A Foundation Steps Things Up as Part of the Epic Battle to Save the Amazon

The Amazon basin is considered one of the most ecologically important places on the planet, and its biodiversity and carbon storage have made it a bedrock environmental focus for governments, foundations and large NGOs. 

While that attention has slowed deforestation in the region, it’s still a serious issue. As a recent New York Times article reported, we’re facing a potential backslide, and the first uptick in deforestation in years. Among other things, this is bad news in the fight against climate change, giving the key role the Amazon plays in absorbing and storing carbon dioxide. 

As conservation work in the region continues, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, after more than 15 years and $380 million in funding for the Amazon, is sticking with it. The funder extended its Andes-Amazon Initiative about a year ago by $100 million. Now, it’s tacking on an additional $50 million, which will take it through 2021 and add a new strategy of protecting ecosystems from dam and road infrastructure. 

This is not quite a diversion for the foundation, but it is a new emphasis relative to Moore’s primary Amazon strategy to advance management of protected areas and indigenous lands. The foundation began exploring other potential strategies to fund when it extended the core program last year, Avecita Chicchón, Andes-Amazon program director, told Inside Philanthropy. “The result was a decision that we also needed to focus on some of the biggest driving forces of environmental degradation, i.e., infrastructure projects in the form of roads and dams.” 

Another major factor driving deforestation (which the Times article mainly explores) is agricultural development, which the foundation addresses through an offshoot, the Forests and Agricultural Markets Initiative. This new strategy seeks to build evidence on the impacts of roads and dams, and to bring about infrastructure projects that are more environmentally and socially sound, Chicchón said.

“We recognize that infrastructure development may be necessary, but it can also be planned in a way and in places that are better for communities and better for the environment.”  

Moore has been giving to biodiversity and conservation in the Amazon since 2001, not long after the foundation itself formed, with a multi-billion-dollar gift from Intel legend Gordon Moore, and in 2003, it officially launched its Andes-Amazon Initiative. It’s dabbled in a number of other strategies, including market-based approaches like financial compensation for maintaining forests. But the core priorities have been creation and management of protected areas and indigenous lands. That niche has led to a lot of secured land. According to Moore, its grantees have brought nearly a third of original forest cover under sustainable management. That's a major achievement. 

Indeed, it’s hard to overstate the foundation’s influence in this area. According to a 2014 report commissioned by the foundation on the state of funding in the region, the top sources between 2007 and 2013 included 10 foundations, among them the MacArthur, Ford and ClimateWorks foundations. But Moore ranked within the top three funding sources, alongside government or multiple-government agencies. In other words, in that timeframe, Moore was in the same league as the World Bank, the Norwegian government, and USAID in terms of funding amounts directed toward Amazon conservation. 

That same report found that philanthropy’s main focus was protected areas (driven in large part by Moore), while other types of entities gave more to legislation, policies and compliance, along with market-based approaches. With this added strategy, the funder could have a bigger impact on some of the factors behind degradation.