It’s the environmental catastrophe no one seems to know about – the degradation of the world’s islands – and a Berkeley group is addressing it head-on.
"You read about places like the Amazon," said Duane Silverstein, executive director of Seacology, a Berkeley-based environmental group. "But you never read about islands."
In the past 400 years, according to Silverstein, over 50 percent of all animal extinctions and 90 percent of all bird extinctions worldwide have taken place on islands.
International travel, global fishing fleets and transnational corporations have brought snakes, rats and other foreign elements to the islands of the world, he said, spelling doom for species that went for centuries without natural predators.
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"Islands aren’t islands anymore," Silverstein said. "The isolation that once protected their ecosystems has evaporated."
Silverstein said the world has focused little philanthropic activity on islands since they are "small and distant." But Seacology, founded nine years ago in Hawaii by ethnobotanist Paul Cox, takes a creative approach to protecting island habitats. The organization pays for a local project – a school or access road – in exchange for a promise to protect the environment.
"We are attuned to the realities that these island people face," said Paul Felton, a Seacology board member who manages a medical venture fund in San Francisco. "They’ve got to make a living too."
Felton said the local development helps to ensure the success of the environmental project – protecting a section of rainforest or coral reef.
"If you get people to buy in, you can leave with some level of confidence that it will be maintained," he said.
Cox started the organization on the spot nine years ago when he was studying 30,000 acres of rainforest outside the village of Falealupo, Samoa, Silverstein said.
The Samoan government threatened to withdraw a group of school teachers if the village did not build an adequate school, and the chief moved to chop down the forest in order to pay for the project.
Cox offered to raise the money to build the school in exchange for a signed covenant, vowing to protect the forest. The village built its school with Seacology money and several years later erected an elevated canopy walkway in the rainforest as part of an "eco-tourism" project to generate income for the village.
In the last year, Seacology offered villagers in Waisomo, Fiji, money to build a community center in exchange for a 10-year pledge to enforce a no fishing zone in the local coral reef. And, on Sept. 11, Silverstein agreed to provide funding to villagers in Mangaia, Cook Islands to build a walkway around a lake in exchange for a pledge to refrain from development on the lake’s edge.
After the founding project in Samoa, Cox operated Seacology as a volunteer organization. But two and a half years ago Silverstein became the group’s first staff member after leaving a high profile post as executive director of the San Francisco-based Goldman Foundation.
Silverstein’s one condition for taking over – the office had to be within walking distance of his Berkeley home.
Silverstein’s solid reputation as executive director of the Goldman Foundation, which issues the annual Goldman Environmental Prize – the "Nobel Prize for the environment," has attracted growing support to the small organization.
"He’s just got such a long background," said James Sandler, one of 18 Seacology board members. "He’s seen a lot of what’s effective and what’s not."
Board members, who contribute a minimum of $10,000 per year to Seacology, account for a significant chunk of the group’s $1 million annual budget.
Foundation grants, individual gifts and a $180,000 annual payment from the NuSkin Corporation – a commission for skincare products developed by Cox – round out the organization’s budget.
As the organization builds and serves a growing number of island communities, Sandler said, he envisions a "critical mass" of villagers and activists who will push for the sort of environmentally-friendly economic projects Seacology promotes on a global scale.
"That is the dream," he said.