Alarmed by growing contamination of their rivers and streams, residents of Hojancha, Costa Rica, got together a few years ago to see how they might make their village more ecologically sound. They formed the Monte Alto Foundation and with a $20,000 grant from Costa Rica’s Small Grants Program of the Global Environmental Facility (SGP-GEF), established an environmental education center and an inn for ecotourists. Encouraged by help from universities, the municipality, and scores of volunteers, they began promoting natural-resources protection among their neighbors and buying small parcels of land around local waterways, so that vegetation could regenerate and protect the streams from erosion and pollution. A second grant from the program helped the foundation establish a small endowment fund to support their activities, and this year they received a final donation to help them strengthen environmental education and ecotourism activities. The Monte Alto Foundation now owns nearly 2,000 acres that protect the town’s watershed, and the lodge, located near an indigenous reserve and built with the first grant, provides enough income to cover program costs.
Monte Alto is a modest success story, but typical of those generated by the SGP-GEF, not just in Costa Rica, but also in 60 other countries worldwide. The United Nations Development Programme — which administers the GEF along with the UN Environment Programme and the World Bank — launched the program in 1992. It offers grants to projects that respond to three pressing planetary problems: pollution of international waters, loss of biodiversity, and climate change.
GEF grants to developing countries tend to be ambitious, complex, multi-year, and large-scale, with price tags in the millions of dollars. But not all solutions to major problems are born of mega-projects. According to Sarah Timpson, global manager of the program, SGP tries to change environmentally damaging attitudes and habits at the local level by empowering people to find solutions to problems in their own backyards. The program’s donations are given to nongovernment organizations (NGOs) and community groups, not to government agencies.
An advantage of funding small programs to help solve big problems, Timpson says, is that more modest initiatives “can be much more innovative and much more flexible, in part because any failures are not going to be so costly. Further, it’s the grassroots groups that put pressure on governments to change environmental policies, so clearly, if you want changes, you should be working with the NGOs.”
The SGP’s donations average $15,000 each and never surpass $50,000; some 2300 projects have received support over the past nine years. In each country where the program is active, a national coordinator provides day-to-day management while national steering committees — comprised of volunteers from NGOs, government, academic institutions, and other donor programs — review proposals, select projects, and direct their implementation. Timpson explains that sometimes NGOs that have promising ideas but need help devising a strategy receive planning grants of about $3,000, so winning projects can be carefully designed. She adds, “We give a grant to the community to hire someone to help them, rather than hire somebody ourselves, so the grassroots groups are in control of the process from the beginning.”
Worldwide, experience has shown that a project is much more likely to be successful if it is owned and managed locally, she points out. Eduardo Mata, who coordinates the SGP in Costa Rica, agrees. “We are looking for projects from groups that already are well organized and where there is a good deal of participation from the entire community,” he says. The program in Costa Rica also favors equal participation from men and women, so decisions are made by both genders.
Before approving a grant, Mata and his colleagues visit the proposed project site to make sure strong local support exists, the problem described is real, and that the proposed project is appropriate. Once a project is approved, there are at least three additional visits.
All the hands-on attention has been a huge help to the Association for the Sustainable Development of Rural San José, which recently received a $20,000 grant to help them protect a watershed and establish an environmental education program. “They made us be very clear with our ideas and guided us through the whole process,” remembers Hernán Ramírez, an association manager. “They helped us broaden our vision and incorporate community participation.” Contact with the SGP continues to be very personal, he adds. “For any rural organization this is fundamental, to have this direct relationship and human interaction.”
The grant to Ramírez’ group is just one of 61 recently bestowed by the program throughout Costa Rica, from the Pacific Coast, where The Association of Divers of Paquera will construct and manage artificial reefs in the Gulf of Nicoya, to the Caribbean, where the Association for Sustainable Development of Gandoca hopes to encourage residents to protect endangered sea turtles. While most funded projects relate to biodiversity conservation, several focus on renewable energy — such as a program of the ANDAR Association to give micro-credits to indigenous and other farmer families so they can have access to photovoltaic energy. Another emphasis is on small-scale ecotourism development. Tourism is a leading source of foreign income in Costa Rica, but many towns with considerable scenic potential have been unable to tap into this profitable business. In addition to the grant to the Monte Alto Foundation, nine other groups nationwide are developing grassroots ecotourism projects with SGP support.
Nearly all the projects have additional support from other sources. Timpson says that forging partnerships is key to the program’s success. “There may be as many as 12 different donors involved in one project,” she says. “We’ve estimated that we are working with some 600 partners worldwide.” She cites an SGP-funded project to cleanup a river that flows through Nairobi, Kenya. Three NGOs received SGP for the project, which also has support from the United Nations Environment Programme, United Nations Center for Human Settlements, World Conservation Union, the Belgian and French governments, Kenya’s ministry of the environment, the Nairobi government, the City Council of Nairobi, the local Rotary Club, Friends of Nairobi National Park, the Sailing Club of Nairobi, a conservation group, and the Kibera slum dwellers’ association.
In the Neotropics, Small Grants Programs are underway in Mexico — where funding is concentrated in the Yucatán Peninsula — Guatemala, Belize, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Barbados, the Leeward and Windward Islands, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago, with programs just launched in Honduras and El Salvador. Timpson is hopeful that the program can eventually double in size, to reach 100 countries.