By MAGGIE JARUZEL POTTER Amy Shannon joined the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation’s Environment program in 2008. As a program officer, her portfolio primarily includes Mott grantees who are working in Latin America through the Foundation’s International Finance for Sustainability (IFS) focus area. In this interview, Shannon discusses examples of Mott grantees’ work
— their challenges and successes
— in helping move the Foundation toward its IFS goal: “to shape international investment and trade to support sustainable development and reduce environmental degradation.”
|Amy Shannon, C.S. Mott Foundation Environment program officer|
Briefly discuss the “why” behind the Foundation’s work in Latin America. Amy Shannon:
The work we support in Latin America is, in some ways, a case study for the broader goals of the IFS program. I think of it as a bridge between Mott’s conceptual work about the rules of the game for sustainable finance – the policies around sustainable finance – and the realities of those projects on the ground. It’s about the policies having a real impact on real people in a specific place. [See related article
about sustainable development in Brazil.]
Mott has more than a decade of experience working with organizations in South America that were confronting the impacts of mega-projects on some very important and pristine ecosystems. We grounded our global policy work in a place where we could clearly see both the impact of the large-scale investments as well as the potential for local communities and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to intervene in ways that would make these projects more sustainable. Mott:
Why is South America, especially Brazil, such an important player in the IFS global arena? AS:
There are a number of reasons for this. Many of the economies in South America are growing very quickly, even as the United States and Europe remain somewhat mired in economic recessions. Much of that growth is based on the extraction of natural resources and that puts intense pressure on natural ecosystems.
In Brazil, in particular, the growth of public finance institutions, such as the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES), has become the key source of public finance for infrastructure projects across the hemisphere — even beyond the hemisphere — because the BNDES has actually become a key investor in energy projects in Africa as well. Mott:
Discuss a current challenge facing NGOs in Latin America. AS:
South America has a diverse tapestry of NGOs, including many that are extremely sharp and sophisticated in terms of both institutional capacity and the ability to produce high-level technical and policy analysis. However, across the board, organizations face challenges in building and maintaining that capacity. This is particularly true for organizations that are not located in capital cities, and more acute for groups in rural areas. Many of the mega-projects that are currently under consideration or under construction are in rural places that are somewhat hard to reach, so those organizations face challenges in terms of just staying connected and being able to raise the visibility of local concerns to policymakers and colleagues in other NGO networks. One of our concerns is ensuring that the issues or problems local communities are facing are getting a fair hearing — both inside the country and with international funding organizations. Mott:
How have NGOs working in South America been affected by the region’s historic changes in recent decades? AS:
Many countries in South America, such as Brazil and Argentina, have moved out of the lowest poverty levels on the world stage. On the one hand, that is an incredibly positive step that during the past two decades many countries have emerged from dictatorships and become vibrant democracies. On the other hand, it means that certain kinds of international cooperation from key funders, particularly public funding and nonpublic sources from Europe and the United States, are moving away. They are moving toward places where there is dire poverty and greater need. Unfortunately, the philanthropic infrastructure in these countries is just not a match yet for the demand from local NGOs, so it leaves a huge gap. That is something many organizations across the region are trying to confront right now.
Along with shifts in the political landscape in the region in recent years, many people who worked in the NGO sector are now working in government. In some ways that is wonderful. In fact, a longtime Mott grantee who headed an organization in Paraguay is now the country’s Minister of the Environment. That is an incredible transition for Paraguay to put that kind of priority on environmental issues but, at the same time, it is a challenge for NGOs that want to maintain their autonomy and continue playing a government watchdog
role. I give the example of Paraguay, but it is a phenomenon we have observed in Brazil, Bolivia and, most recently, in Peru.
|Brazil’s Xingu River is the proposed site of the Belo Monte dam, which would be the third-largest dam in the world.|
Would you give a few specific examples of Mott grantees’ work in the region? AS:
One of the features of large-scale projects is that they don’t just happen and then disappear. They require monitoring over a long period of time. The Belo Monte Dam in Brazil has caused a lot of concern for many grantees because it is damming a river that is a key piece of the Amazon River Basin and we are not quite sure what the risks are for the overall hydrology of the region. Also, it poses some serious risks for indigenous peoples’ livelihoods. For many generations, they have depended on fishing and the region’s natural resources. But this isn’t the only dam in the region. Many Mott grantees were engaged in negotiations over the Madeira River dams just a few years ago. As those projects move forward, our grantees will also be engaged in pushing for the absolute best protections for the environment and local livelihoods. Other grantees are working to ensure that the long-term health of the Pantanal wetlands — and its surrounding river basins — are not jeopardized by dams or commercial waterways.
Of course, not all the work is focused on projects. Several of our grantees are working to ensure that the policies of public and private investors meet the highest standards of transparency and environmental sustainability. That work is often less visible, but just as important.