Interview with Juan Marco Álvarez, Executive Director of SalvaNATURA

Interview by Katiana Murillo, Rainforest Alliance

“If we are confrontational, we are not going to change anyone. Our success is in making suggestions, not from confronting. We are a positive influence on the country’s environment, and it is the result of 15 years of work.”

Founded 14 years ago, SalvaNATURA was born out of a desire to conserve the country’s natural resources, work toward sustainable development, and improve the quality of life in El Salvador. Today, SalvaNATURA has developed a model for co-managing protected areas with the government and with a high level of financial support from the private sector. This support includes, for example, a donation of half a million dollars over five years from one company for the management of Los Volcanes Complex — one of the country’s most important conservation areas — and annual contributions from individual and business members that total some $135,000. The organization has also encouraged the country’s coffee industry to adopt sustainable practices, via the Rainforest Alliance Certified eco-seal, and ensured that rural communities place greater value on their water resources.

Juan Marco Alvarez -- Photo by SalvaNaturaJuan Marco Álvarez, SalvaNATURA Executive Director, recounts his organization’s growth and keys to success. Álvarez has an MBA with an emphasis in sustainable development from the Central American Business Administration Institute and is one of the founders of SalvaNATURA, which he has headed since its beginning.

Question: What has SalvaNATURA’s role been within El Salvador’s environmental movement?

Álvarez: You have to realize that SalvaNATURA was formed during a very difficult time in this country’s history. In 1990, the country was at war and the attention paid to environmental themes was null. The organization grew out of a service club known as Club Activo 20-30, which was dedicated to helping handicapped children and held fundraising telethons. The original name was Fundación Ecológica Salvadoreña Activo 20-30, which didn’t help things much, since we were confused with the club. So when we were fundraising, we often sought support from the same businesses that were donating to the club. The name wasn’t changed to SalvaNATURA until 1993. We started with good ideas and 100 founding members, among them many people from the environmental sector, scientists, and several business people. Due to the fact that one of those members was the minister of agriculture, we soon signed an agreement to save the country’s principal national park, El Imposible. We signed our first co-management agreement in November of 1991. At the same time, we started receiving limited funding from USAID [US Agency for International Development]. For example, they sub-contracted us to design a National Environmental Strategy and to develop an inventory of natural resources-related policies.

Some people saw SalvaNATURA as a hybrid, because while it was clearly an NGO, it was doing the work of the government, since we designed a national strategy for the environment. However, we started raising funds in the private sector in order to buy land for El Imposible, to expand the park, and increase its corps of park rangers. It wasn’t until 1996 that SalvaNATURA turned its attention toward the area outside the park, with a process of long-term planning that resulted in the first management plan for a protected area in El Salvador. This gave us a clearer and more precise idea of what to do and what were the principal problems in local communities. We then decided to make a major effort to obtain bilateral funding, and we became involved in a number of new areas, in some of which we lacked experience, but we learned along the way.

We started producing environmental education materials and activities for the schools around El Imposible National Park. We continued to expand, with new funding sources, and we expanded our work to other regions of the country, where we started doing wildlife research. Our association with the Rainforest Alliance, which in the beginning helped us purchase land in El Imposible, allowed us to become a member of the Sustainable Agriculture Network and started evaluating coffee farms according to their certification criteria. Between 2000 and 2002, we received a significant donation from the World Bank’s Global Environment Facility to encourage establishment of a biological corridor in the Apaneca mountain range, between El Imposible National Park and Los Volcanos Complex, which is one of the most important coffee growing regions, through certification of shade coffee farms with the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal.

El Imposible National Park -- Photo by SalvaNaturaWe also had the opportunity to work with CARE El Salvador – together with some other Salvadoran organizations — in the management of a $17 — million project to improve access to potable water in rural communities, with a focus on sustainability. The consortium is known as AGUA, the Spanish acronym for “access, management and rational use of water” Thanks to this project, now in its fifth year, SalvaNATURA doubled its operating budget and hired 30 new employees. Really, this project marked a fundamental change for SalvaNATURA, and allowed us to launch other projects and programs in El Imposible’s buffer zone. For example, three potable water projects we completed in communities bordering El Imposible turned those people into our best allies. It transformed their view of SalvaNATURA, the park and their water resources.

In 2002, we signed another agreement with the Environment Ministry to co-administrate Los Volcanes Complex, a collection of protected areas that covers approximately 4,500 hectares (11,115 acres), including several volcanoes. We negotiated with Grupo Roble, a regional real estate developer based in El Salvador, for the company to cover the park’s operating budget, and they agreed to donate a minimum of half a million dollars over five years, with minimum quotas of $100,000 per year. We’re trying to push the private sector to fill the financial gap that exists in the management of the country’s protected areas and to be a good example for all businesses to follow. There’s no precedent of this in Central America, so it is a unique arrangement. We’re currently negotiating with other companies to get them to cover the operating costs of El Imposible and the Montecristo National Park, which comprises the last quetzal habitat in El Salvador.

Q: One of the big worries of all NGOs is how to secure funding, an area where you’ve been very successful. What is the key to that success?

Álvarez: It has a lot to do with the organization’s track record, its image, transparency, and ethics. From the beginning, we began raising funds from the private sector and we have developed a membership base that provides us with an average of $135,000 per year. Of course, most of those funds come from businesses. The truth is we have a good track record and we have taken the time to communicate our work to the media. Maintaining a high profile in the media over the years has helped us position ourselves and given us the authority to solicit donations from companies. The people who raise those funds also need to inspire confidence, which we have gained over the years.

What a lot of NGOs don’t realize is that fundraising is a full-time job and that they should have a professional dedicated to the area. We have three people assigned to fundraising from our members; to keep in touch with our members, distribute correspondence such as the annual report, and to cash checks. It is also important that there be continuity in the NGO’s personnel. In SalvaNATURA’s case, we’ve had the same fundraising staff since 1990.

Another important thing is that many NGOs don’t solicit funding face-to-face, and the golden rule of fundraising is that people make donations to people, and not necessarily to a cause. It is also sometimes difficult to be face-to-face with the person who makes the decision to donate, in order to directly ask for help. I can make a personal plea, but if I don’t do this with the decision-maker, but rather with one of their staff, the probability of success is greatly diminished. On the other hand, if I reach the person within a company who makes such decisions, then I’m much more likely to be successful.

It is also important to have a multifaceted board, which can give an NGO more credibility and strength. The board members should strengthen and assist the fundraising department. Some of the people on our board are focused on this; others provide technical support and administrative and financial management assistance. We have many well-connected business people on our board, as well as scientists, politicians, and intellectuals. This can help put any NGO in a strong position.

Another important element is financial disclosure. External audits, honesty, integrity, and fulfillment of promises are all important. It is also important to have a good communications department, and ours has been vital in helping us achieve what we have both in terms of projects and fundraising.

This year we published a book that explains SalvaNATURA’s fundraising experience in detail, specifically our success in membership development, alliances with businesses, and the organization of special events. The book, called “Fundraising for NGOs: the SalvaNATURA Experience,” is available at SalvaNATURA and Costa Rica’s INBioparque.

Q: SalvaNATURA has always placed high priority on communications and has managed to widely communicate your achievements. How have you done this?

Álvarez: The communications department of an NGO has to be intimately linked to fundraising. The head of our communications department works hand in hand with our development department in campaign design and in the preparation of printed and audiovisual material, which is what sells when you fundraise.

Q: How important has working with the media been for you?

Álvarez: In fact, another key to our success has been a high profile in the media. Our communications department has this responsibility. It is also important to have a good Web site and to draft good press releases. Even if you don’t do a press conference, the act of writing a press release and faxing it to the media can result in a news story. Maintaining a presence on the editorial pages of the newspapers has also helped us quite a bit. Things don’t fall from the heavens, you have to make them happen.

Q: In an initiative such as the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, many people might consider El Salvador less important than the region’s other countries, which have larger protected areas. How do you position the country within that project?

Álvarez: In the way that we publish our work in newsletters and our annual report and by constantly bombarding people with information about our work over the course of 14 years. These efforts have helped us in our effort to show that there is something worth saving here. Our research projects have played an important role in this strategy too. Recently, we put together a conservation science program with a regional focus specifically on the northern part of Central America, where we are promoting research not only in El Salvador but in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, which are the countries in the region where the least research has been done to date. In El Salvador, where we’ve done significant, albeit sporadic research, the information we’ve gathered has helped position the country as a place with significant biological diversity.

It has been tough to change the myth that El Salvador has no biodiversity, because in addition to having a new environmental ministry, in the 1990s, the country made the mistake of emphasizing that only two percent of the country retains its forest cover, whereas the truth is that we posses between seven and ten percent forest cover. We screwed up. Now that we have a new government and a stronger environmental ministry, the potential for selling El Salvador in this way looks better. Also, the legislative assembly is discussing a proposed natural areas law, which I hope will be approved soon. This would green up the map of El Salvador, since the mangroves and other areas would be incorporated as natural protected areas. We would have at least four percent of the country protected. Still not much, but a huge advance for this country.

For us, it has been essential to get the word out about our work, and we’re not just selling El Imposible, but Montecristo and Los Volcanes, which are this country’s crown jewels. In terms of what SalvaNATURA has done, which is very little in comparison with what needs to be done in El Salvador, we have managed to significantly change the image that there is nothing worth saving here.

Q: SalvaNATURA could be considered a moderate environmental group. How has this helped you achieve what you have?

Álvarez: We’ve been moderates because we don’t believe in confrontation. We’ve seen the confrontational NGOs lose ground and credibility. The media don’t give them the kind of attention they once did. The global tendency since the Johannesburg Earth Summit has been one of alliances between NGOs and the private sector. I’m referring not just to getting money from the private sector, but rather changing the way those companies do business. It’s a long-term process. Here in El Salvador, we’ve demonstrated that we can change the private sector, especially the coffee farms, thanks to the Rainforest Alliance Certified program. And this model of certification can serve as an example for other industries. If we are confrontational, we’re not going to change anyone. That’s our philosophy. Our success is in making suggestions, not from confronting. We are a positive influence on the country’s environment, and it is the result of 15 years of work.

Q: How do you envision the role of SalvaNATURA in the future, considering the changes that are taking place?

Álvarez: One of our principal challenges is for the organization to find alternative sources of income that aren’t necessarily international. Those will always exist, but they’re running out. We believe that the private sector has enormous potential, at least here in El Salvador. One possibility is that in addition to being a group that can obtain donations from diverse businesses, we could become an NGO that offers consulting and certification services to the corporate sector. Another option is to create a kind of tourism operation within SalvaNATURA. Definitely the big challenge is to create an endowment that could help cover our administrative costs. But that’s the biggest challenge for any NGO that seeks to survive over the long-term.

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