On Monday, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced his Earth Fund’s latest round of grants: $443 million to be spent primarily on land conservation and restoration and efforts to reduce environmental burdens on marginalized communities.
This year, the fund has pledged more than $3 billion for similar initiatives. In 2020, Bezos promised to funnel $10 billion — about 5 percent of his current net worth — toward tackling climate change this decade.
From the beginning, the Bezos Earth Fund has faced criticism, particularly from some grassroots environmental groups. At first, Bezos primarily funded big-name environmental groups with historically white leadership and comparatively large budgets rather than supporting more Indigenous and people of color-led community groups, critics pointed out. Other criticisms focused on how Amazon, the e-commerce giant Bezos founded, continues to pollute neighborhoods and emit increasing levels of greenhouse gases.
Since that early backlash, environmental justice — a movement to stop pollution and environmental degradation from disproportionately harming low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, and other vulnerable groups — has become a bigger part of the Bezos Earth Fund’s messaging. The fund’s latest round of funding sets aside $130 million for 19 different organizations doing “doing critical climate justice work.” It follows another $150 million pledged to climate justice groups in September.
The $130 million for environmental justice in this latest round of funding is intended to support the Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative. Shortly after stepping into office in January, Biden created the initiative through an executive order to make sure that “disadvantaged communities” receive 40 percent of the “overall benefits” of federal investments in clean energy and climate action.
Bezos’ grantees include a wide range of groups that either gather data to inform policymaking, help underserved communities become more resilient to climate change, support tribes and Native communities, or plan to create training programs for the Justice40 initiative. For example, GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit that works to increase access to solar power, will get $12 million for its Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund.
The latest funding announcement also includes $261 million allocated to the international initiative to conserve 30 percent of Earth’s lands and oceans by 2030. That will focus on creating, expanding, and monitoring so-called “protected areas” — mostly in the Congo Basin and Tropical Andes. According to the Bezos Earth Fund, the grants will create 11 million hectares of newly protected areas in the Congo Basin, where 70 percent of Africa’s forests are located. In the Tropical Andes, another important carbon sink for the planet, the grants will convert an estimated 48 million hectares into protected areas.
Forests and other ecosystems are extremely important in the fight against climate change because they trap and store carbon dioxide, keeping it out of the atmosphere. But the establishment of new protected areas, especially when not carefully implemented, can actually harm local communities. There’s a documented history of conservation efforts forcing Indigenous peoples off their lands to create national parks. The World Wildlife Fund, which is among Bezos’ grantees, was recently accused of failing to take responsibility for human rights abuses during a US Congressional hearing. That followed a Buzzfeed News investigation in 2019 that found that WWF-funded park rangers had been accused of murder, torture, and rape.
The Bezos Earth Fund says the newly protected areas will help “secure” local communities’ rights to 24 million hectares of land. It’s also spending an additional $25 million to kick off a new kind of “global mechanism” that could secure “support” for Indigenous peoples and local communities. Forests have tended to fare better under their care, research shows. There’s also an additional $51 million to restore landscapes in the US and Africa.
Closer to home for Bezos, Amazon was implicated in a recent report as playing an “outsized” role in port congestion and associated shipping pollution along the west coast of the US. And despite Amazon’s commitments to address climate change, the company’s carbon footprint grew by nearly 20 percent in 2020.