Interview with Michele Zador, Grant Director for Mesoamerica; and Jason Cole, Grant Director for South America – Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF)

Interview by Melissa Krenke, Rainforest Alliance

“Our purpose is not to be a foundation, it’s to achieve conservation, and because CEPF is a means to a bigger end, we want to make sure that our ends are actually being achieved.”

The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) is a joint venture between Conservation International, the Global Environmental Facility, the Government of Japan, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the World Bank. Utilizing a budget of more than $150 million, CEPF provides funding to NGOs, community groups, and other civil society groups to safeguard the world’s most threatened resources.

Because of its global reach, CEPF is wielding powerful influence in shaping conservation in 13 of the world’s most biodiverse areas, which they call “hotspots“. Michele Zador, Grant Director of Mesoamerica, and Jason Cole, Grant Director of South America, tell us about CEPF’s philsophy, their approach to grant-administration, and offer tips for groups that are seeking CEPF’s support.

Jason Cole -- Photo by Conservation InternationalQuestion: The overall mandate of the CEPF is to engage civil society in the conservation of the world’s most biodiverse hotspots. Do you feel that local groups have responded in the way CEPF had hoped?

Cole: The answer to this question differs from region to region. I am working in the three CEPF funded regions in South America. In the Vilcabamba-Amboro Corridor, I certainly see a positive response from the local groups vis-à-vis the corridor vision. Many are working under this strategy and are participating in joint coordination meetings.

In the Atlantic Forest of Brazil, there is no question. All are very committed to the one shared vision for the Central Corridor. This has been confirmed and reconfirmed by many different bodies including the World Bank and the G-7 countries.

In the Choco-Manabi Corridor, there are several micro-corridor approaches underway within the large corridor. These are gaining very strong local participation and are being managed by local coordination groups made up of local groups.

Q: Do you find a difference in interest and capacity between the different countries?

Zador: Because of their history, each Southern Mesoamerican country is different. The region is not homogeneous, and therefore the response and ability of the NGO community to achieve important results in conservation is very different. In Nicaragua and Panama, a lot of our current work is helping to build coalitions of NGOs, whereas in Costa Rica, a lot of these coalitions already exist, and are already working collaboratively to achieve conservation goals.

Cole: Certainly there are differences — this is true within Latin America, but also globally. Each of the CEPF regions and countries is different in their own ways, be it capacity, interest, politics, and more.

Q: In a past interview for the Eco-Index, Jorgen Thomsen indicated that it can be extremely difficult for conservation groups to collaborate and achieve common objectives and that CEPF hopes to break down those walls. Do you see that these collaborations are becoming more common and easier to develop?

Cole: Absolutely. Having a shared vision, developed in a participatory manner helps this process. Also, during the implementation of such a strategy, CEPF is helping to bring many of these actors together to compare notes on how progress is moving and where gaps need to be filled. I think the idea of joining together to create shared plans and approaches is becoming more and more common practice.

Zador: I think that Costa Rica is a good model for NGO collaboration, and coalitions already exist. Recently, CEPF has been working with local NGOs in Nicaragua to help develop a “Strategy for the Executive Committee of the Coalition of NGOs That Work for Biodiversity Conservation in the RAAS, the Southern Atlantic Autonomous Region of Nicaragua”. Just recognizing that NGOs can achieve much more when they work together is the first step. It’s a tough, slow process and it takes time, but slowly coalitions are developing.

Q: CEPF asks grantees to initially provide project objectives and indicators, and then report planned and actual accomplishments each quarter, with revised accomplishments for the next quarter. What do you wish you saw more of in the CEPF grant reports? Where are they weak, and how can they improve?

Zador: The reports I receive are good, and people are taking them seriously. I want project directors to look at the reports not just as a way of informing me about the project’s progress, but also that they have really thought about their lessons learned and how to adjust their project accordingly.

One real strength of CEPF is our adapive management approach, where we understand that a project can’t be designed all at once, and it needs to change to accommodate the realities of implementing it. If you monitor a project and try to incorporate the lessons learned, through monitoring and evaluation, your project will be much more successful at the end because you have been flexible. CEPF allows for that flexibility. These reports are not just geared for us, but for grantees as well, so that every three months they can assess their accomplishments, where they need to go, and what needs to change.

Cole: Grantees do not seem to focus much of their attention on the specific questions we ask in the second half of the technical reports. They respond to the elements in the table (reporting on specific indicators and planned achievement to date), but not on the specific questions that could help us understand much better what is happing with their implementation progress. This varies greatly between grantees, but most are not responding well to that part.

Q: Since conservation is essentially an experiment, do you find that it’s difficult for field projects to achieve their goals in such a specific time-frame, when unexpected events, natural disasters for example, can happen, and set a project back?

Zador: I think we all recognize that there’s a lot of unpredictability in conservation. But on the other hand, project directors really need to understand and clearly articulate their goals, but in tangible, specific ways, so that they are clear on how they are going to accomplish them.

Cole: I would not make it a general statement that field projects have difficulty achieving their goals. Field projects are amazing at being able to adapt to uncertainties and change. CEPF is well aware that projects are learning experiences full of uncertainties, and we are flexible with our grantees in this regard. We ask that grantees report to us on these changes and make adjustments to their implementation based on the realities they face, be they positive opportunities, or negative impediments. Both happen frequently and we try to be a flexible donor willing to adapt to these uncertainties. This does not only depend on the donor, but also on the grantee who must be willing to share these “surprises” during implementation with the donor.

Q: Is that project design something that CEPF tries to help grantees with?

Cole: In South America, CEPF spends a great deal of time reviewing and commenting on grantees’ project design. Often this can result in face-to-face project development meeting with a member of the CEPF team. In addition, we have held training programs for grantees in some of the regions. Our application system has also been revised to assist grantees in understanding the basics of project design. The system even has built in “help” to assist the users.

Laguna del Tigre National Park, GuatemalaZador: The Southern Mesoamerican hotspot has a “Coordination Unit”, based in San José, Costa Rica. It consists of a team of 3 people that go into the field and provide technical assistance to all of our grantees. CEPF provides this assistance because we all agree that having a well-designed project is essential to the success of a project, and we see part of our role as helping to build NGO capacity. Capacity-building is one of our main objectives, to help grantees design, implement, and manage their projects, because it is difficult to do. Our project reports are very useful, because they give us a snapshot of how grantees are managing their projects, and if there is a problem, we can come in and assist. So hopefully people see us as a resource. We’re not here to police the projects with our reports, we’re here to evaluate if the projects are going well, and if not, determine and provide what is needed to help them.

Conservation International is a conservation organization. Our purpose is not to be a foundation, it’s to achieve conservation, and because CEPF is a means to a bigger end, we want to make sure that our ends are actually being achieved. Our philosophy is that we need partners, grantees, to help us achieve our goal — to conserve biological corridors. For example, in Costa Rica’s Talamanca region, we have La Amistad International Park, which is the core of the corridor, but there is a buffer zone around it. We realize that in order for CEPF to achieve its goal, all of the projects that we fund in the buffer zone, which we believe are very strategically designed to achieve our goals, must be successful. And therefore, we don’t just give grants for the sake of giving grants, we’re giving grants to achieve our conservation goals.

Q: Reporting templates don’t always provide the space to provide anecdotes about the project as it progresses. Are you getting a good flavor of what’s happening on the ground, how attitudes are changing, etc. on your grant reports?

Zador: The reports only provide so much information, but we don’t expect these reports to be the only mechanism by which we monitor projects. The reports provide a general idea of what’s going on in a project, and I don’t think they need to be more extensive than that. The reports need to be backed up with periodic field visits; that’s why we have our unit in San José constantly in the field visiting grantees. I also conduct field visits. We have different tiers of monitoring; we have the reports, supervision missions, field visits, and next year in Southern Mesoamerica, we will have a portfolio review where an external team will review and evaluate the whole program.

Q: Is there one project in particular that sticks out in your mind, maybe with anecdotal evidence, that you feel is making a really strong impact?

Cole: Not one, but a group of projects we have in the Atlantic Forest. We have four small grant programs in Brazil that I think are models for CEPF. These programs are managed by local NGOs and account for approximately $2 million of CEPF resources. These four programs will reach approximately 150 small grantees throughout the Atlantic Forest and are managed entirely locally.

Q: No doubt many Eco-Index visitors are preparing letters of inquiry for CEPF support. What one or two pieces of advice would you give them to design a “fundable” project?

Zador: Number one, their projects need to help achieve the goals that are articulated in the ecosystem profile. Many of the proposals that we receive are not aligned with our goals, and so I think that people need to do some research about CEPF. Sometimes we receive letters of interest for grants that are existing projects that need money to continue. We have our own goals, and so the grantee really needs to ensure that their projects are aligned with our vision, and have corridor-wide impact. That’s really important. We have a very strong corridor vision that is not site-specific, which a lot of NGOs won’t share, especially local groups. And so we will frequently provide assistance to co-design projects with NGOs.

Clearly, we strongly encourage collaborations with local communities, with other NGOs, and leveraging funding to ensure sustainability. CEPF will most likely end its work in all of these regions, and we want to make sure that the initiatives that we fund have a sustainable vision and can continue into the future.

Cole: Be clear in your idea, be realistic in how much money you ask for, and be sure to include a direct contribution to the conservation of biodiversity. We are looking for conservation action! And don’t forget to partner with others whenever possible.

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