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NGOs of the Amazon | Social Irrigation & the Network Effect


A vertex is a good hub, if it points to many good authorities,and it is a good authority, if it is pointed to by many good hubs. —WOUTER DE NOOY, ANDREJ MRVAR & VLADIMIR BATAGELJ, Exploratory Social Network Analysis with Pajek

Source: Thiago Foresti | Carta Capital
Translation: C. Brayton
Network Analysis: C. Brayton

You rarely see social network theory applied to journalism for the lay reader, and so I read with interest Thiago Foresti’s recent progress report on the networking strategies — or lack thereof — of environmental nonprofits in the Brazilian Amazon.


In a nutshell, Thiago’s overview of the complex universe of green NGOs points to an oversupply of “gatekeepers” and a shortage of “hubs.”

I find this interesting: I have my own data from a big Web crawl that allows us to examine the “link ecology” of NGOs enumerated in the article — above, and below.


This makes me happy, because it means the data collected by extensive Web crawling — crawling 100,000 URLs with WIRE, developed by Chilean researchers  — and network analysis — with Pajek, Gephi and yEd — produce lists of concretely linked URLs whose mutual ties tend to be thematically coherent or empirically verifiable.

Above, for example, GTA is positioned as an itinerant broker between two other organizations. Adjusting the sample size and factoring out social networking platforms could present this relation in a different light, however.

Intuitively, however, it comes as no surprise that the the Observátorio do Clima would reference the Grupo de Trabalho Amazônico, for example. This is what countless Web portals in the “observatory” or “watch” genre do for a living.


An analysis of a given site’s «link ecology» can provide us with a roster of networked actors engaged in similar activities.

rosterecoongskingkongsLet’s read Thiago’s report on the nonprofit sector first, then see if we can shed any light on its diagnosis of difficulties confronting ecological NGOs in the Amazon — the first and foremost being their bewildering proliferation.

The biodiversity of the nonprofit sector

The Brazilian Amazon is as rich in NGOs as it is in terms of biodiversity.  According to IBGE, there are 27,900 non-governmental organizations and nonprofits at work in the Amazonian biome. In all, these groups employ 110,000 workers.

That comes to 4 workers per NGO.

That there are so many people working to protect the rain forest might lead one to suppose that Brazilians and other earthlings can sleep well at night. This is not quite the case.

The attractions of social and environmental activism had led hundreds of financial organizations and foreign investment funds to pour billions of dollars into the region in recent decades, and yet most of this money has been spent without sufficient planning. And what has been the result? Wasting money on projects with dubious results and suffering from  information bottlenecks.

Acting on their own, not many of these institutions have been able to raise money or publicize their information and initiatives.

Dollars and euros have fed the proliferation of NGOs, which range from tiny, ill-conceived groups with no consistent objectives to the so-called “King (K)ONGs” whose cash generation rivals that of major corporations.

“King KONG” is a pun on “ONG,” PT for “NGO.”

Between the two extremes, however, very few NGOS succeed in disseminating their actitivities and effectively changing the environment in which they operate. “You can count on your fingers the number of NGOs that produce quality information and successfully publish it,” says Marcia Soares, information officer of the Fundo Vale, a major environmental protection fund.

Ideological Divisions

To make matters worse, opinions are sharply divided among groups involved with environmental policy in the Amazônia region.

The leading organizaztion in this area is REDD+, a U.N. program designed to convince developed nations to contribute to the maintenance of existing forests in less developed areas of the world.

The REDD+ network includes NGOs who oppose the «mercantilization of nature» and others who believe in an «economic solution» to forest management.

“This a heated debate among completely different viewpoints, but it will be the practical experiences of REDD+ in the field that determines how this debate advances.  “Consensus is not always a desirable thing in a controversy like this one,”says Sergio Guimarães of the Articulación Regional da Amazonía (ARA), a network of 51 South American rain forest NGOs.

Coordinator or Liaison?

ARA is an example of a network set up to coordinate the work of individual organizations.  Created with funds from the Avina Foundation in 2007, ARA supports actions relating to sustainable development and forest conservation.  In 2011, ARA published a pioneering study of the Amazon and the Millenium Development Goals — a set of eight objectives created by the United Nations.

Guimarães believes that no solution to ideological and financial debates is possible unless groups begin working as part of a network.  “The dimension of the issue makes it absolutely necessary to organize and expand networks. No single organizwation or institution can take on the environmental challenges of the Amazon on its own. That is why we have to work together.”


k-Neighborhood of GTA.ORG.BR. Red = Hubs, Yellow = Authorities

The subtext here is that foreign-funded King KONGs are not always at playing with others.

An older network, operating exclusively in Brazil, is the Grupo de Trabalho Amazônico (GTA), founded in 1992.

GTA comprises 8 regional collectives in the nine Brazilian states that make up the Amazônia Legal. It comprises 600 organizations representing agriculturalists, rubber tappers, fishermen, boatmen, farmoers, historic freed-slave communities — quilombos — and environmental groups.

After more than 20 years of work in the Amazônia region, GTA president Rubens Gomes says the Amazonian biome has unique features that must be taken into account when evaluating the scenario in which NGOs find themselves.

“Great distances are involved. This is not like the urban centers where you can get in a car and drive to a destination.  There are places here that accessible only by boat. Air travel is difficult. It is more expensive to fly from one state to another in the region than it is to fly from São Paulo to Europe. Another difficulty is telecommunications — cell phone, telephone and Internet. These are luxury items for most of the communities we work in.

While on one hand the nonprofits find it difficult to join forces to minimize environtmental degradation, for-profits advance ever further into forested areas.  Environmental NGOs receive tens of millions in donations, but infrastructure projects run into the tens of billions.  On their own, the 15 hydroelectrica plants planned for the region will cost an estimated R$ 190 billion.

In the meantime, the trend toward the cultivation of networked NGOs will take some time to mature.  On their own, many of these NGOs have difficulty raising funds and realizing major projects.  An instance of this is the chronic underfunding of money from the Fundo Amazônia.

“Our mapping project shows a concentration of NGOs in the urban centers and lacking in communication with organizations at the periphery,” says Luiz Bouabci, coordinator of Cartografia da Pan-Amazônia, a study that mapped potential synergies and collaborations in the Amazon biome.

“We want to understand how these organizations interact and collaborate in this environment. We have observed a degree of cooperation among some groups, but these are more relations of convenience than of trust.”

The study identifies an over-population of gatekeeper organizations — groups that exercise influence by brokering information between other groups. At the same time, Amazonian NGO networks need more hubs — organizations with multiple connections that testify to their credibility. “A highly collaborative network is a network containing many communication hubs …” saysBouabci.

True, in general, although there is sometimes also an SEO component to take into consideration — a variant on the interlocking directorate problem.

Aware of this problem, funders and financiers have sought to invest in the consolidation of “networks of networks.” In the view of Marcia Soares, of Fundo Vale, investing and participating in networks is a new tendency.

“We are not going to stop investing in organization engaged in field work; on the other hand, strengthening these  networks is key to achieving economies of scale.  If we fail to do so, we wind up supporting actions that never advance beyond “pilot” status, or that fail to communicate their local experience with other network members.”

Soares believes that the dissemination of knowledge is the principal activity of these networks.  “If you study projects A, B or C by themselves, you are failing to understand the context in which they succeed or fail. Networks are a fantastic channel for sharing best practices and essential information. They enable us to emulate and scale up successful projects and to create a culture of trust among organizations.”

CartAM Links Core

The Nova Cartografia Social is a project that seems very well-connected among networked government and private-sector environmental research groups. It might have been interesting to select the interviews for this piece on that basis.