We believe that lasting change depends not simply on community participation but on community agency and self-determination.
Where We Started
Conventional wisdom in the Ecuadorian Amazon, often shared by mestizos, foreigners, and indigenous people alike, contends that indigenous communities are not capable of managing their own money, projects, or destiny.
Working for a health organization in Napo Province, Ecuador, Mary Fifield worked with a number of Kichwa communities, which represent the largest indigenous group in the Ecuadorian Amazon, that did not fit this stereotype. They were eager to come up with their own solutions and with support were willing to try to realize their plans. To help them achieve their goals, she developed a grant-making model for health projects and soon learned that communities wanted the same support to protect the rainforest, promote their traditional values, and provide for their families.
Kichwa culture is rooted in maintaining equilibrium between human activity and resource conservation. Yet large scale environmental destruction from oil extraction, clear cutting, and mining has forced many Kichwa people to abandon traditional, sustainable ways of living off the land and has increased their dependence on outside assistance to survive. Many communities have lost sight of the enormous contribution their culture has made to the survival of the rainforest.
With the global environmental crisis growing ever more urgent and the grant-making model showing promising results, Mary began Amazon Partnerships Foundation in late 2008. Believing in the approach of empowering people through genuine partnership, not paternalism, a group of Ecuadorians and North Americans including Stella Klemperer, Rahul Joshi, Natalia Santillan, Edmundo Cerda, and Susan King joined as founding board members.
What We’ve Done
From 2008 to 2012, APF collaborated with Kichwa communities to evolve the grant-making model into the Community Self-Development Methodology: APF provided small grants for projects designed and implemented by communities, as well as grassroots training to help them develop project management skills and define and advocate for their vision of sustainable development. This iterative process based on mutual respect and partnership enabled APF to learn from communities what works, what doesn’t, and why.
The communities took ownership of their projects and responsibility for the results—they submitted funding proposals, created and executed project plans, and measured their own data. The APF team acted as coaches and partners in the process, but from start to finish, the projects belonged to the communities.
With a small budget and local staff, APF funded nine projects and facilitated 115 training workshops to help communities install 189 rainwater catchment systems, plant nearly 450 trees and 3,000 cacao seedlings, and build ecological toilets and tree nurseries. Managing these projects themselves, communities improved the lives of 1,500 women, men, and children; more than half of grant recipients qualified for follow-on funding based on their own results. They also provided direct input for publication of our Community Self-Development Methodology handbook.
In addition, our education projects, including our award-winning documentary Life and Breath: Kichwa Communities Confront Climate Change in the Amazon, helped community leaders, youth groups, and the general public learn more about climate change, conservation, and environmental rights. Through video screenings, public forums, local television broadcasts, and distribution through our university and institutional partners, Life and Breath has reached more than 12,000 viewers.
Where We Are GoingThe challenges–and opportunities–that APF and partner communities encountered are hardly unique to the Ecuadorian Amazon; they reflect the experience of many communities and organizations working in the Global South. Therefore in 2013 we redirected our efforts from on-the-ground community work to knowledge sharing. Eager to join the growing global conversation about the need for community-driven development as a more successful alternative to conventional top-down approaches, we launched Amazon Partnerships Online, which offers stories, data, resources, and fresh perspectives to support communities’ power to define their future.
This exciting new phase for Amazon Partnerships arises out of our core belief, which has developed through several years of on-the-ground collaboration: communities, not funders or other outsiders, must be the drivers of their own development and offer the greatest hope for a vibrant, healthy future for people and our planet. Through our blog of international contributors, our materials, and links to other outstanding organizations and thought leaders, we aim to help connect grassroots leaders, funders, volunteers, aid workers, and others to good ideas and inspiring strategies from around the world.