiss is development and partnerships specialist at Amazon Watch. Find Amazon Watch on LinkedIn or on Twitter at @amazonwatch.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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