Billionaires Are Backing Brazil and the Amazon. What Do Locals and Longtime Funders Think?

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When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced $50 million in grants early this summer to protect the tropical rainforest for which he named his globe-spanning company, it was just the latest instance of a new wave of billionaires lining up to back the ecosystem sometimes called the “lungs of the earth.”

MacKenzie Scott, the novelist and Bezos’ former spouse, gave big last year to Brazil, including to many grassroots regranting operations focused on climate justice. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and his wife Connie sent more than half of their first-ever round of climate funding to the Climate and Land Use Alliance, a major global regrantor whose focus areas include the Amazon. Abroad, British investor Christopher Hohn’s Brazil philanthropy has in recent years pivoted toward protecting the iconic rainforest.

The newcomers join a number of billionaires — e.g., Hansjörg Wyss, Michael Bloomberg — and legacy funders — the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation — already supporting Amazon conservation, including through major pledges like the $5 billion Protecting Our Planet Challenge or a $1.7 billion commitment for Indigenous land rights. Checks from Bezos, Scott and others suggest a new generation of ultra-rich philanthropists is emerging to support the Amazon, with a particular focus on Brazil, which holds nearly 60% of the Amazon rainforest. 

Conversations with a half-dozen funders and nonprofits working in the region suggest most longtime funders and locals have welcomed the new money, which comes amid renewed optimism for Brazil and the Amazon. But there are also mixed feelings about the newcomers’ approaches and grantmaking, from age-old concerns that the biggest organizations are benefitting the most, to wishes that more donors would support biomes beyond the Amazon. 

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is perhaps the biggest source of positivity. The 77-year-old returned to the presidency this year, defeating Jair Bolsonaro, who was known by some as the “Trump of the Tropics” and shared his U.S. counterpart’s disdain for climate action. Deforestation, which hit a 15-year high under Bolsonaro, dropped by a third in Lula’s first six months, and he adopted a goal of ending deforestation by 2030. Last month, Brazil hosted seven other Amazon nations for the first summit in 14 years on how to better protect tropical rainforests.

Yet reasons for concern remain. The summit ended with a roadmap, but no firm commitments. Lula’s approach to fossil fuels has left some worried. And dangers remain for those on the ground, with Brazil ranking as one of the five most dangerous countries for human rights defenders last year.

“It’s a very delicate time in the region,” said Dr. Avecita Chicchón, program director of the Andes-Amazon initiative at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. “While Lula is saying the right things about lowering deforestation, the energy transition is still a little bit up in the air.”

Hanging over all of this is the dire threat that the Amazon is becoming a net carbon emitter. A 2021 study in the journal Nature found that portions of the forest, which covers a total area twice the size of India, released more carbon than they trapped. Stopping fires and deforestation offers a pathway to reversing this reality, but time is of the essence.

New president, new billionaires, new philanthropic interest

For nearly 20 years, most funders in the Amazon focused on biodiversity, according to Chicchón, who has spent her career working on Latin American issues for major environmental groups and philanthropies. Most grantmakers only widened their strategies to consider climate change in the past decade.

In recent years, the region seems to have seen a classic boom-bust philanthropic cycle. Regrantors told me funding dried up under Bolsonaro, only to flood in as new billionaires grew interested in the region, and excitement about Lula led to a ramp-up. Now, for some, the good times are back.

“For the first time in recent history, money is not an issue,” said Enrique Ortiz, the senior program director and co-founder of the Andes Amazon Fund, which has helped create protected areas totaling 34 million acres across four countries and receives 90% of its funding from Hansjörg Wyss’ Wyss Foundation

Funding is leading groups to work more closely together, Ortiz said, due to common goals like increasing Indigenous community involvement, or the “30 by 30” effort, which aims to conserve 30% of the world’s lands and waters by 2030. 

“The money, instead of pushing for competition, is now shifting to collaboration, because we share similar metrics,” said Ortiz, who has worked in the region for more than 25 years.

Meanwhile, Maria Amália Souza sees largely the “same old, same old” from Bezos and others, with some exceptions. The co-founder of Fundo Casa Socioambiental, which received $5 million from MacKenzie Scott last year, Souza argues that philanthropy has been giving nearly all its checks for work in the Amazon to already large organizations, mostly international NGOs, with little to show for it. 

“It seems like there have been no lessons learned,” Souza said. “It’s happened for the last 30 years and it hasn’t really changed anything, but they still keep doing it.” 

Many gains, achieved thanks to billions in grants, were rolled back under the past administration, she said. “It’s like it went down the drain, literally.” She wishes more would follow the lead of Scott, who she says “broke the mold,” funding activist funds like hers that back grassroots groups to strengthen democracy in the region and resist attempts to withdraw protection. 

She is also heartened by an ongoing partnership with CLUA, totalling about $1.3 million over since 2018, which she credits with sparking first-time support from several conservation funders. Those include Re:wild ($500,000), Moore ($1.5 million) and the Ballmers ($8 million, shared with other funds globally). Yet Souza notes she’s been able to fund less than 40% of the worthwhile proposals she receives, and her peers report similar shortfalls. “None of us have enough,” she said.

Asked about critiques that the field’s funding has favored the largest organizations, Chicchón was blunt: “I reject that, because it doesn’t apply to us or our friends.” Moore, which she said has worked very closely with the Bezos Earth Fund, has contributed to civil society in the Amazon region at all levels, in her view.

Aside from supporting Fundo Casa Socioambiental, Moore’s recent grants include awards of $1 million-plus to a variety of organizations in Brazil, like Fundo Brasileiro para a Biodiversidade and Instituto Socioambiental, as well as the Colombia-based Gaia Amazonas.

The large organizations Moore funds are doing critical work, Chicchón argued. The World Wildlife Fund, which Moore has given more than $30 million since 2021, has found an important niche in project finance for permanence, a mechanism for long-term funding of conservation areas, she said. The Wildlife Conservation Society, another multi-million-dollar Moore grantee, has valuable national chapters that operate locally, according to Chicchón, who worked for the group for seven years before coming to Moore.

Bezos in Brazil: “We’re not done”

Last November, fresh off his election win, Lula was greeted at the U.N. climate conference like a rock star. Cristián Samper, managing director and leader of nature solutions at the Bezos Earth Fund, was among those who met with the president-elect at the gathering, and has had a couple more meetings with Lula and his environment minister since. 

He has liked what he has heard. The Bezos Earth Fund announced $50 million in grants for the Brazilian Amazon in June, its first set of grants in Brazil, which brought the amount the fund has allocated for organizations working in the Amazon and Tropical Andean regions to $200 million.

“We figured that this was a very critical time to step in,” said Samper, a scientist by training who grew up in Colombia. “It really matters to have that political commitment from the top.” 

The bulk of the new grants, $30.9 million, went to creating and improving protected areas, impacting an area larger than California. These grants will go to a range of international organizations, including Nia Tero, the Rainforest Foundation Norway, Rainforest Trust and the Wildlife Conservation Society, which will work with local partners. 

Like Chicchón, Samper was formerly with Wildlife Conservation Society, serving as its president for a decade before joining the Bezos Earth Fund. Samper said he was not involved in the final decision on the Bezos grant to WCS.

Economic opportunity is another priority, with a focus on carbon markets. A coalition comprising the Environmental Defense Fund, several Brazilian NGOs and Indigenous organizations will receive $9.7 million to provide support and train Indigenous and community leaders to pursue carbon market opportunities. 

Samper had a meeting with several Indigenous leaders at last year’s U.N. climate conference in Sharm El-Sheik. “It was the Indigenous groups that asked us to provide that funding through the EDF,” he said. “But the vast majority of this funding is going to go to local groups, either directly or indirectly.” 

Instituto Clima e Sociedad (ICS), the regrantor spun out of ClimateWorks Foundation, will receive an additional $6 million to create a research network to produce data and advice for policymakers on economic opportunities in the Amazon. A final $5 million aims to prevent and fight forest fires, with Re:Wild tapped to regrant the full amount to 20-plus organizations in the Amazon.

“We knew a number of them from before,” Samper said, when asked how grantees were chosen. Colleagues had worked with some organizations, such as ICS, and the fund also spoke to about a dozen Brazilian leaders, from academics to policy experts, to identify new groups. “But we’re not done,” Samper added, saying another wave of grants is coming in November, which “could be comparable in size.”

The fund sent much of its funding to regrantors in this round, but that may shift in the long term, Samper said. “We’re trying to give more direct funding to local organizations,” he said. “Some of these [regranting] organizations have had relationships with local groups, Indigenous groups for 10, 20 or even 30 years. That’s something you can’t replace.”

Many organizations are probably hesitant about the philanthropy of a guy who founded a company whose emissions have grown every year until this one, until recently generating yearly plastic waste that could have encircled the globe 800 times. But one suspects there are still plenty of folks who would be open to a relationship with a 59-year-old with a $10 billion climate commitment, a $160-something billion fortune and a public pledge to give the majority of it away in his lifetime.

“The flow of money is the flow of power”

Once largely ignored, Indigenous people were on the tip of the tongue of virtually every funder I spoke with, with most heavily underlining their role in Amazon conservation, along with other local communities. It’s often noted that supporting such groups — given their limited history with big-dollar philanthropy — will require building up their capacity. Yet for grantmakers and governments taking that approach, the most difficult test may be transforming themselves. 

Juliana Strobel, regional program manager at Fundación Avina, said the paper trails required by some funders, particularly multilateral groups, make it hard to do something as simple as filling up the gas tank during a grantee visit. “If I need to use fuel in the middle of the Amazon, the fuel will be sold in Coca Cola bottles,” she said. No receipts included.

Local groups may have no experience producing invoices, for example, and thus typically require greater funder flexibility. It’s worth the risk, in Strobel’s view, given the successes Avina has seen by backing grassroots organizations. “One person may not use it correctly, but [the] other 50 will,” she said. Modified reporting requirements, such as by video, also help.

But some foundations have been incredibly slow to understand these realities, she said. “If we are not able to make this big international climate funding arrive to this kind of community, we are done. We are not going to win this war against climate change.”

Brazilians also wish outsiders could see beyond the Amazon to other biomes. Threats to natural environments — and promising solutions — exist elsewhere in the country as well, said Carolina Sampaio Machado, head of fundraising at Instituto Terra. The organization’s co-founder, Lélia Wanick Salgado, was one of three joint winners of the 1 million euro Gulbenkian award this July, a recognition of the group’s work to replant a portion of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest with nearly 3 million native trees.

“We have to show the world… the real importance of the other biomes,” Machado said. The Atlantic Forest, for example, has many coffee and cattle farms whose practices impact surrounding areas, and the institute is working with such operations to protect water sources.

Another challenge for philanthropy seems to be the perennial question of how to measure impact, and what to prioritize. Ortiz, for instance, noted his organization can tally its success in conserving wilderness in hectares or acres, albeit imperfectly. Political power or societal change, however, aren’t so easily added up, and their role in a dynamic world harder to evaluate.

Amid these questions, there’s growing fear that the Amazon is teetering on a precipice. According to a study last year in Nature Climate Change, logging and other forest loss are threatening a death spiral that would transform the lush rainforest into a grassy savanna, with profound cultural consequences and catastrophic climate repercussions.

With that in mind, Chicchón said it is particularly critical to listen to the experts on the ground. “Science can only go so far. We are close to the tipping point, but the solutions have to take into account human behavior — and human behavior is bounded by social, political, economic interests.”

At least in terms of philanthropic dollars, it should be straightforward to track whether those on the front lines are being heard. As Strobel put it, “the flow of money is the flow of power.”

This story has been updated to include additional context regarding the commentary of Maria Amália Souza and the work of Fundo Casa Socioambiental. It has also been corrected to reflect that Avecita Chicchón did not attend the summit referenced in the story.