Barbara Fraser discusses the complex considerations involved in philanthropic support of indigenous cultures in Latin America.
Advocacy for indigenous groups can often be a bloody affair. In many instances, conflicts arise between a group’s territorial claims and the demands of modern industry. Earlier this year, Berta Cáceres was murdered after she won an award recognizing her successful efforts to prevent the construction of a dam on the Gualcarque river in Honduras. Her daughter Laura has since taken on the role of fighting for the land rights of her Lenca people.
For local advocates like Cáceres, awards are a two-edged sword: on the one hand, they raise international awareness for causes that need funding, appropriate lobbying, and political pressure; on the other hand, many worry that the increased attention puts their lives in danger. In many instances, even the lawyers who defend local activists face harassment.
In the past two decades, funding has also become scarcer. Several Latin American countries have become more prosperous, causing philanthropists to focus their efforts elsewhere. As funding dries up, indigenous groups face new challenges.
One of the fruitful developments in philanthropy directed towards indigenous communities has been the conversation going on between indigenous groups and donors. Since it is the communities themselves that best know their needs and the peculiarities of their situation, there has been an increase in “indigenous-led philanthropy,” where indigenous groups have a greater role in how donation money is used. And donors, since they are involved in the conversation, are able to develop relationships of trust.
Philanthropic groups are also working to make sure that they understand the impact of their donations, as in some cases well-intentioned projects can have undesired consequences. For example, wind farms in Mexico, a “green” project aimed ultimately at sustaining the types of environments that indigenous communities inhabit, have had the effect of reducing farmland and displacing native groups. Creating an atmosphere of conversation between donors and indigenous communities can help prevent such mistakes.
A group known as International Funders for Indigenous Peoples has the mission to “convene Indigenous Peoples, donors and foundations” in order to tackle some of these problems effectively. Their four principles center around Respect, Reciprocity, Responsibility, and Relationships. The group stresses the importance of understanding and honoring local customs, relationships between donors and communities, and a reciprocity in which donors also receive from the richness that indigenous groups can offer. This could be one good way to use the resources of a globalized economy not to homogenize, but to promote and nurture local cultures and ways of life.