Local socio-environmental funds: Exporting social technology to preserve life


Maria Amalia Souza and Attilio Zolin


The CASA Socio-Environmental Fund was created to fund projects in the large South American regional biomes in an integrated way. After all, forests and rivers do not respect imaginary lines separating nations – yet their protection lies in the hands of people from different countries, distinct languages and cultures. The CASA Fund stepped in to support collaboration between those who share large common territories and the objective of preserving them.

Since 2005, the CASA Fund has developed a strategy resulting in over 1,800 supported projects in ten South American countries. This outcome was only possible because of an intelligent management model and a continuously expanding network of partnerships and trust. It is the only South American fund set up by local environmental activists to support the most vulnerable population in the region.

From regional to local

Having generated experience and lessons in the region, the CASA Fund asked: Wouldn’t it be more effective if our partners in each country invested in setting up their own local socio-environmental fund? They are even closer to the dynamics and needs of their countries’ vulnerable populations. Imagine how much more they would be able to do for the caretakers of those important territories – the same ones who continue to be the most excluded and invisible in our societies? With their proximity they would have better conditions and greater agility to deliver funds to those groups. The closer a fund is to the needs of the field, the most effective it can be in its response.

Bearing all this in mind, the CASA Fund decided to offer its technology to partners in the neighbouring countries, and then present the plan to our strategic financial partners. They immediately decided to support the replication of our model. Currently, local work is being initiated in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, and Argentina.

Although this model may prompt some to wonder if it creates competition for funds rather than collaboration towards the cause, the CASA Fund has found that it has opened new spaces of influence, at national and international levels, and potentially creating new funding opportunities. We become stronger because we share a relevant worldview, and because we are united for a cause much bigger than all of us.

It has also worked as a model because grants made in local currency are more effective than any international donation, even if they come from a neighbouring country. Quite often, groups are so small they have no bank accounts – in these cases, foreign funds become an unviable solution. Supporting these groups in an accessible way strengthens the democratic fabric and empowers their voice in society. Once made visible by these first-time grants, they increase their networks of relationships and can access other sources of funding previously out of reach.

Principals guiding our movement

During the process of consolidating these new funds, a few ‘planetary’ moments have helped reinforce even more the value of this initiative. Three specific points help to understand it:

  • We are all from countries where civil society spaces have been abruptly and violently closed, mainly to environmental activists and protectors of the territories where the most coveted natural resources lie. In these cases, internal structures that can distribute resources have been crucial to support agile solutions and to protect local defenders.
  • New attention to climate change related issues, and the necessary solutions that need to be executed exactly by people who live inside the biomes that regulate global climate, and that are still mostly intact – i.e. biomes in our regions.
  • And now, with the paralysation of the world due to COVID-19, it has become essential to enable local communities to generate and implement their own local responses. More than ever before, to structure forms of local distribution of resources to these community based groups became absolutely urgent.

Local funds are not only the most efficient and accessible form of support to organised civil society in the Global South, they are also the ones with the best cost-benefit. And in the current state of things, they may be the only real option.

The CASA Fund will be happy to collaborate with other socio-environmental activists anywhere in the world to organize their own grantmaking structures. If global philanthropy is rethinking its funding options due to the economic crisis that is becoming evident, it is critical to pay attention to the local socio-environmental funds established by people who know their territories intimately and can propose the most appropriate local solutions.

Maria Amalia Souza is co-Founder of CASA Socio-Environmental Fund. Attilio Zolin is a Social Communicator graduate from the Federal University of Mato Grosso, documentary filmmaker and photographer.

Comments (1)

Maria Amalia Souza

Thank you Alliance for publishing our piece. Just to add to the story, besides the 6 funds getting set up in South America, one more is happening as well, Fundo Tindzila, in Mozambique. They have requested Casa Fund's support as well, and have just visited us to understand how we work. Casa Fund is not only inspiring all these new funds (and hopefully others that will follow), but we are also sharing all the detailed procedures, documents, due diligence and database systems. Everything to help these funds start with all the tools they need to be successful. We are excited about this. Would love to hear from others here who might know similar experiences we could be learning from.

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