Bhutanese conservation society among MacArthur winners

Friday, January 21, 2011 – Pamela King, E&E reporter

An environmental group in Bhutan is among the recipients of the 2010 Award for Creative and Effective Institutions by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The Royal Society for Protection of Nature, along with the Chicago-based Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law and 10 other nonprofits with budgets under $5 million received funds ranging from $350,000 to $1 million from the foundation.

With more than $5 billion in assets, the MacArthur Foundation distributes about $220 million in grants each year, its most famous award being the genius grant, a $500,000 individual fellowship with no strings attached.

For the nonprofit prize, the foundation did not accept nominations. Instead, it aimed to assist organizations that have been helped by them before. This way, a MacArthur spokesman said, the foundation would know the winners’ track record and would have already completed the legal due diligence required to award the grants.

“MacArthur has been instrumental in the institutionalization of RSPN,” said Lam Dorji, RSPN’s executive director.

In 1999 RSPN used a grant furnished by the MacArthur Foundation to fund its integrated conservation and development program, which aims to protect locals while promoting conservation, a goal the society maintains to this day.

Conservation is a tricky issue for locals. “Because of conservation, communities are not able to make their harvest and make their livelihood,” Dorji said.

But at the same time, he said, conservation is a priority for Bhutanese who depend on tourism dollars to support their families. The success of the industry is closely tied to the maintenance of the country’s pristine beauty.

“The community would be interested to keep that,” Dorji said.

RSPN also aspires to integrate environmental education into school curricula, but, due to lack of the required resources, that plan is only in its infancy, said Dorji.

“RSPN has more than 30 years of experience,” said Dorji, which he said made the society “much better placed [than competitors] to advocate for environmental causes.”

Chief among the RSPN’s goals for its $350,000 MacArthur prize is the financing of its operational costs.

“We intend to make $200,000 available to the endowment fund,” said Dorji. He expects the money will “supplement our increasing core expenses.”

RSPN plans to dedicate $100,000 to a new resource center that will provide a work space for researchers and the remaining $50,000 will go toward more immediate operational costs and employee salaries.

Dorji said the foundation’s decision to award them a grant came as a surprise.

RSPN was a clear choice when it came time for the foundation to choose recipients for the grants.

“MacArthur has been supporting conservation in Bhutan for over 20 years,” said Christopher Holtz, conservation program officer at the MacArthur Foundation. As RSPN is one of the very few — and for a while it was the only — local nongovernment organization working on Bhutanese biodiversity, Holtz said it had been an important partner to the foundation.

Although the group supports many outstanding foundations, Holtz said, “Royal Society has developed a niche,” that allows them to protect valuable lands beyond the scope of public domain.

The conservation efforts of RSPN are focused in the biologically diverse Phobjikha Valley, the largest wetland in Bhutan and the largest roosting location for the globally threatened black-necked crane.

The MacArthur Foundation seeks to progress global conservation efforts, and RSPN therefore fit in perfectly with the foundation’s goals.

Friends of RSPN lauded the organization’s accomplishment.

“This is not only a material help to your remarkable ongoing conservation efforts but also a powerful testimony to its quality and effectiveness,” William Conway, senior ecologist and former president of the Wildlife Conservation Society wrote in a letter to RSPN.

Environmental groups that have received the award in the past include the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law in 2006, Resources Himalaya Foundation in 2007, Tany Meva Foundation in 2008 and the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute in 2009.

Republished with permission. Copyright 2011, E&E Publishing, LLC