Non-Government Organziations (NGOs) Mini-Reviews

Past recipients have included: 

  • Energy Access Foundation, an organization that increases access to clean and renewable energy through rural energy enterprises 
  • Aqua Para La Vida, an organization that works in rural Nicaragua to build safe drinking water and sanitation systems
  • Trees, Water, People, a group dedicated to helping communities protect, conserve and manage natural resources
  • IDEA WILD, a group dedicated to helping preserve the earth’s biodiversity 
  • Union of Concerned Scientists, a group dedicated to improving the environment 
  • Marine Conservation Biology Institute (MCBI), a group dedicated to advancing the science of marine conservation biology 
  • Sustainable Ecosystems Institute (SEI), a group that uses science-based, cooperative solutions to maintain natural ecosystems and the human communities that depend on them
  • Conversation Law Foundation, an organization working to solve significant environmental challenges facing New England
  • The Marine Conservation Action Fund, who supports conservation leaders tackling critical marine research and conservation needs.
  • Rise of the NGO

    Fifty years ago, about four dozen non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had a voice at United Nations conferences. Since then, these groups have proliferated both in number and influence to the point they are now major players in the environmental arena. In 1992, representatives of 13,000 NGOs convened in Rio de Janeiro for a UN-sponsored Earth Summit-the largest ever gathering of environmentalists and heads of state. The Summit yielded the Convention on Biological Diversity-an important treaty, ratified by 178 nations, which calls for the assessment and protection of threatened plants and animals. “That conference would not have taken place if NGOs hadn’t pushed for it,” comments William Moomaw, an environmental policy specialist at Tufts University. “Without NGOs”, he adds, “there wouldn’t be a Kyoto Protocol aimed at curbing the release of greenhouse gases. Society needs a voice that’s not always provided by governments or the corporate sector, which is why NGOs have flourished.”

    Today there are more than 20,000 NGOs. These organizations have become a “third force” on the world stage, taking “their place at the table of business and governments,” according to Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson. When Wilson advised conservation groups in the 1970s, their role was “basically that of beggars and evangelists,” raising awareness about problems in the hopes that someone would follow through. By the 1990s, groups such as the Nature Conservancy and Conservation International had the clout to buy up large tracts of land. Actions by both private organizations and governments have brought about 9 percent of the world’s land mass and 1 percent of its waters under some form of protection.

    Over the decades, NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council have grown from shoestring operations into empires with a million or more members and multi-million dollar budgets. Along with the change in size has come a different attitude. “People got tired of the gloom and doom approach,” says Bud Ris, executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists from 1984 through 2003. “They wanted to hear about solutions.”

    Getting results today often entails a very different approach. “In the early days, the process was adversarial because that was the only way to get anyone’s attention. But some companies have finally gotten the message,” Moomaw says, leading to unlikely alliances between environmental groups and their former rivals in industry. The Conservation Law Foundation, for example, is now forging partnerships with companies that, a decade ago, they might have sued.

  • Protecting the Amazon

    About one third of the world’s tropical rainforests lie in the Amazon Basin, an ecologically-rich region that is home to more than a fifth of the known plant and animal species. But the Amazon is disappearing fast: About 15 percent of its original forests are gone, and deforestation continues at a frightening clip. Ten thousand square miles of rainforest-more than twice the size of the state of Connecticut-were lost from July 2001 through June 2002, according to a satellite image survey carried out by the Brazilian government. Drastic measures are needed to save this region of unparalleled biological diversity, and the Amazon Region Protected Areas (ARPA) initiative, which was launched in September 2002, is aggressively confronting the challenge.

    Under ARPA, the Brazilian government has pledged to set aside at least 10 percent of its Amazon land within a decade, thereby safeguarding over 190,000 square miles-an area larger than the entire U.S. National Park System. The government asked the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the world’s largest privately-funded conservation group, to help devise the conservation plan. WWF and other participating organizations proposed a plan that included strictly-protected parks and managed reserves where indigenous people will be allowed to hunt, fish and farm on a limited basis. WWF and its partners are now identifying new Amazon regions that should be considered for federal protection. 

    Tumucumaque National Park, which was created in 2003, is the biggest single addition to ARPA. At 15,000 square miles, Tumucumaque is the world’s largest tropical rainforest reserve-six times bigger than the Florida Everglades. No major roads have yet been cut into the pristine forest where jaguars, sloths, harpy eagles and other creatures are thought to roam. Information furnished by local indigenous tribes equipped with Global Positioning System handsets was combined with aerial photos to create the most detailed map of an Amazon region ever produced.

    Later in 2003, the 2,600 square mile Chandless State Park, which provides habitat for rare spider monkeys and endangered species such as the jaguar and Goeldi’s tamarin, was added to ARPA. Within a half year of the project's inauguration, more than 20,000 square miles of Brazilian land came under protection. Advocates of the initiative hope momentum is gathering. “Nothing like ARPA has ever been attempted before,” says WWF vice president Guillermo Castilleja. “WWF, together with the other partners in this program, share a vision to make ARPA the most successful large-scale forest conservation effort in history.”

  • Protecting the Cardamoms

    For decades, the Cardamom Mountains in southwestern Cambodia remained off limits to most people. The dense forested mountains-scented with the sweet spice for which they’re named-had been the last stronghold of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. Ironically, the presence of the armed guerillas, along with the minefields and booby traps they laid, helped make the Cardamoms a largely untouched wilderness area. The Khmer Rouge movement collapsed in the late 1990s, leaving its mountain sanctuary up for grabs.

    The cash-poor Cambodian government sold five logging concessions to timber companies for parcels in the central mountains. Several roads had been cut into the heart of the range, paving the way for farmers, hunters, and settlers. That’s when Conservation International (CI) stepped in. The Washington-based conservation giant, which is helping to protect more than 100 million acres worldwide, helped finance a Cardamom wildlife survey in 2000 conducted by Flora and Fauna International, a British NGO.

    The survey confirmed ecologists’ suspicions that the region is a biological treasure trove. Covering just six percent of Cambodia, the Cardamoms are home to most of the country’s large mammals and also shelter about half of its birds, reptiles and amphibians. Threatened species found there include the Indochinese tiger, the Asian elephant, the Malaysian sun bear, the pileated gibbon and the Siamese crocodile. Even rarer species such as the Javan rhinoceros and the khiting vor-a bizarre half-sheep, half-antelope creature thought to exist though never seen before-are rumored to inhabit the mountain slopes.

    Convinced of the area’s importance, CI struck a deal with the Cambodian government in 2001 that prohibited logging in the mountains while their permanent status was being determined. A year later, Cambodia announced the creation of a million-acre protected forest in the central Cardamoms. The new park abuts two existing sanctuaries, adding up to a combined preserve of 2.44 million acres. It is the largest and most pristine wildlife refuges in the Southeast Asia mainland, covering nearly one-fourth of the total mountain range.

    CI’s work is not yet done. It now hopes to expand conservation corridors that would link the Cardamoms with the coast, thereby securing key elephant habitats. CI is also paying 50 forest rangers, at a cost of about $250,000 per year, to patrol the park and prevent poaching and illegal logging. The organization knows from experience that creating a wilderness preserve is just the first step; a continued presence is required to make it last.

  • Room to Roam: Yellowstone To Yukon

    National Parks, even spacious ones like Yellowstone Park (the largest in the United States), are not big enough to accommodate predators like grizzly bears and wolves. Radio-collar tracking studies have shown that a single wolf can rove over a 60,000 square mile area. Other research indicates that the 400 or so grizzly bears thought to occupy Yellowstone need an area 10 times bigger than the park’s confines to thrive. Roads and other obstacles further limit the bears’ range. Small, isolated populations can become inbred; the loss of genetic hardiness brings a greater susceptibility to disease and famine.

    A new breed of conservationist believes the traditional “patchwork” approach of cordoning off scattered wildlife enclaves is far from optimal. “Little island parks,” claims Canadian environmental lawyer Harvey Locke, can become “islands of extinction.” A decade ago, Locke and other conservationists conceived of the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) plan for creating a continuous, 2,000 mile seam of protected or otherwise managed land, half a million square miles in all, that stretches from Yellowstone to the Yukon Territories. This “bright green thread” championed by Y2Y proponents will tie wilderness areas together by means of wildlife corridors at least 30 miles wide. Y2Y spokesperson Jeff Gailus calls the effort “the biggest, boldest conservation initiative in history.” He and his colleagues are taking a long-term perspective, thinking in terms of a 50- to 100-year process. In the meantime, they’re trying to encourage the U.S. and Canadian governments-as well as environmental groups, big and small-to preserve additional land or, failing that, to make sure land management practices conform to the needs of wildlife.

    It’s an ambitious task, admits Gailus, “but we’re not starting from scratch.” The Y2Y plan incorporates 11 existing national parks, along with dozens of other parks and protected areas. And the team is steadily expanding the base: The government of British Columbia recently protected 24,000 square miles in the northeastern section of the province as part of an agreement with native Americans, wildlife advocates and industry representatives. In a similar arrangement, Canada has begun to protect nearly 40,000 square miles in the Mackenzie Valley. Meanwhile, conservationists are trying to establish wildlife-friendly links between the Glacier-Waterton National Park complex and Banff and Jasper to the north.

    With a staff of just 10 people operating out of offices in Canmore, Alberta and Missoula, Montana, the Y2Y organization cannot begin to manage the vast sweep of land under consideration. The success of Y2Y rests instead on collaborations with 180 other participating groups. “People aren’t working alone anymore to protect their own river, mountain, or valley,” says Gailus. “We’re all working together toward a greater vision, which makes it even more rewarding.”

  • The Last Great Places: The Nature Conservancy

    Palmyra Atoll-a string of islands in the center of the Pacific, 1,000 miles south of Hawaii-had, by some miracle, emerged from the 20th century virtually intact, without being ruined, or colonized by humans. Still, plans were afoot to “develop” this tropical paradise, a U.S. territory. One proposal called for building a resort and casino; another scenario envisioned a spent nuclear fuel repository. The Nature Conservancy (TNC), unenthused about either prospect, came up with a simple strategy for saving Palmyra. In November 2000, they bought the whole package-680 acres of land and 15,500 acres of coral reefs and lagoons-for $30 million. Some might consider that an unusual approach to conservation, but it’s standard practice for TNC, which has already protected more than 116 million acres of land and waters worldwide. As part of the largest private conservation campaign ever initiated, the group has recently pledged to spend $1 billion to save 200 of the “Last Great Places on Earth,” Palmyra being one of them.

    In 2001, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge to protect the atoll and its surrounding waters. Palmyra was a coveted addition to the national refuge system because it contains one of the last undeveloped atolls in the entire Pacific and some of the most spectacular corals found anywhere, as well as hosting diverse marine species. More than 130 different hard corals grow there-three times more species than are found in the Caribbean Sea or in all the Hawaiian Islands put together.

    The islands also provide a habitat for more than one million nesting seabirds-their only sanctuary within 450,000 square miles of ocean. Palmyra supports one of the world’s largest colonies of red-footed boobies, second only to the Galapagos Islands. Migratory birds, such as the bristle-thighed curlew, make their first rest stop there while passing through from Alaska.

    Seabirds are by no means the only visitors to Palmyra. Pilot whales, bottled-nosed dolphins, tiger sharks, manta rays, sea turtles, giant clams, parrot fish, lumphead wrasses and groupers are also well represented. Through its purchase, TNC is trying to ensure that the atoll remains a wildlife haven for the indefinite future. In so doing, various commercial plans for the site, including the construction of an offshore bank, manufacturing center, fish processing plant, and missile launch site have been thwarted. Although TNC is in favor of progress, they believe that sometimes means keeping things the way they are.

  • Call for Calm in the Seas: Natural Resources Defense Council

    In the past half-century, the oceans have become at least 10 times noisier due to the growing din from shipping, mining, drilling, military sonar systems and other human activities. The problem of underwater noise pollution is not widely known to terrestrial creatures like humans. But to ocean denizens such as whales and dolphins-who rely on sound to communicate with one another, navigate, avoid peril and find food-a vastly noisier world would be hard to ignore.

    Marine mammals certainly have their champions in environmental circles to the extent that the “save the whales” rallying cry has long been a cliche. But on the noise pollution front, the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), has taken the lead. NRDC’s efforts in this area are largely due to the initiative of one man, senior attorney Joel Reynolds.

    In 1994, Reynolds heard about clandestine experiments the U.S. Navy was conducting off the California coast. After questioning military officials and scientists, and wading through volumes of documents during a nine-month investigation, Reynolds learned about a Navy technique for detecting enemy submarines through the use of “low-frequency active” (LFA) sonar. The Navy had tested the technology repeatedly without studying how it affected marine life, despite its own calculations showing the sonar emitted sound levels of 140 decibels-comparable to a space-shuttle launch-300 miles from the source. The Navy also failed to obtain permits mandated by the Marine Mammal Protection and Endangered Species Acts. In response to pressure from Reynolds, the Navy agreed to study the effects of LFA on marine life. The agency later admitted that one of its mid-frequency sonar systems contributed to the March 2000 deaths of at least eight Cuvier’s beaked whales that had beached themselves in the Bahamas.

    Reynolds and NRDC won a major lawsuit in October 2003, when a federal court ruled that the Navy could only test its LFA system in a limited area of the North Pacific, with additional restrictions imposed to protect migratory species. But the battle is far from over. The Navy has appealed its loss-a move NRDC has vowed to fight. The successful lawsuit is only a first step, Reynolds explains, as it only applies to the U.S. Navy-not to other countries who are developing similar systems-and only pertains to low-frequency sonar. Since the problem of undersea noise is international in scope, NRDC has recently launched an international program to combat it-a measure that may offer some relief to whales and dolphins whose movements are not constrained by political boundaries.

  • Protecting Fisheries: Conservation Law Foundation

    The waters off New England once teemed with millions of cod-a term that encompasses 10 families and more than 200 species of fish worldwide. The abundance of cod lured Pilgrims to New England in the early 1600s and kept those settlers from starving, helping to convert the region into an economic powerhouse. For centuries, the sea’s bounty appeared limitless, but all that changed in the last century with the advent of technology that enabled people to remove fish from the seas faster than they could reproduce. By the 1990s, populations of cod, haddock, flounder and other “groundfish” dropped to the lowest levels ever recorded, signaling the collapse of famed fisheries in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank. A Boston-based advocacy group, Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), is working to mitigate this environmental disaster.

    CLF, a group founded by lawyers, is not afraid to use the arm of the law to achieve its ends. The organization began investigating the state of fisheries in the late 1980s in response to pleas from fishermen for help in stemming the decline in fish stocks. CLF filed a lawsuit in 1991 after concluding that a management plan endorsed by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) did little to address overfishing. The settlement led to a more stringent policy and the unprecedented closures of fisheries.

    In 2000, CLF was the lead agency in another suit against NMFS for failing to prevent overfishing and for sanctioning inadequate fishery rebuilding plans. Two fishing groups intervened on behalf of the conservation coalition. CLF scored a big victory, as did the cause of marine conservation, when the federal court ruled in its favor a year later.

    CLF is now waiting to see whether NMFS’s new management plan complies with the Sustainable Fisheries Act. “If the right plan is approved, the outlook is very good for many, though not all, groundfish species,” says Priscilla Brooks, who heads CLF’s Marine Resources Project. Populations of haddock and yellowtail flounder have almost fully rebounded, although cod stocks remain low as overfishing persists. “Our goal is to reduce pressure on cod and hope it responds positively,” says Brooks. “Once we can get stocks to come back up, the trick then will be to establish sustainable fishing practices so we don’t drive them back down again.”

    Her group vows to closely monitor the status of overtaxed groundfish, which constitute a New England treasure. CLF realizes that vigilance alone will not save the day, but without a watchful eye, we may soon bid farewell to cod and other prized species.

  • An Urban Success Story: Charles River Watershed Association

    Once regarded as a glorified sewer separating Boston from Cambridge, the Charles River is on the mend. According to the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA), which monitors the river daily, the waterway is clean enough for swimming, except after heavy downpours when some sewage seeps in through storm drains. Within a few years, the Charles could be “fishable and swimmable” every summer day, regardless of storms-at which point the river of “Dirty Water” fame will become a thing of the past. “This is an urban success story,” claims Kari Dolan, a researcher with the National Wildlife Federation.

    Much of the credit for this remarkable turnaround goes to CRWA, one of the nation’s first watershed organizations, which was formed in 1965 to address concerns over the river’s declining state. In 1995, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave the river a “D” for water quality, but since 1998, the Charles has received “B’s”-largely because CRWA has identified pollution sources by measuring bacteria and chemical toxins at various sites, while the EPA has shut down those sources. It has been a fruitful partnership, with CRWA providing the research that guides the cleanup process and EPA supplying the enforcement muscle.

    Although the Charles has come a long way, there’s still much to be done. Going from a “B” to an “A” in EPA ratings will be harder than going from “D” to “B”, mainly due to all the contaminants lodged in river sediments. Removing them would require dredging-a costly job.

    For CRWA, the cleanup itself is just half the story. The group is equally focused on preserving the river flow through strategies that keep rainwater in the Charles River watershed, a 300-square-mile basin, rather than discharging it through sewers into Boston Harbor. Their agenda goes beyond fishing and swimming, setting the broader goal of restoring the watershed through innovative water conservation and recovery techniques.

    CRWA’s efforts are clearly paying off. There are other measures of success than EPA report cards, one being the increased presence of blue herons, osprey, marsh hawks, turtles and other forms of wildlife along the river and its banks. “The Charles was written off for 50 years, but most Bostonians don’t write it off anymore,” says the group’s executive director Robert Zimmerman. “It’s important to put nature on display in urban areas so people realize the environment is not confined to places like Yellowstone.”

  • Restoring Wetlands: The Wetlands Institute, The Trustees of Reservations

    Since the 1800s, the 273-mile-long Illinois River has been dammed, channelized and otherwise transformed, serving at various times as a canal between the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes, as well as a sewer for Chicago. To redress more than a century of abuse, The Wetlands Initiative (TWI), a Chicago-based non-profit group, recently began restoring 2,600 acres of Illinois River floodplain near Hennepin, Illinois-the first step in TWI's plan to revive broad stretches of wetlands alongside the river and its tributaries. If TWI realizes its goals, the project will be the largest wetlands restoration in the history of Illinois, a state that has already lost 90 percent of its wetlands.

    Work at Hennepin got started in 2001 after TWI purchased the floodplain site that once supported two lakes (Hennepin and Hopper) as well as wetland, prairie and fen communities. Since the 1920s, however, the land had been pumped dry to permit corn and soybean cultivation. TWI turned off the pumps, allowing precipitation and groundwater to refill the lake beds. In response, the adjacent wetlands and marshes quickly sprang back to life.

    Frogs, birds and plants returned after nearly a century’s absence. The sounds of Western chorus frogs, American toads and spring peepers were also heard. Muskrats and beavers began reshaping the landscape, and state-threatened bird species, such as the pied-bill grebe and black tern, magically appeared.

    Meanwhile, a more modest effort is underway in Hingham, Massachusetts to resuscitate a 15-acre salt marsh that spans a narrow peninsula called World’s End. It’s not a big undertaking as restoration ventures go, but salt marshes are endangered ecosystems, and every marsh that can be revived can yield environmental benefits. The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR), the non-profit land conservation organization which owns the land, hope to inspire similar projects along the East Coast.

    A once-thriving salt marsh was drained for agriculture in the early 1600s by the first European settlers, who installed two dikes to keep saltwater out of the area. In 2003, TTOR took steps to reverse some of the centuries-long damage inflicted by humans. The first priority, restoring tidal flows into and out of the former marsh, was accomplished by installing four-foot by eight-foot concrete culverts in the middle of each dike. Since then, dense stands of phragmites, an invasive reed, have retreated, making way for native salt marsh grasses.

    A popular destination for hikers and picnickers, World’s End now offers unique opportunities for witnessing a wetland restoration in progress, says TTOR ecologist Andy Walsh. “People can come here to see a coastal zone in transition-a salt marsh coming back to life.”

  • Defending Bats and Insects: Bat Conservation International, Xerces Society

    In 1992, a spelunker named Steve Smith searched for artifacts in an abandoned mine in Iron Mountain, Michigan, just before the mine was scheduled to be sealed from the public for good. Instead of uncovering artifacts, Smith found thousands of bats and realized they would soon be entombed. Smith alerted Bat Conservation International (BCI) in Austin, Texas. Merlin Tuttle, who started the group in 1982, immediately flew to Michigan where he saw signs of a million brown bats hibernating in the mine. Tuttle persuaded officials from the town and mining company to jettison their plans for covering the mine’s entrances with backfill. Instead, steel gates-with bars spaced widely enough to let bats fly through, while keeping people out-were installed at the entrances.

    That decision saved a million bats from certain death and protected their home, prompting BCI to look at other mines throughout the country. In 1993, BCI and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management started the North American Bats and Mines Project to prevent the loss of bats due to the closure of abandoned mines. The program is important because more than half of North America’s 46 bat species find sanctuary in mines, after having been driven from traditional roosts in caves and forests. Nearly 2,000 bat-friendly gates have been installed to date, at a cost of roughly $5,000 apiece. BCI has been successful in getting mining companies to share the expenses.

    The Xerces Society, like BCI, is focused on preserving noncharismatic creatures like insects. “We’re equal opportunity, so long as it doesn’t have a backbone,” says the group’s executive director Scott Hoffman Black. Xerces petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service a few years ago when it learned that fewer than 200 butterflies called Carson wandering skippers were left in this country, confined to two sites in California and Nevada. In 2000, the agency protected the skipper under the Endangered Species Act, which provided a legal mandate for preserving its habitat.

    Xerces, which has a staff of just six, is now trying to save an orange, black, and white checkered butterfly called the Taylor’s checkerspot, whose prairie habitat in the Pacific Northwest has shrunk by more than 99 percent and whose population now numbers in the hundreds. The group is conducting surveys to see where the butterfly lives, while also working with land trusts-the Nature Conservancy as well as smaller, local organizations-to safeguard critical sites. “It’s a combination of advocacy, land management, and science,” says Xerces staffer Matthew Shepherd, “wrapped up in one small butterfly with a two-inch wingspan.”

  • NEB Nature Conservancy: Trees, Water & People

    Trees, Water & People (TWP) is dedicated to improving people’s lives by helping communities to protect, conserve and manage the natural resources upon which their long-term well being depends. To that end, TWP has developed ongoing watershed protection, sustainable agriculture, reforestation and appropriate technology programs in cooperation with communities throughout Central America.

    Throughout Central America, native forests are being felled at an alarming rate. If current deforestation trends are not slowed, many scientists agree that the region could be completely void of native forests in the next century. Such massive deforestation causes severe soil erosion, water degradation, loss of wildlife habitat and therefore precious biodiversity.

    While it is essential to protect natural resources and prevent deforestation, the forest is a resource essential to the survival of human populations. Millions of families throughout Central America rely on forests and land to provide fuel to cook meals, wood to build homes, water to drink and space to live and grow crops. Programs designed to help these communities meet their current needs without endangering long-term ecosystem health are essential.

    Since establishment in 1998, Trees, Water & People has helped hundreds of low-income communities to balance the needs of human populations with the long-term health of the ecosystem that supports them. In less than six years, TWP and community volunteers have planted nearly 1,000,000 trees, helping to prevent soil erosion, protect native forests and ensure the future of regional biodiversity. TWP staff and local volunteers have also provided sustainable agriculture and watershed protection training to more than 50,000 community members.

    Finally, in order to compliment their reforestation and watershed protection programs, TWP also works with families to introduce improved cooking stoves that reduce the demand for fuel wood by approximately 70%. These stoves are a huge improvement over traditional open fire cooking stoves still used by most of Central America’s rural population. Not only do they save forests and the life they support, but by removing all smoke from the home via a chimney, they protect families from life-endangering respiratory ailments caused by indoor air pollution.

    If you are interested in learning more about Trees, Water & People’s work in Central America, please contact:

    Trees, Water & People
    633 Remington Street
    Fort Collins, CO 80524
    (970) 484-3678