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Why NOT grassroots climate solutions?

By Hilda Vega, former Director of the Grassroots Climate Solutions Fund

They’re drinking contaminated water!

My niece yells, as she watches the news from Puerto Rico. Her friend lives there, and news reports showed that water made available in this zone is being pumped from the Dorado Groundwater Contamination Site, a Superfund site. This part of Puerto Rico is considered lucky, since at least 35 percent of the island continues to lack potable water and 90 percent of homes are in need of repair. Half of the island’s population still does not have power. This is recovery two months after Hurricane Maria†. 

As we watch Puerto Rico work to repair its infrastructure and service systems from the damages inflicted by Hurricane Maria, it is evident to many of us that this slow and politically tinged recovery process is a climate justice issue. This concern is not just about ‘rebuilding’ but about how resources are distributed in the United States and around the world. Why were the hurricane impacts in Florida and Houston managed (and talked about) so differently from the hurricane that hit Puerto Rico?

People often think of a natural disaster as something temporary. Conceptually, it is easy to visualize disaster relief – people going “to the rescue,” supplies being shipped in. Because we can fix a crisis. We send money and resources and move on to the next crisis.

It is much harder to think that the recovery and rebuilding process in a place like Puerto Rico is linked to its complicated relationship with the U.S. mainland, a failing economic system, poor infrastructure, and a mix of racism and sexism emanating from U.S. government officials meant to be responsible for supporting its citizens in emergency situations.

Wait…isn’t Puerto Rico a separate country? Or…is it?

† Numbers vary by source and are difficult to confirm as information changes quickly. 


Climate injustice is a way of life for too many

We’ve seen much of this struggle for autonomy and a just recovery in Puerto Rico play out in the media, especially social media. What we see less of are the many ways in which communities all over the world contend with similar or worse situations every day.

In Central America and in Asia, community groups (often led by women) are standing up to governments, paramilitary forces, and corporations to end practices such as land theft, development of energy mega-projects, weakening environmental legislation, support of industrial agriculture, and lack of respect of human rights and safety of anyone who interferes with business-as-usual economic development projects.

In Southern Africa, local fisherfolk advocate for equal representation in the procedures that determine how coastal resources can be managed without resorting to the damaging effects of fossil fuel extraction.

All over the world, indigenous communities fight to protect their legal right to ancestral land and other natural resources upon which they and their communities depend for livelihoods and well-being.

Not only are all of the organizations supported by the Grassroots Climate Solutions Fund (GCSF) protecting the spaces (e.g., carbon sinks and thriving, unharmed ecosystems) that keep us all a bit safer from environmental chaos, they are also leading the way in shaping climate solutions that respect people and nature while helping us all achieve prosperity.  They are doing this in response to not just short-term crises, but within the long-term and slow-moving catastrophe that is climate change. They are working on strategies for more sustainable resource management, for less reliance on fossil fuels, for low-intensity agriculture, and for integration of ancestral knowledge with renewable energy and just economic practices.


Grassroots practices are key to tackling climate change

We know these grassroots solutions work. They can work in Puerto Rico and they are working already in communities around the world where they are developed and practiced by those most impacted by climate change. Theses strategies are spreading as people seek out methods for grassroots solutions that make sense back in their own contexts, where they can be adapted and scaled.

But let’s be clear: grassroots climate solutions are not the next shiny object to exploit as we seek to address the climate crisis. Rather, they are part and parcel of a climate justice movement that understands that we cannot ‘fix’ climate change without a fundamental overhaul from the roots. This includes:

  • respecting land and resource rights,
  • recognizing that economic ‘development’ cannot depend on exploitation,
  • respecting the leadership and knowledge of women, youth, Indigenous Peoples, and other marginalized populations;
  • reforming laws that enable profit-seeking at any cost; and
  • fully financing strategies that support locally-driven energy alternatives.

I often think of a comment that Caitlin Stanton of Urgent Action Fund (one of the GCSF’s members) makes about dominant models of philanthropy. Stanton—referring to the excellent research shared by Sarah Hansen in Cultivating the Grassroots: A Winning Approach for Environment and Climate Funderspoints out that the field has been funding the environment in the same way for decades. Donors prefer to fund big organizations, based in the U.S., who can help us meet our goals in a way that we can sell to others (bosses, boards, funders, etc.). A fraction of environmental funding makes it way to those most impacted.  

Stanton urges donors (all of us) to continue to ask the question: How has that approach worked out for us?

We can see that answer for ourselves. So when people ask me why the Grassroots Climate Solutions Fund supports grassroots leaders and communities directly, or why they should fund grassroots solutions, I think that the question is not ‘why should we fund grassroots strategies?’ but ‘why not?’

Here are two objections I often hear:

1.“Those solutions are too small-scale”: This isn’t an accurate argument, because our partners are already aggregating and replicating solutions how and when it’s appropriate – and on their terms, not ours.

2. “Grassroots organizations are too small to manage the funds”: This isn’t a strong argument, because leaders in the climate justice space work in all sorts of configurations and are able to adapt financial strategies as needed so long as we support them how and when they ask it of us.

Why not fund grassroots climate solutions, then? What’s holding us back?

We need global grassroots activists’ wisdom to, quite frankly, save us from ourselves. With disasters like Puerto Rico on the rise, we have little to lose, and a thriving future to gain.