The Welsh charity, Size of Wales, has reached its fundraising goal of an astounding U.S. $3 million to help protect an area of rainforest that is roughly the same size of its own country. The various conservation projects in Africa and Latin America are aimed at halting logging practices as well as tackling deforestation over an area of 2 million hectares in size.
Initiated less than three years ago, the Size of Wales charity strives to take a more positive approach to climate change by engaging the citizens of Wales in conservation efforts. In order to increase support, charity members rally communities, school, businesses and organizations throughout the country, encouraging them to donate funds and participate in rainforest projects.
One project in particular aims to protect 54,000 hectares of Peruvian Amazon rainforest, as well as working to improve education and business opportunities for women and young adults.
Wales has become the extraordinary example in forest conservation, encouraging other countries to hop on board. In fact, a Danish non-governmental organization is considering the development of a project entitled “Size of Denmark”, which would protect twice as much land as the Welsh charity. The Size of Wales charity is a role model for other nations due to its remarkable efforts in raising funds to protect an area of rainforest equaling the size of its own country.
On St. David’s Day the charity announced it had, with the help of match funding from bodies such as the Waterloo Foundation, raised the £2m it needed to achieve it two million hectare target.
Claire Raisin, who took over as director in April, admitted that the public’s response to the campaign had exceeded expectations.
“We’ve done really over the last year or so through fundraising with schools, communities and businesses across Wales, and also with our partners that run the projects overseas,” she said.
“We thought it was going to be a short-term campaign but we’ve found that it’s actually incredibly successful and really well received, particularly our education programme. I think the message of climate change and tropical forests is often very difficult to bring to life in the UK, and how our actions here have an impact overseas and vice versa.
“We’ve found some very good ways of engaging with people on those messages and helping people feel empowered to make a difference, particularly because we offer everybody who fundraises for us the opportunity to select which projects their funds go to.
“We really encourage an emotional link, particularly the schools. If a school wants to make contact with a school in one of our project areas, we encourage those relationships.
“It makes for a much more positive experience, because climate change and deforestation can seem so overwhelming, to empower people to feel the small steps they make can make a big difference is really important.”
Size of Wales has a portfolio of 20 projects around the world, but focuses particularly on what it calls its ‘Big Five.’
Four of those are in Africa and one in South America, and together they encompass an area of two million hectares – enough by themselves to achieve the size of Wales target.
The projects tackle the full range of issues facing rainforests and their indigenous communities. One in Guyana is focused on securing indigenous people’s land rights and tenure over an area of 1.4 million hectares.
On the other end of the scale in terms of area – though still of critical importance to the community concerned – is a tree planting and reforestation project in Uganda, which is run by the Mbale Coalition against Poverty co-funded by the Welsh Government.
“They’re all vitally important whether it’s securing legal land rights for indigenous people, protecting forest that’s already there or planting forest that has been destroyed,” said Ms Raisin.
The director recently visited a community land rights project in Brazil to see for herself the difference Size of Wales is making.
“When people think of Brazil and rainforests they think of the Amazon. Actually the Mata Atlantica, the tropical rainforest that runs down the Atlantic coast, is vast and vitally important, but because it’s on the coast it’s very close to large cities including Sao Paulo. These cities are expanding into the forests,” she said.
“There are indigenous communities all along the coast. We work in co-operation with two other organisations, Christian Aid and CPI. who are an indigenous group based in Brazil.”
The indigenous people of the area, the Guarani, were driven from the land several years ago and the forest was cleared for logging and charcoal, Ms Raisin explained. Once all the trees were cleared mining companies began extracting sand, so what was once tropical forest right up to the coast is now destroyed.
“The community moved back to the land in 2000, and they’ve been gradually working on securing legal land rights,” she added.
“The money we’ve raised in Wales has been going to help these communities raise awareness of their legal rights, where they can go to get help to secure legal support.”
Ms Raisin explained that there are many areas of rainforest around the world that are protected on paper but where there is no enforcement of legal rights.
She added: “In a way that’s the beauty of being able to work with indigenous groups. Certainly in the Amazon, [on] land that has now secure land titles to indigenous groups, deforestation has dropped there to 1%, while the average rate of deforestation in the Amazon is 20%.
“Working with local groups that understand the land, know how to harvest things sustainably, is a really very simple long term fix.”
But, she explained, securing land rights is a time consuming and laborious process.
“The land has to be identified by the indigenous groups, that detail then gets submitted to the government and is officially recognised, and then a few years down the line it becomes demarcated and at that point it is fenced or clearly marked. At that point it’s definitely protected.
“But the other benefit is that once land has been identified and recognised, even before it’s been demarcated, the groups living on that land are able to apply for funding for schools and healthcare, whereas when the land is unrecognised they can get no financial support for their rights.”
Inevitably there are sometimes problems.
“The main issues come when there are mining companies or other resource extraction interests vying for the land,” Ms Raisin said.
“[At] one of the communities I visited, when they returned to their land some local corporations had hired mercenaries and people were beaten, they had their houses burnt down. They were very aggressively trying to drive them off their land.
“I was astounded at how calm and dignified they were about the whole process. There was this wonderful acceptance that it’s not going to happen quickly and they were probably not going to see forest back there but their children and grandchildren would.
“It’s very much a case of taking the time to do it properly rather than getting aggressive or violent, I think it’s commendable.”
Ms Raisin explained that the Size of Wales money is used to provide partners overseas with the funds and resources they need to be able to visit indigenous communities and tell them what help is available.
“In Brazil for example it’s about enabling groups there that focus on helping indigenous communities, because just the travel and time required for visiting these groups is huge,” she said.
“Some of the money will go for very specific things, for example the project in Guyana they need resources such as field clothes and printer paper.”
Perhaps inevitably one can’t help wondering, given the size of the world’s rainforests and the scale of deforestation that is going on, how much difference two million hectares make in global terms.
Ms Raisin has an answer. “If you put it in real time it doesn’t feel as significant as you’d like it to. At the moment an area the size of Wales is destroyed every two to three months,” she said.
“But every step counts and the great thing about the projects we’re working with is that they’re really long term, particularly the legal land rights and reforestation projects.”
She added: “A lot of the work that we’re doing is building capacity on the ground so the projects will be self-sustaining in the future and won’t need as much support from us. It is a huge problem but we’ve got to do what we can.”
Perhaps one of the most encouraging things about Size of Wales is the impact it has had in other parts of the developed world.
“We’re a real flagship, we’ve had interest from a group in Denmark who’ve said, this is such a brilliant idea, and they’re looking to do a Size of Denmark campaign,” Ms Raisin said.
“There’s a group in Herefordshire who’s trying to set up a Size of Herefordshire. Because we are a small nation, the fact that we’ve done such a fantastic job could really kick a few other places into action as well.”
Now that Size of Wales has passed its initial target of £2m, what is the next stage?
“We’ve again managed to secure a match fund for the next three years from the Waterloo Foundation, so every £1 that’s raised in Wales we’re able to double,” said Ms Raisin.
The charity’s core costs are covered by its core funding from the Welsh Government and Waterloo Foundation, so all donations people make go directly to the projects.
It has a very small administrative team, just two full-time staff and one part-time education officer. It is in the process of applying for more funding because the education officer is fully booked for the next few months, so the charity wants to make him full time so he can get to more schools.
Size of Wales is also trying to engage with more businesses. It has a successful partnership with Specsavers which supports the Brazil project. Staff at Specsavers in Cardiff and Penarth raised more than £1,000 dancing zumba on Cardiff High Street among other things.
“When some of the team from Brazil came to the UK to meet their partners we organized for them to meet the staff at Christian Aid,” Ms Raisin said.
“It provides great staff engagement. We’d like to see businesses have a personal link directly with projects on the ground.”
In the last year Size of Wales’ educational outreach programme has reached 30,000 school children, but Ms Raisin wants to expand the programme further, linking up with schools overseas and encouraging a pen-pal exchange.
“Some of the projects are very isolated, some are very well resourced. In Uganda they may even be able to get Skype link ups,” she said.
“To get kids in Wales talking to kids of the same age in Uganda and discussing the similarities in life – because everybody loves football or has a bad day with their maths teacher – to talk about the similarities and differences in life would really help.”
Ms Raisin, who lives in Roath, Cardiff, studied at university in Cardiff before doing her masters and a PhD in conservation at the Durrell Institute in Canterbury.
She worked in Mauritius for a few years, “climbing trees and catching parrots”, and continued working in the academic side of conservation on her return.
“But I was finding that I was getting more and more disconnected from the work on the ground, and decided that I wanted to get back into more beneficial conservation and environmental work,” she said.
She joined Size of Wales in June 2012 as partnership manager, responsible for business partnerships and fundraising events, becoming director last April.
She described how Size of Wales, besides its more critical benefits, is spreading awareness of Wales among indigenous communities around the world.