World Rainforest Movement

The GEF and Indigenous Peoples: some findings of a recent critical study

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) is the main intergovernmental mechanism for addressing “global” environmental problems, including the loss of biodiversity. It is the main vehicle for funding the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Since its formation in 1991, forest-related projects have accounted for between 30 and 50% of the GEF’s annual spending on conservation. By June 2003, the GEF had allocated $778 million USD in grants for 150 forest conservation projects. Most of these projects have been implemented by the World Bank and most have supported the establishment or expansion of protected areas, which remain the “cornerstone” of GEF support to biodiversity conservation. Many of these GEF-assisted projects have affected lands traditionally occupied and used by indigenous peoples. Yet indigenous peoples have repeatedly claimed that these conservation schemes often fail to respect the rights of indigenous peoples and undermine their traditional livelihoods.

Drawing on a series of past, recent and ongoing case studies of GEF full-size conservation and sustainable use projects (in Peru, Guyana, Mexico, Panama, Cameroon, Uganda, India, Philippines, and Bangladesh) a recent study completed by the Forest Peoples Programme has sought to examine these problems. The study finds that though progress has been made in some quarters, especially through the GEF’s Small Grants Programme, some GEF conservation projects and programmes continue to struggle to respect the rights and livelihoods of indigenous communities.

Key findings are that GEF projects still tend to treat indigenous peoples as “beneficiaries” rather than rights holders. GEF biodiversity projects also finance the legal establishment of protected areas without first ensuring mechanisms are in place to secure the free, prior informed consent of affected indigenous communities. Some GEF projects have resulted in the curtailment of livelihoods, forced relocation and increased enforcement of anti-people laws and exclusionary conservation policies, particularly in GEF projects in Africa and Asia. Other disturbing findings are that GEF projects fail to properly involve affected communities in project design and do not pinpoint critical legal, rights and cultural issues in social assessments. The study has also found that:

Flawed “alternative” livelihood interventions sometimes leave affected families and communities worse off, less secure and more dependent on the market and wage labour
Full-size and medium-sized grants are still often considered to be top down interventions by government agencies or big international conservation NGOs
Indigenous peoples do not enjoy effective participation in decision-making in GEF projects, even in some projects targeting indigenous peoples
Indigenous communities are not always aware of GEF involvement in projects that affect them
Some projects targeting indigenous peoples do not implement progressive components set out in grant agreements or project plans e.g., protection of land rights, protection of and respect for traditional knowledge
Projects often introduce new project-level institutions that fail to build on or may even undermine local traditional institutions and decision-making structures.
An analysis of GEF governance, accountability and policies argues that many of the ongoing problems with GEF projects can be partly traced to an out-of-date and incomplete framework for GEF policy standards and to faults in implementation and monitoring mechanisms. In this regard, it is stressed that implementing agencies such as the World Bank continue to suffer from systemic failures in the implementation of their own mandatory social and environmental policies -an ongoing problem that has been found by recent official reviews of the Bank’s implementation of its Indigenous Peoples Policy (OD4.20).

It is noted that there are signs that the GEF is seeking to respond to some of the above criticisms. For example, it has launched a review of local benefits in GEF projects (due to be published in 2005) and now plans to develop social and participation indicators. In Latin America, the GEF is starting to support community conservation areas and a few medium-sized projects are beginning to be prepared and implemented by indigenous peoples. Nevertheless, such progressive projects still tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Crucially, the study shows that even GEF-World Bank projects that are intended to “do good” can end up doing harm where project governance, implementation and participation mechanisms fail on the ground [e.g., Indigenous Management of Protected Areas in the Amazon Project – PIMA (Peru)].

Indigenous organisations and support NGOs stress that a piecemeal approach to indigenous peoples in GEF projects is not sufficient: what is needed is a root and branch overhaul of GEF policies and oversight procedures. As one indigenous spokesperson told a meeting with the GEF on the margins of CBD COP VII:

“We welcome the GEF’s growing support for indigenous conservation areas in some parts of Latin America. But the questions remain: how will the GEF ensure that all its conservation projects recognise and respect our rights in across all continents where it works? For example, we want to know how GEF policies and projects will respect the right of indigenous peoples to free prior and informed consent?” [Esther Camac, February 2004]

The final part of the study calls on the GEF to adopt a rights-based approach, strengthen its own implementation and accountability mechanisms, and adopt a specific mandatory policy on Indigenous Peoples. At the same time, it is recommended that the GEF update all its biodiversity policies to ensure they are fully consistent with international standards on indigenous peoples and conservationincluding standards established under the CBD and best practice agreed in the 2003 IUCN Durban Action Plan and Recommendations.

By Tom Griffiths of the Forest Peoples Programme, e-mail:,

The full study, titled Indigenous Peoples and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), is available in hard copy from: and is also on-line at: