A Love Story
“I only ask God that I may never be indifferent to the pain of others, and that death does not find me empty and alone for not having done enough”
This verse, from the song of León Gieco and perpetuated in the voice of Mercedes Sosa, reflects with great clarity what moves all of us at CASA Socio-Environmental Fund: we do not see ourselves as mere spectators of a world with so much need, without doing what is possible, and many times the nearly impossible, to contribute in some way. From its founders, staff, advisors, and partners, to the more than 1000 grantees in 11 South American countries during our history, there is something very strong that unites people who believe that the world can be made better, that there is a rightful and honorable place for every human, living being and form of life that co-habit our Planet-Home. And more, that if there is anything threatening the life of one being, it threatens the lives of all. Thus, even if not “enough” everyone can do something.
Resilience in difficulties
What we have learned in those 10 years, as we got to know and support so many groups in so many remote, almost forgotten corners of this great South American territory, is the power of resistance, resilience, creativity, unity and solidarity, of regeneration and nobility that human beings are capable of. Under the most difficult and painful circumstances, communities reinvent themselves, reach out for help, strive for solutions.
We have seen all kinds of difficulties, and much injustice: whole communities with their rivers and food poisoned for years on end by oil spills, or mercury from the mining industry, or pesticides from monocultures, without control or punishment for the companies that provoked them. Others living in regions of extreme drought, where the few existing rivers are privatized and, therefore, unaccessible to them. Many more living under death threat for taking a stand to protect their forests from illegal logging; or being assassinated. And still others living under threat of being forcibly removed from their traditional territories inside intact forests — irreplaceable patrimony of humanity — to make room for mega constructions that, questionably, will serve to benefit people and cities far away, even when other solutions exist.
… and much creativity
There is also, of course, great creativity to find sustainable solutions to improve life while respecting the fragile processes of nature, from agroforestry systems to renewable energy production, from increasing the value of extractive products to strengthen communities while increasing food security in cities, to ways to prepare for, and deal with, the consequences of extreme weather and other climate change issues, among many others.
The creation and maintenance of CASA Socio-Environmental Fund in the last ten years has been a very rich adventure of encounters and experiences. The first thing that makes us different: CASA was not created to “be” a “fund” per se. It was brought to life to deal with a problem perceived by a group of South American environmentalists, and that was not being considered in the level that we believed sufficient by conventional funding mechanisms — the lack of resources needed to enable qualified participation of the communities most affected by the destruction of our great ecosystems (eco-regions or biomes). They needed to have direct participation and voice on issues that affected their lives, to propose and implement solutions. It was, thus, necessary to seek and channel these resources to them in a consistent and structured manner.
CASA Socio-Environmental Fund is a unique fund that is born from within the socio-environmental movements of South America to support community based socio-environmental solutions throughout the region!
Where we came from
A not well known factor is that CASA’s original founders conformed, in 1993, the Advisory Board of the Francisco Foundation – the first socio-environmental small grants fund created by Brazilians in Brazil. When FF was closed in 99, Global Greengrants Fund, a US based fund, invited the same group to recommend grassroots projects they could support. This initiative enables this group to meet with some frequency from 2000 on, and develop a strategy whereby small grants, in a well thought and coordinated manner, can really make a difference towards supporting local communities to engage in the protection of ecosystems, from the natural grass fields to the wetlands, the coastal zones to the savanna, the drought stricken lands to the great forests of the region. It is this experience that encourages us to look beyond: if we could find more funding partners, we would have a perfect mechanism to respond to so many more demands and create so many more solutions.
The second and most crucial factor happens in 2004 when Charles Stewart Mott Foundation decides to support the strategic planning and viability costs that, in the beginning of 2005, launches CASA. From the start, Both ENDS, a Dutch NGO, was also an exceptional partner, helping to bring new funders and partners from Europe. These initial partners stayed with us for the journey, and thankfully, many more came along.
The greatest thing is that our proposal was understood and was taking shape and form, serving two purposes simultaneously: to make resources available for the most remote groups whom conventional philanthropy couldn’t reach, and to support philanthropic institutions, engaged in themes and issues in our region to invest in a level of society to which they would not easily have direct access.
Why South America
From the start, it was obvious to us that most South American ecosystems sit across country borders. So, if we were to help protect their integrity, we needed to create a South American fund, which, for facility reasons, was headquartered in Brazil. So that is how CASA was designed.
The great challenge
This journey of CASA found challenges, of course. To deal with such diverse and complex themes with such small donations can seem impossible, and even senseless. What can such a small grant achieve that can change anything given the enormity of the existing threats? Alone and isolated, really not much. Looking at the complexity of issues that CASA needed to respond to also shaped the way we went about doing it.
Let’s try think differently to make sense of this. Take a look at an intact forest. How many millions of living beings share one square meter of forest — insects, plants, funghi, reptiles, mammals and bird species? Who controls this environment? Who determines relationships? And the human body, who organizes how it processes food, makes the heart beat, inhales the air, takes the oxigene and discards the rest? These a living systems, that function exactly because it is in their own nature to maintain life. If a tree falls and opens more space for the sun, the forest rapidly accommodates by creating more space for new life. If the body gets sick, some small stimulus (a tea, a medicine) reestablishes the conditions necessary to return it to balance. The quicker the information about the change or unbalance activates the “response system,” the faster adjustments can be made to re-balance the whole — a rapid feedback loop is crucial.
Many times, small input, departing from deep and imbedded knowledge of reality can leverage important regenerative processes for communities and their ecosystems.
How to act in complex systems
The same occurs with complex social systems that move the world. Many times a small interference, based on deep knowledge of a certain reality, can sparkle important regenerative processes for communities and their ecosystems. The question is to be an inherent part of these processes to know exactly where to intervene.
Rapid and efficient response
This is the model used by CASA, based on the systems thinking approach. It was designed to respond rapid and efficiently to the complex socio-environmental themes of our times, as it is fed by the knowledge of thousands of people who belong to each region and dedicate their lives to these causes in search for real results. All of what CASA supports in planned to respond quickly and effectively to the complexity of issues and regions where we work.
To make resources get to the hands of groups that hold processes and initiatives that seek to solve such complex problems, we need to rely on a quick response, and very well informed, mechanism. So, as we were accessing more resources to donate, instead of relying on just the few original advisors to recommend grants, we started to use a multiplicity of complementary strategies. We have now hundreds of advisors, friends, partner institutions, all of whom know in depth the territories and issues where they work. Any of them can bring to our attention a group that we should support, and that will count with their knowledgeable dedication to succeed. Our more than 1000 grantees also know us well and can always recommend groups they know, which in turn strengthens their networks. The thematic and regional networks and lists we take part in (many that we supported from the start) are the routes through which we disseminate our calls for proposals and information about each funding round, trusting they will reverberate way beyond. As the years went by, we also became better known, of course. So today some of the more experienced groups can come to us spontaneously.
This format allows us to have incomparable reach to important social actors, a great many apparently invisible to most funders. Moreover, due to our connected nature, we are able to have a “macro” vision of the whole territory while we act in the micro-level. We see the relationships among the various groups we support and how each grant complements each other, producing much larger and even exponential results.
Taking up our share
All our care with the resources we receive, and the delicate and measured way in which they are conducted to the local groups so invested in protecting their homes — the South American ecosystems — connect us to the beginning of this story. If we, inhabitants of this planet, are conscious that our way of life is putting in risk the continuation of life as we know, we must step up and do something.
And more, is it fair that the most excluded and forgotten population of our region, who live in the forests we say we value, in the rivers or fishing villages, or even in the most inhospitable places and deserts, carry alone the weight of responsibility to protect and revitalize these places? And that they carry the financial burden alone as well? I’m sure we understand that no, they shouldn’t have to.
So, can we do something about it? Absolutely!
We can support them financially, through mechanisms that guarantee accountability, such as the one that CASA Socio-Environmental Fund has created.
It is an investment in the viability of our own future, in the maintenance of the life conditions on this planet of which we depend. It is an act of solidarity and love towards life. We may not be able to do enough, but to step up for the protection of Life is always the right choice!
We are happy to celebrate our 10th anniversary in your company, and in that of such brave and valuable people — the caretakers of Life!
Maria Amália Souza
Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director