From preserving natural resources to protecting citizens’ rights, Justin Cagaoan shares three case studies of civil society organizations creating change.


With global shifts in how to effectively address environmental protection, citizen rights, and democratic values, civil society organizations (CSOs) are increasingly seen not only as advocates, but also as facilitators between the people and the government with the power to create meaningful change. CSOs have influenced inclusive and accountable development, transforming communities, landscapes, and institutions. Development programs and civil society go hand in hand — CSOs serve not only as advocates, but as facilitators and enablers, enhancing impact for the communities they represent. In many different sectors, from environmental conservation to social justice, CSOs play a vital role in global development.

Redefining High Conservation Value Through Inclusiveness

In the Philippines, the USAID Biodiversity and Watersheds Improved for Stronger Economy and Ecosystem Resilience (B+WISER) project recognized the value that indigenous people play in forest conservation. At the Mt. Kitanglad Range Natural Park in Bukidnon province, members of the Kitanglad Guard Volunteers (KGV), a predominantly indigenous group, regularly patrol the forest that covers the indigenous people’s ancestral land. KGV works in collaboration with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), applying the LAWIN forest and biodiversity protection system. LAWIN, piloted with the Center for Conservation Innovation and later developed with the DENR, combines various elements of effective forest protection. Through LAWIN, straightforward forest conservation area planning, regular and well-planned forest patrols, user-friendly data management, and timely and data-driven response complement each other to achieve conservation objectives and targets. Government forest rangers and community patrollers, such as the KGV, implement LAWIN to effectively respond to threats they observe in the forest.

B+WISER worked with the indigenous communities in the area and the Kitanglad Integrated NGOs (KIN) to start documenting the customs, traditions, and practices of the tribes relating to forest protection and natural resource management. Historically, these customs and practices were passed down orally, but the tribal chieftains recognized the importance of documenting these practices in written form. Through this documentation process, KIN and the KGV mapped culturally significant areas, tribal policies on natural resource use, rules for entry to sacred areas, customary practices of justice, and respect for indigenous spirituality of the Kitanglad tribes throughout the park. Combined with B+WISER’s biodiversity mapping, this was the first time that these maps included both culturally and biologically significant data, redefining the idea of high-value conservation through a more inclusive and holistic lens. The data collected were later integrated by the Kitanglad Protected Area Management Board into the management plan of the park. The incorporation of the customs and practices of the Kitanglad tribes has increased public awareness and dialogue around tribal customs and  established these tribes as leaders in forest conservation in the Philippines.

Returning the Forest to the People

In Indonesia, local CSOs are playing a vital role in advancing the government’s social forestry initiative by reviewing, debating, and revising current conservation laws at the regional and national levels. In 2015, the Indonesian government pledged to allocate 12.7 million hectares of forest land for social forestry, a community-based forestry management plan to balance the large concessions of forest land granted to corporations giving land back to Indonesian communities to manage. As a large percentage of livelihoods in Indonesia depend on forest resources, social forestry plays an important role in poverty reduction and conservation by giving previously excluded communities access to forest resources.

A key partner of the USAID Build Indonesia to Take Care of Nature for Sustainability (BIJAK) project, and its predecessor project, USAID Program Representasi (ProRep), Kemitraan (which translates to the Partnership for Governance Reform) has played a significant role in advancing the social forestry initiative. Kemitraan has been helping communities, including indigenous peoples, to submit applications under the social forestry scheme by connecting with other CSOs and local government institutions. To date, Kemitraan has facilitated securing over 800,000 hectares of forest land for community groups. Throughout the process, Kemitraan has also focused on building the capacity of these communities in the sustainable production of forest products and helping facilitate better access to local and national markets. In parallel to the work done under Kemitraan, ProRep worked with various CSOs to operationalize two components under the social forestry scheme and facilitated the enactment of local regulation and decrees that recognized the Kasepuhan, Hukaea Laea, To Kaili, and To Kulawi indigenous communities. Kemitraan was also influential in eliciting a governor’s decree that issued a 35-year community forestry utilization permit for eight Gapoktan (peasants’ associations), benefitting approximately 1,400 families.

Holding Institutions Accountable

In Nigeria, the USAID Strengthening Advocacy and Civic Engagement (SACE) project is  facilitating coalition-building among CSOs to increase the impact of collective action across multiple policy issues. The Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice (ANEEJ), a grantee of SACE, has been working with other CSOs to hold various Niger Delta institutions accountable to address generations of corruption and underdevelopment in an oil-rich region. Before the discovery of commercial oil in 1956, the Niger Delta was sustained by agriculture and other natural resources. However, ongoing oil spills have covered farmlands and forests in oil, severely reducing the capacity for crop growth and other livelihoods.

Although a multitude of institutions have been established in the region to address development issues on behalf of the citizens they represent, many of these institutions have failed to uphold their mission. In response, SACE and ANEEJ have deployed a citizen report card tool to collect data on citizens’ perspectives of institutional performance. The findings from the tool have allowed CSOs and community groups to effectively engage with these institutions and hold them accountable to their own mandates. For example, through community focus groups, ANEEJ identified a total of 84 abandoned development projects in the region commissioned by the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). These unfinished projects had included essential community services, such as hospitals, schools, and roads; communities remained without these services that would promote social welfare, education, and economic growth.

ANEEJ presented their findings to the acting president of Nigeria, Yemi Osinbajo, at the Niger Delta Stakeholders Forum, which prompted Acting President Osinbajo to order contractors working on projects associated with NDDC funds to return to their projects or face prosecution. Since then, abandoned projects have been completed or are now in the process of completion. Today, because of the work done by ANEEJ and other CSOs, ANEEJ representatives have formally been recognized as members of the NDDC Joint Monitoring Committee, which allows for CSO representation in the NDDC project monitoring framework. More broadly, the ongoing accountability work conducted by ANEEJ and its partners has promoted greater transparency among Niger Delta institutions.

CSOs challenge entrenched processes, resulting in inclusive, transparent, and accountable environments where communities can effectively engage with their government and promote meaningful change. CSOs continue to be an important part of the dialogue not only as advocates, but as facilitators and enablers that work towards solutions for the common good.