On the Ground: IFIP Facilitates Donors Access to Meso America

By: Melina Selverston-Scher, Ph.d and Evelyn Arce-White
In its quest to increase support for Indigenous Peoples on the ground, International Funders for Indigenous Peoples (IFIP) decided to take a risk: they organized their very first regional convening focused on the Mesoamerica region in Queretaro, Mexico. The gathering brought nearly 200 people together from all over the world. The convening theme, Awakening Consciousness and Forming Alliances: Indigenous Peoples and Philanthropy, symbolized the start of new beginnings. The goal was threefold: to bring donors, NGO’s and regional Indigenous leaders together, to increase awareness of Indigenous issues specific to the region, and to encourage further collaboration between all three groups to start the dialogue for  a more effective mechanism of funding for Indigenous Peoples in the Mesoamerican area.
One of IFIP’s main supporters, Ms. Diane Christensen remarked “It was a great idea to hold something here that is accessible to people from Mexico and Central America.  It enables donors to hear from participants they wouldn’t normally have the chance to.  It also encourages a different level of participation – more staff pertinent to the region. This is the first one of these and people seem to be very curious and supportive.”
IFIP is a unique organization in that it focuses specifically on building donor relations and increasing philanthropic support for Indigenous Peoples around the world. IFIP was envisaged as, and continues to be, a donors forum within which ideas are exchanged and linkages are created.  Founded in 1999 as an affinity group of the Council on Foundations, IFIP is now an independent non-profit based on the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation that straddles Northern New York and Canada.
According to IFIP, Indigenous cultures are rarely on the radar screen for most funders and receive only a tiny portion of international granting, despite increased awareness of their situation. The Foundation Center conducted a survey in 2006 and found that of the $3.8 billion U.S. foundations gave for international projects in 2005, only .003% went to support Indigenous Peoples.  The virtual absence of direct international funding and modest domestic funding for Indigenous projects and communities should be of concern to the philanthropic community.           
The regional focus facilitated partnerships among philanthropists.  Boston-based EcoLogic Development Fund and Reforestamos Mexico took advantage of the event to sign an agreement to facilitate support for local communities. “We started trying to conserve forest biodiversity 5 years ago, but we have come to realize the only way to do that is through supporting the communities,” explained Ernesto Herrera, Executive Director of Reforestamos Mexico. 
IFIP is hopeful that the regional meeting will help generate local support. Indigenous communities make up about 30% of the population in Mexico, and in some states they are the majority. Yet, surprisingly few Mexican foundations support them. Together with the Mexican NGO Semillas, IFIP recently organized the first indigenous panel at an important Mexican philanthropy conference (CEMEFI), where thirty foundations attended. At least six Mexican foundations were present at the IFIP meeting.
An ancient pyramid, a walk through the historic center of town, and cultural events in the evenings gave participants a taste of local reality. This was informative for program officers familiar with the region, but part of a learning curve for others. “My ‘Aha’ moment” one senior foundation officer commented, “was understanding that here the majority is treated like a minority.”  Phil McManus, IFIP’s Planning Committee Member and Appleton Foundation Program Officer commented “Indigenous people may come to the meeting intimidated by the donors who they think are important and powerful. Then they have the opportunity to get to know them as people and recognize that they themselves are important and powerful.”
The panels ranged from substantive issues specific to Mexico and Central America, such as the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to discussions of the changing relationship between donors and grant recipients, also issues of human rights, traditional agriculture, land rights, cultural mapping, legal initiatives aimed at intellectual property rights and the protection of patents, management of ancestral lands, and language revitalization transcended borders and continents. The link between indigenous rights and environmental efforts was highlighted during a number of panels. The Mac Arthur Foundation supported the presentation of two of their indigenous Ecuadorian grantees, the Cofán and the Awa, who are on the forefront of efforts to protect ancestral lands, which are often centers of biodiversity. They addressed the need to strengthen indigenous organizational capacity as a conservation strategy.
Supporting Indigenous organizations can be very complicated, as a panel on land rights demonstrated. Marcus Colchester, Director of the England-based Forest Peoples Program, presented a report entitled “Opportunities and Strategic Guidance for Securing Indigenous Peoples’ Land Rights,” in which he summarized in broad strokes the current status of lands rights for Indigenous Peoples worldwide.  There are countless inspiring examples of Indigenous Peoples controlling territory through legal frameworks or more creative means. But, he warns, for communities to enjoy full territorial rights “we must support their initiatives and frame projects to secure land rights within the broader struggle for self-determination, which requires a long term partnership.”
“The land rights panel gave donors a sense of how complicated the issue is,” said Joshua Mailman of the Mailman Foundation. As a result, he and Lori Udall of the Sacharuna Foundation have called for a land rights working group to be formed within IFIP.  They contracted the Colchester report to provide baseline data to enable funders to make strategic interventions and collaborate on key land and resources rights claims.
“As the result of presentations and conversations, some of which extended late into the night, many good stories and learnings were swapped, new relationships launched, and dreams of a better future explored,” commented Jaune Evans, formerly of Lannan Foundation.“Perhaps it was a harbinger, of a smarter philanthropic era, a chance to bring exciting new ideas into the forefront of supporting environmental and cultural diversity”
Monica Larenas, Vice President, Fund for Nonviolence shared, “The value of the regional meeting is the combination of working with funders interested in the same area but also with the voices of activists in high quality sessions that feature issues with voices from the communities.  For example, it was educational in terms of learning about the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and how it might be applied.  I can share those resources with our partners in Costa Rica where the government still hasn’t signed on to ILO 169.”
Excitement over the newly approved United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples permeated the gathering. The result of thirty years of debate, articulation and intervention by indigenous peoples, the declaration enshrines crucial concepts including self-determination, land rights, and free, prior and informed consent.  The Declaration process provided a strategic framework for indigenous initiatives in country and for international networks. Now that it has been approved it can empower indigenous people to be full participants in any project, not the object of it.  Doctor Myrna Cunningham, Miskito from Nicaragua, reminded participants in her keynote speech:  “The implementation of the Declaration begins when international cooperation agencies revise their policies and programs to agree with the international norms it establishes.” In other words, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples applies to foundations, too.
Building on the success of the Mesoamerica gathering, plans are already underway for a second regional IFIP meeting in two years while it continues its annual conference in the US for the spring of 2009.  For the regional convening, IFIP is currently considering India to focus much needed attention to the Asia region. “The Adivasi have not had the opportunity to gather from all regions of India,” said Joshua Mailman, a member of IFIP’s board. “We could use the IFIP meeting to help organize that.”  Wherever it is held next, and however long it takes, IFIP plans to take the meeting around the globe. Like Indigenous movements everywhere, this process will continue.