Canari: yes, they can

Working behind the scenes, a little-known Trinidad-based environmental group has won a prestigious MacArthur award for its conservation efforts

  • Canari building awareness of media and civil society organisations from the Caribbean at a workshop in Laborie, St Lucia. Photograph courtesy Annalise Bayney
  • Field studies in the Aripo Savannas, Trinidad were an important part of a process to develop plans for managing this area. Photograph courtesy CANARI
  • Chateaubelair commuity members discuss how their community is trying to develop sustainable livelihoods from the forest. Photograph courtesy CANARI

An environmental organisation that works out of Trinidad has become the first in the Caribbean to receive a prestigious grant from the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, an internationally-renowned philanthropic organisation.

“It is very exciting and extremely gratifying to be recognised in this manner,” says Sarah McIntosh, executive director of the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute (Canari), which was given the US$350,000 Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.

“We’re the first organisation in the Caribbean to receive it, so that’s an honour in itself, and recognition of what we have achieved in the region and internationally.”

Canari was one of eight organisations in five countries to receive this year’s awards, presented at the MacArthur Foundation’s Chicago head office in June.

The Port of Spain-based group, which has just eight full-time staff and six freelance consultants, is dedicated to preserving the Caribbean’s fragile habitats and biodiversity. It achieves this by many means, but one key process is to help strengthen the structures of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working regionally in environmental conservation.

Dennis Sammy is managing director of Nature Seekers, one such community-based organisation, which first received guidance and training from Canari in the late 1990s.

“Canari are involved in a lot of training with NGOs, building up the capacity and capabilities of management and staff,” says Sammy, 38, whose group was formed to protect nesting leatherback sea turtles in Matura, in northeast Trinidad.

“They conducted an evaluation of our organisation, and it was great, because it helped us assess where we were at that time, where we wanted to go in the future, and what we needed to do to get there. It gave us an overview of where we were in terms of our policies and procedures, governance, marketing, strategic planning and project development.

“Community-based groups such as ours can be very successful in caring for the local environment, but you have to deal with the realities of surviving as an organisation, and that means marketing, it means analysis. When you’re working day to day in an organisation, things might get overlooked, or their importance not fully comprehended, but Canari gave us that fresh perspective. It helped us develop and strengthen Nature Seekers.”

Nature Seekers’ experience is typical, but Sammy says what makes Canari different is that working with them is very much a collaborative process.

“It’s two-way learning. They always want to learn about projects we have carried out as well, problems we have encountered, things we might do differently in the future. That knowledge can be utilised with other organisations in similar situations, through Canari, to prevent them making similar mistakes.

“For example, we were the first Caribbean NGO to develop a co-management arrangement with [the] government. Canari was interested in this and wanted to learn more about it, to see whether this was a model that could be replicated in other Caribbean countries.”

The fight to preserve the Caribbean’s natural environment is a multi-faceted one and involves negotiations with, and between, diverse parties, from heads of state to villagers in rural communities. Canari believes everyone has a role to play, and aims to facilitate such discussions, to be the glue that binds, the oil that greases the wheel and the ingredient that makes the recipe sing.

Canari’s multi-disciplinary, multilingual staff work across the Spanish, French and English-speaking Caribbean, providing policy guidance to governments; distributing environmental information through publications, training events and its web presence; and making grants available for NGO projects which tie into its philosophy.

The organisation works in an understated way, and doesn’t seek publicity.

“We have always been less concerned about attribution than contribution,” says McIntosh.

“So we work with the organisations that have the most direct responsibility for resource management in the region, and provide them with suggestions, ideas, methods and case studies. I wouldn’t say we are the difference, but we contribute to making a difference.”

“It’s a unique organisation,” adds Sammy. “They bring tremendous support to community groups such as ours and they’re an invaluable resource. We will always work with Canari, whenever the opportunity arises, because in terms of the two organisations we are a perfect fit.”

McIntosh clearly loves her work at Canari.

“I enjoy interacting with, learning from, and providing support to, people at all levels; including community-based and non-governmental organisations, government agencies and policy makers. It’s constantly rewarding to work with such a wide range of people.”

The organisation is many things to many people but, if its methods are diverse, the end goal is constant, to protect the region’s natural resources.

“We have never allowed external factors, such as donor-funding trends, to divert us from our mission, and have adapted successfully to internal changes, such as the move to Trinidad in 2001,” says McIntosh. (The organisation previously had offices in St Lucia and St Croix.)

“This has enabled us to build up a significant body of work relating to the region and to maintain a reputation for high-quality research, capacity building and communications.”

In keeping with its usual pragmatism, McIntosh says the MacArthur award will be used predominantly to ensure Canari’s sustainability and development, whether financial, technical or in terms of personnel. She credited the foundation for not imposing over-restrictive grant conditions.

“We’ve been given a pretty free hand in determining how we use the grant. Given the economic downturn, funding is likely to be scarcer over the next few years, so we plan to set up an endowment fund. This will give us longer-term financial security.”

Stephen Cornelius, the MacArthur Foundation’s programme officer for conservation and sustainable development for Latin America and the Caribbean, told Caribbean Beat just why his organisation had singled Canari out for recognition.

“For more than 30 years, Canari has helped bridge the fields of conservation and development, fostered open dialogue and built alliances among diverse nations and organisations to protect their region’s biodiversity.

“They have a long history of producing sound, objective research to inform conservation policy and to aid in negotiating delicate trade-offs between forests and agriculture, coastlines and tourism. And they have found ways to bring ordinary people into a closer, more responsible relationship with the environment in which they live and work.”

The grant is not only good news for Canari but also for the hundreds of Caribbean NGOs working to protect the region’s flora and fauna.

“Since the award was announced, I have been amazed by the number of congratulatory e-mails from people who have been influenced by Canari’s work,” says McIntosh.

One of those offering congratulations is Nature Seekers’ Sammy.

“I sincerely congratulate them, because Canari is doing tremendous work and I wish them continued success. It’s this type of effort and achievement that will in turn help strengthen the growth of NGOs around the Caribbean,” he says. “Their success is our success.”


Who they are and what they do

Canari, which is now based in Trinidad, with a satellite office in Barbados, was established under its present name in 1989, having evolved from a 1976 initiative of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources.

Canari (pronounced can-ah-ree) has four main programme areas:
• forests and livelihoods
• marine and coastal governance and livelihoods
• climate-change and disaster-risk reduction
• civil society and governance


The MacArthur Foundation

The MacArthur Foundation was established in 1978 after the death of American businessman and philanthropist John D MacArthur. Its mission is to support creative people and effective institutions committed “to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world”.

For more information on Canari:

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.