In the Amazon, a climate linchpin, Pact’s Vanessa Coronado builds indigenous capacity to protect rights, the environment

March 7, 2022
Vanessa Coronado visit a SCIOA activity in Colombia at Nonuya Villazul Reservation. Credit: SCIOA.

The 2022 theme for International Women’s Day celebrates women and girls around the world who are leading the charge on climate change response for a more sustainable future for all. Pact is recognizing women leaders among our staff who are making a difference. Read about Christy Owen here and Hanta Rabefarihy here.

It was late 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic had been halting life around the world for months. The Amazon region was no exception, but Pact’s team and local partners there were determined to not let the virus stall progress on the SCIOA project.

Funded by USAID, SCIOA (Strengthening the Capacities of Indigenous Organization in the Amazon) is increasing indigenous people's influence in the governance of the Amazon region in order to protect the environment and the rights of indigenous people. Through SCIOA, Pact and its partners are building the capacities of indigenous organizations to access and manage financial resources and take ownership of their own development planning and priorities in the rainforest of Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, Suriname and Guyana.

One participating indigenous organization is UMIAB, the Union of Indigenous Women of the Brazilian Amazon, which represents 50,000 indigenous people from nine Brazilian states. The group needed to organize their annual General Assembly, but how could they with Covid restrictions?

“It was one of the highlights of SCIOA for me so far,” recalls Pact’s Vanessa Coronado, who leads the project. “With our support, UMIAB was able to install satellite internet in villages across their nine states and gain the necessary training and skills to troubleshoot issues and meet virtually for the first time. They could hardly believe it was possible. Now, even with the pandemic, they are able to exchange experiences in their territories, advance the agenda of indigenous women and strengthen their participation in all aspects of governance.”  

Born in Ecuador and raised in Colombia, Coronado began working in development as an assistant to the deputy chief of party of USAID’s alternative development program in Colombia. She enjoyed learning about cocoa, coffee and rubber crops, silvopastoral models and environmental incentives, and traveled across Colombia during a difficult moment in the country’s history. She later had the opportunity to work at national government institutions designing public policy for the social sector.

She has led SCIOA for the past year and a half and says the project’s work is essential when it comes to the fight against climate change. According to Greenpeace and other international organizations, Coronado notes, protecting the rights of indigenous peoples in the Amazon is critical to the survival of the planet. Studies have shown that forests are better protected when indigenous rights are protected.

“Indigenous communities are part of the Amazon’s rich biodiversity, and they are facing so many challenges. They need support to advocate for their rights and the conservation of their territories,” Coronado says. “I believe SCIOA complements other environmental initiatives by focusing on the capacity of indigenous organizations to sustain their missions and strengthen their autonomy. It has been so meaningful for me to see how we are supporting these communities and how our efforts go beyond SCIOA’s direct goals to the conservation of the Amazon.”

“I’ve really become aware of the resilience of indigenous peoples, especially indigenous women. Women are considered the guardians of nature and traditions in indigenous communities, and they have so much to offer."

Coronado attends closeout of a SCIOA project in Colombia with the local organization Cimtar. The partners discussed the importance of the Life Plan the organization developed with support from SCIOA. Credit: SCIOA.

SCIOA works by guiding indigenous organizations in their journey to self-reliance. The projects uses Pact’s capacity development tools, such as the Integrated Technical and Organizational Capacity Assessment (ITOCA) and the Organizational Performance Index (OPI). Through co-creation, the indigenous organizations design Institutional Strengthening Plans to identify and prioritize administrative and financial activities to improve their capacity. Nearly all of the organizations that SCIOA is working with have made marked improvement, and Coronado is especially proud of the trust that Pact has built with its local indigenous partners.

“We are true allies,” she says.

SCIOA’s achievements are especially impressive in light of the challenges of Covid-19. 

“Being used to making decisions collectively, the indigenous organizations suffered from the limitations on direct contact,” Coronado explains. “Some older leaders passed away, which harmed communities’ traditional knowledge. Indigenous populations are one of the groups most affected by the pandemic in terms of health and living conditions, so they needed to pay attention to other urgent matters, not to the project. We overcame this with time, patience and being open to finding ways to support our implementing partners and the indigenous organizations’ needs. With USAID’s support, we used creativity and flexibility to adapt.” 

Indigenous women have been Coronado’s biggest inspiration in leading SCIOA, she says.

“I’ve really become aware of the resilience of indigenous peoples, especially indigenous women. All of the indigenous women who I have met during SCIOA have a message. Women are considered the guardians of nature and traditions in indigenous communities, and they have so much to offer, including in leading in the protection of indigenous rights and territories. But they need to be included much more in decision-making processes.”

SCIOA has a social inclusion strategy that has helped to open spaces for women to raise their voices. There is still much work to be done, but any progress is worth it, Coronado says.

“My hope is for a future in which all indigenous communities, particularly women, enjoy self-determined development, not only because this is their right, but because their capacities and governance are so strengthened that any other way becomes impossible.”