Sri Lanka has become the first country in the world to protect all of its mangrove forests, and the first to open a mangrove museum. In the office we have been saying ‘pinch yourself you must be dreaming’ as the success in Sri Lanka has been beyond belief. We were confident that it would go well but the progress has been remarkable.
All the mangroves in the country have now been identified and half of them demarcated so far. Meanwhile, the museum itself is finished. It sits on the sea front, with glass walls through which it is possible to watch the mangroves. It has also been adopted by the Sri Lankan Department of Education and looks to be
a popular location for school trips.
To protect the mangroves we are supporting 1,500 communities along the coast with job training and microloans. The idea is to support them in finding alternatives to forest clearance. In turn, the communities are responsible for the protection of 21 acres of mangroves each. So far, over a quarter of a million seedlings have also been planted, 50,000 of those with the help of the Sri Lankan navy.
I first became interested in islands and conservation while I was studying law at Concordia – which I was thoroughly uninterested in. However, through the law school I was offered an internship with an environmental organisation in Hawai‘i, working with native communities. Before that, I had rarely been west of New York.
Though I had grown up on an island (Long Island, the suburb of New York City) there was very little contact with the environment. The only fish I had seen were the dead ones at grocery stores. But snorkelling in Hawai‘i opened up that world. I was amazed that you could just stick your mask under the water and here were fish of thousands of colours that didn’t swim away when you came near.
Seacology is a grass roots environmental organisation, with a specific focus on islands. I was its first employee 20 years ago, quitting a secure job as the head of American NGO superpower, Goldman. Seacology’s founder, Paul Allan Cox, said to me: ‘you will need to be able to work with just $16,000 to begin with’ (for comparison, Goldman is a $400million endowment foundation). After a few months of consideration I replied: ‘under one condition, the office needs to be near enough to my home that I don’t need to tackle the San Francisco commute anymore.’ With two young kids and two mortgages, it was an insane career move. My wife was very supportive.
“Through their root systems, mangroves dissipate the energy from tsunamis and hurricanes and buffer the damage that can be caused by extreme weather”
We started with three projects and now have more than 260 across 57 countries. However, Sri Lanka stood out as a place we could begin a project on a national scale. It had already been hit by a tsunami so it knew about the importance of mangroves.
Outside the cricket pitch, Sri Lanka has had little positive publicity. However, when the mangrove conservation project was launched we saw nothing but good news. The development is giving the country something to be so proud of.
Our biggest challenge is that we had to raise $3.4million. Before this, Seacology’s biggest project was about $80,000 so this was quite a difference. Raising awareness is both the most frustrating and the most wonderful part of the job. Frustrating because very few people understand the importance of mangroves (lots will ask ‘mangroves, isn’t that the juicy fruit?’). It is wonderful because you get to explain how crucial they are as an ecosystem.
Somewhat ironically, another challenge has been the weather. There was some major flooding in the area of one of our nurseries. Our sister agency, Sudeesa, had to change the mangroves there to more water-prone species. There are 23 species in Sri Lanka in total. It’s an ironic challenge because one of the benefits of mangrove forests is that they help in the fight against global warming, which has exacerbated these record-breaking floods.
While the floods set us back two or three months, it also underscored our cause. Through their root systems, mangroves dissipate the energy from tsunamis and hurricanes and buffer the damage that can be caused by extreme weather.
I was once a comedy writer, and wrote freelance for Joan Rivers. It’s an unusual background, however without a sense of humour, conservation can be depressing at times. Equally, people are constantly telling you how amazing you are because of the money you can award, so one has to be on the alert in order to not become too arrogant. At Seacology, we have a motto to take our work very seriously, but not ourselves too seriously.
1980 Completed MA in Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley
1981 Became Executive Director of the Goldman Fund
1989 Established the Goldman Prize, the ‘Nobel Prize for the Environment’
1999 Became Director of Seacology
2010 Was a recipient of the Jefferson Award for Public Services in the San Francisco Bay area
2012 Gave a TED talk in Cape Town, South Africa
2015 Received the Prince Albert II of Monaco Laureate for Outstanding Innovation
2016 Opened the world’s first mangrove museum in Pambala, Sri Lanka
This was published in the January 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.