by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters
published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 3/16/2017
Seacology, a Berkeley-based non-profit, got its start in 1990 when the island of Samoa’s government ordered the remote village of Falealupo to either build a new school house or lose its state-funded teachers. Desperate to continue their children’s educations, the cash-strapped community saw only one way out: Sell the logging rights to the 30,000-acre ancestral rainforest surrounding the village.
It just so happened that Dr. Paul Cox, an American ethnobotanist, was conducting field research in that same rainforest when he learned of the villagers’ dilemma. Shortly afterwards, Cox made a proposal to Falealupo’s leaders: If he could raise the money to build the new school, would the village agree to forever protect its surrounding forest?
Somewhat distrustful of westerners, who had a reputation for cheating indigenous Samoans out of their land, the village leaders needed some convincing. Cox assured them that his interest was solely to preserve the forest, but he realized that he would have to return home to the United States to raise the required funds.
Back in the U.S., Cox established Seacology and with the help of friends and colleagues raised the funds and the deal was made…Falealupo got a new schoolhouse, kept its teachers, and preserved its ancestral forest, while maintaining ownership of the land.
And so was born the Seacology model: Provide a benefit for the community in exchange for the protection of its natural resources. “We help protect island habitats and assist local communities by offering villages a unique deal: Agree to create a forest or marine reserve and we’ll provide funds for something the village needs, like a schoolhouse or health clinic,” according to Seacology’s website.
Twenty-five years later, Seacology has launched 277 projects in 58 island countries around the world, helping to protect nearly 1.5 million acres of some of the most vulnerable ecosystems. Seacology’s record demonstrates a successful global strategy to slow climate change, protect biodiversity, and serve local community needs. Today, Dr. Paul Cox continues as chair of Seacology’s Board of Directors. Since 1999, Duane Silverstein has served as executive director.
I can understand why Seacology focuses solely on the world’s island communities—Islands are extremely vulnerable to sea level rise. And many, such as the Galapagos Islands, are hotbeds of biodiversity, hosting rare species that live nowhere else in the world. A seemingly small environmental disturbance on such an island often produces disproportionately large impacts.
During my world travels over the past two years, I visited some of the island ecosystems that desperately need protection. Case in point are mangrove forests, which grow in coastal areas in countries such as Sri Lanka, India, Madagascar, Indonesia and in the Caribbean—all places subject to hurricanes. Mangrove forests serve as natural barriers par extraordinaire to hurricanes. These forests, which thrive in extreme conditions, form lagoons along the coast that provide effective community buffers to high winds and storm surges.
Mangrove forests also host abundant biodiversity. For example, Cuba’s 91,000-acre Parque Natural Ciénaga de Zapata, commonly known as the Zapata Swamp, is contained by mangrove forests and is one of the most important flyways for migratory birds in the Caribbean.
In 2015, Sri Lanka became the first country in the world to comprehensively protect all of its mangrove forests. Partners in the agreement included Seacology, the Sri Lanka Government and the Sri Lanka-based Sudeesa.
Dr. John McCosker, California Academy of Sciences, sums it up: “Dollar for dollar, pound for pound, Seacology gets more output than any conservation group that I’ve seen. They’re not giving money away, they’re not making grants, they’re making deals.”
Author bio: Betsy Herbert serves on the boards of Sempervirens Fund, the Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council, and the Center for Farmworker Families. You can contact her through her website: www.betsyherbert.com.