For five decades, Myanmar was isolated from the outside world under repressive military rule. As the country emerges amid rapid reform, environmentalists want to see biodiversity prioritized. The Helmsley Charitable Trust is one funder backing work in the country, giving a combined $6 million in the past year.
Since 2011, Myanmar has undergone an incredible transformation as it begins to embrace democracy and human rights reform under its first (mostly) civilian government since 1962. As the country lifts the curtain after decades of isolation by the outside world for human rights abuses, it's playing an incredible game of catch-up. The world is watching the country, and as rules are redrawn and foreign investment comes pouring in, global conservation groups are eager to see its incredible biodiversity documented and protected.
“We’re moving faster than we ever have to bring the lessons we’ve learned around the world to bear in support of a government that wants to do the right thing at this pivotal moment in its history,” WWF President Carter Roberts said in a 2014 feature from the group’s magazine.
One of the major backers of such efforts is a relatively new environmental funder, the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, which launched its conservation program in 2010. The foundation has four geographic focuses, and the most recent is Myanmar, with grants to the area starting not quite a year ago. But in that time, the trust has given more than $6 million across only four grants.
Two of the grants are to high-dollar programs at large, global conservation groups. The World Wildlife Fund received a $3 million, three-year commitment starting in October 2013, for its work “meeting urgent conservation needs in Myanmar.” The article quoted above goes in-depth on some of the work the WWF is doing to protect biodiversity amid large new infrastructure projects.
A month later, the funder awarded $2.25 million to the Wildlife Conservation Society, which is conducting wildlife research and protection in the Northern Forest Complex of the country, including protecting threatened species from hunting.
Another grantee, Flora & Fauna International is working alongside the WWF, but has also been helping the country develop a responsible ecotourism program.
Finally, Helmsley is backing an unexpected party doing work in Myanmar, the New York Botanical Garden. The Garden is running an initiative to start the process of documenting of the country’s plant diversity (pdf). As the country has mostly been kept in the dark, very little is known about the actual diversity of flora, hindering future conservation efforts. The NYBG is working to train botanists from Myanmar and to collect the early information we do have about the region’s plants. Helmsley is funding the program with a one-year, $200,000 grant.
Helmsley’s strategy for funding in other conservation programs is a mix of the largest global conservation nonprofits in the world, along with organizations based in the communities it’s trying to serve. Since this is just the first wave, and funding has only gone toward the former category, it will be interesting to see how this program develops as independent conservation efforts take root on the ground.