Founder of the Casa Socio-Environmental Fund
When Maria Amália Souza left her hometown in São Paulo State for college in the United States in the 1980’s, little did she know she would eventually come back to create the world’s first socio-environmental fund by and for South Americans.
Casa, which started two decades ago with five grants, has gone on to deliver 3,000 grants across nine countries and inspire the creation of five new funds in neighboring countries and on the African continent. Now, it’s preparing to go global, in collaboration with like-minded initiatives from around the world.
“I quickly realized that to conserve fragile ecosystems, we needed to get resources to the people who belong there; those who are doing the toughest job and are doing it best: the Indigenous groups, river communities and land rights advocates at the frontlines of environmental protection,” says Souza, who has traveled to more than 50 countries to work, learn, and share her experience.
Casa funds grassroots organizations working to protect their lands and livelihoods, and also helps forest communities improve their skills to build sustainable solutions for their future—for instance, through local fruit and seed-processing businesses and the use of renewable energies in remote areas.
And, unlike many other initiatives that come and go, Casa is in it for the long haul. For example, the fund has supported the Munduruku and other Amazonian communities along the Tapajós river for the past 18 years, funding travel to human rights courts, community consultation meetings, and the use of national and international legal mechanisms.
The grants are small but multifaceted, and are strategically placed to create synergies. “It is like a process of social acupuncture, whereby acting on certain points of the system benefits the whole,” she says.
The fund that became Souza’s life work is like a hummingbird: nimble and agile. It is hyperconnected; able to respond to unexpected threats to people and biomes; and to fund grassroots communities that are too small to be reached by philanthropy behemoths.
“[Human beings] are always out there ‘fighting’ for something, focused on convincing others rather than listening to them,” she says. “But all great things are achieved by joining forces.”