Regional Fund Catalyzes Conservation Innovations
The Mesoamerican Reef Fund (MAR Fund) was established in 2004 to ensure long-term financial support for conservation of the Mesoamerican Reef. It has since become a catalyst of innovative local conservation initiatives and regional partnerships in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico.
The MAR Fund was created by the leaders of national conservation funds in the four MAR countries – organizations that it relies on for local disbursement of funds and project oversight. The idea was to create a regional fund that would solicit major donations for the Mesoamerican Reef and funnel them toward conservation projects in each country.
“The MAR Fund’s goal is to support a network of priority marine protected areas that form the Reef’s backbone, though with a ridge-to-reef vision,” said María José González, the Fund’s executive director. She explained that early on, the Fund convened experts to identify priority areas in each MAR country and then at the regional level, eventually selecting the top 14 coastal/marine protected areas which now constitute the primary focus of the MAR Fund’s conservation investment. The priority areas were later revised and expanded, resulting in a list of 14 additional sites, for a total of 28.
In the early years it was a struggle to secure donations and establish the Fund’s place in the region, said González. She added that Summit’s core support was essential to ensure operations, including seed funds for the MAR Fund’s flagship Small Grants Program. She also recognized the important early role that WWF played in the Fund’s inception, design, and establishment.
González explained that the Small Grants Program enabled the MAR Fund to prove it was capable of operating on a region-wide level. To date, the Fund has supported 52 projects in 14 priority areas in the four MAR countries. Its successful identification and backing of effective conservation strategies in the region resulted in subsequent donations for the Small Grants Program from the Overbook Foundation, the German Cooperation through KfW, and the U.S. Government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
One of the greatest challenges encountered by the Fund was setting up an endowment, which had been a central goal from the start. Years of hard work to build its credentials and record finally paid off when the German government awarded the MAR Fund €10 million, thus giving the endowment a major boost. The MAR Fund now has an endowment fund with a capital of $23.5 million, including €1 million in contributions from the French Facility for Global Environment and an additional €7 Million from KfW for the Reef Rescue Initiative that MAR Fund will carry out with the Central American Commission on Environment and Development.
The Oak Foundation approved a $10 million endowment challenge grant to provide long-term financial sustainability for marine natural resources management and conservation initiatives in Belize. MAR Fund will have to raise $15 million on its own to receive the endowment. The challenge presents an opportunity to leverage and support the region to implement projects and initiatives that address reef protection in the face of climate challenges.
One of the recipients of the MAR Fund’s Small Grants Program is the Mexican NGO Oceanus. A first grant sought to protect endangered conch in the Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve, where Oceanus relocated more than 7,500 individuals to an area where they would be protected from poaching and reach reproductive age. A second small grant enabled Oceanus to organize and train a regional network for coral restoration, which now is underway with additional support from other sources.
The MAR Fund has supported an array of innovative projects, but one of its most important contributions has been the promotion of community-led sustainable fisheries. González asked Luis Bourillón of Comunidad y Biodiversidad (COBI) to provide training in the MAR region based on COBI’s successful experience with fishermen and fish refuges in Baja California. The experience helped COBI establish itself in the MAR region, and eventually led to the establishment in 2011 of an alliance of more than 30 Mexican organizations, agencies, and fishing cooperatives working to promote fish refuges and fishermen-led strategies for protection of key marine areas.
“The workshops planted the seeds for sustainable fisheries in the region,” observed Bourillón. “This is a very useful tool that could contribute significantly to the conservation of the MAR, and María José was very receptive to it – I would say visionary.”
González explained that the Fund brings conservation leaders together and foments communication on a regional level. In recent years, the MAR Fund has established effective coordination with its member funds’ local capacity. It has formed strategic alliances with conservation actors in the region and convened stakeholders around key regional conservation issues, such as the establishment of fish refuges, coral reef restoration, control of the invasive lion fish, conservation of manatees, and connectivity research.
“We began supporting these strategies on a small scale, but now bigger players are joining the effort,” observed González. “I envision the MAR Fund as growing in stages like a seashell. We start initiatives and, as they succeed, they generate confidence and that allows us to capture more support for the conservation of the Mesoamerican Reef.”
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