Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) have been around for a long time and have gained greater importance for nature conservation and social development over the last four decades. NGO is a term that has been widely used, and in different places around the world it is a term related to 'non-profit', 'voluntary' and 'civil society' organizations. NGOs are diverse and have different organizational forms. According to Lewis and collaborators (2020), the rise of NGOs in the development landscape is possibly associated with the growth of public policies and the need for practical alternatives for development. In this sense, the main roles of NGOs in the field of development are related to the implementation, catalysis and partnership of actions, projects and programs.

In order to better elucidate the role and contributions of NGOs for nature conservation and ecosystem services as well as for socioeconomic and cultural development, I invited Dr. Eduardo Sonnewend Brondízio, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University and elected member of the National Academies of Sciences, to share his reflections and thoughts on these topics. Through this interview,  I took the opportunity to investigate the context of NGOs in the intergovernmental negotiations process, as Dr. BrondÍzio was a Co-Chair of the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in 2019.

Dr. Eduardo Sonnewend Brondízio
Dr. Eduardo Sonnewend Brondízio is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University; Elected member of the National Academies of Science, Director of Center for the Analysis of Social-Ecological Landscapes (CASEL); and, Co-Editor-in-Chief of Global Environmental Change: Human and Policy Dimensions, of Elsevier.

1) How do you evaluate the contributions of NGOs in recent decades for the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services, and for the socioeconomic and cultural development of local communities around the world?

“The contributions of NGOs to environmental issues became evident in the late 1980s. Since then, they have grown in importance, and in fact, they have gained a central role in mediating social-environmental issues around, but not only, in the Global South. Over time, NGOs have expanded their contributions for developing and implementing environmental agendas on the ground. In a way, some have played an important role of opening space and representing the voices of marginalized groups in the environmental debate. NGOs have become increasingly important in providing social services in place of or in partnership with various levels of government. At the international level, environmental NGOs have become key partners and supporters of intergovernmental platforms and multilateral environmental agreements”.


2) Could you mention at least two or three NGOs around the world, and describe how these institutions have acted to achieve the thematic objectives of these agendas?

“Examples abound. One example is the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), which was created shortly after the Second World War, in 1948. We can see the evolution of international environmental thinking through IUCN. In this almost 80-year history of the IUCN, its environmentalism, almost philanthropic and focusing on preservation efforts, has changed significantly to accommodate a broad spectrum of the human dimensions of conservation. IUCN illustrates a transition that started with the Stockholm Conference in 1972, with the theme of The Human Environment, when it became clear that economic development and environmental issues are intertwined. During the 1980s and 1990s, there was significant criticism of the colonial nature of the conservation agenda, prioritizing conservation to the detriment of populations inhabiting protected areas, including the resettlement of such populations. This image was associated with the IUCN as well as several other international conservation NGOs such as TNC (The Nature Conservancy) and WWF (World Wildlife Fund), and others. This position had to be drastically rethought from the 1990s onwards. This process has been slow, but since then these organizations have positioned themselves through partnerships with indigenous and local communities, in this new context of environmentalism. In addition, the IUCN is a good example to show the growing importance of NGOs in operationalizing conservation mechanisms and science, for instance developing global networks for monitoring biodiversity."

“Another interesting example of an NGO is CS (Cultural Survival). Like other institutions and international networks dedicated to indigenous issues, CS gained strength in the late 1980s as deforestation frontiers were advancing fast in the Global South. CS has been playing an important role in showing where the problems are and in bringing the voice and perspectives of indigenous populations to the environmental and development debate.

“Finally, another example is the ISA (Instituto Socioambiental in Portuguese, Socio-Environmental Institute in English) in Brazil. The creation of ISA was associated with the rise of a new paradigm in conservation and development: socio-environmentalism. Since the 1990s, we can see the impact of socio-environmentalism concepts in policies and development programs to date. ISA was instrumental in articulating networks, knowledge and information about indigenous groups in Brazil (and in the larger Amazonia), establishing an infrastructure for monitoring and for mobilization against threats. In collaboration with partner NGOs, ISA’s contribution to advancing an socio-environmental agenda in Brazil in collaborations with indigenous and traditional communities have been tremendous”.

3) In recent decades, global changes, especially climate change, have become a central issue for different levels of social and environmental management and governance (from local to international). Is it possible to identify an effective response at the local level to problems related to climate change without considering the contribution of NGOs today?

“I would say that it would be very difficult to implement an inclusive climate change or biodiversity agenda  without the work of NGOs that are at the forefront, that is, working directly and confronting pressures on the ground. Here I am talking especially about local and regional NGOs, which operate at the grassroots level. In addition to the lack of capacity of many governments, in particular municipal and state governments, to provide basic services and other types of assistance, NGOs also represent local concerns and bring to the political debate priorities that reflect local conditions and aspirations”.

4) Considering your performance as a Co-Chair of the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services of the IPBES in 2019, could you comment on the contributions of NGOs in this process, and what were the main challenges and opportunities of working with these institutions?

“Several NGOs were fundamental to the IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, too many to name them fairly. Firstly, the fact that the experts who were nominated and chosen are researchers or representatives who are working, many of them, in environmental or indigenous-focused NGOs. Often, the top specialists in certain subjects, especially certain areas related to biodiversity, are working in NGOs or leading NGOs. Second, for some of the knowledge areas covered by IPBES, the best data or monitoring networks available are managed by NGOs; these also include Indigenous-led organizations concerned with monitoring territorial changes and resource management efforts. NGOs also followed the assessment process as part of the intergovernmental processes, that is participating during all stages of an assessment, from scoping to nominations to reviews and public hearings to the approval process. They offer monumental human resources to these activities. NGOs have become an intrinsic part of this knowledge ecosystem and of the political negotiations involved in the process. Regarding challenges, one of main concerns to me relates to representation. For example, you have highly trained, instrumentalized and well-funded NGOs that manage to be represented and present in this process. However, most NGOs do not have this capability. And that doesn't mean that these NGOs don't have the same relevance or experience as NGOs that have more resources. This is a challenge that deserves attention in all intergovernmental processes. Looking ahead, it will be important to continue to advance financial mechanisms that help increase civil society representation and participation in intergovernmental efforts, such as on biodiversity and climate”.Evidently, the engagement of stakeholders should be prioritized when resolving global crises, as this could facilitate agreement on a solution that is acceptable to all parties. Stakeholder engagement can be a challenging process, as there are often many different interests and perspectives involved. Stakeholder groups can be diverse in terms of their interests, values, and goals. This can make it difficult to find common ground and reach a consensus. Communication barriers such as language differences, cultural differences, and technical jargon can make it difficult to convey information and ideas. Power imbalances can exist between stakeholders, with some groups having more influence or resources than others. This can lead to unequal participation in the stakeholder engagement process. Stakeholder engagement requires time, money, and other resources. Limited resources can make it difficult to engage with all stakeholders or to implement their suggestions. Some stakeholders may be resistant to change, particularly if they feel that their interests are not being adequately represented or that they will be negatively impacted. Building trust among stakeholders is essential for successful engagement. However, past experiences, conflicting interests, or lack of transparency can make it difficult to establish trust. External factors such as political or economic conditions, or changes in laws or regulations, can impact stakeholder engagement efforts. Lastly, the identification of stakeholders and the extent to which we engage them could be an issue [15,16,17,18,19]. For effective stakeholder engagement in resolving global issues, it is essential to consider each of the enumerated obstacles.

Caetano Franco
Caetano Franco is PhD Student at Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation and a member of Global Change Center. His research interests include co- management and community-based management of natural resources.

In different parts of the world NGOs have been conditioned by historical, political and cultural influences, which directly influences the dynamics of existence and performance of NGOs. NGOs are diverse and can differ, for example, in terms of size, which can be small, medium and large; and the scale of action, being able to act at a local, regional, national or international level. This diversity is also reflected in organizational complexity; amount of financial, social and human capital; and power asymmetry. Therefore, NGOs have become critical for the conservation of nature and development, especially in a globalized world in which new forms of governance and needs for communication and action are emerging at local to global scales.