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Berkeley’s Seacology Honored For Tsunami Relief Efforts by: Richard Brenneman

Friday November 04, 2005

Seacology, a Berkeley nonprofit dedicated to saving the imperiled ecologies of islands and coral reefs around the world, racked up another honor this week. 

The Achievement in Innovation Award came from the California Association of Nonprofits, which hailed the organization’s unique relief efforts in response to the Dec. 29, 2004, tsunami that devastated communities in Southeast Asia and along the shores of the Indian Ocean. 

The honor was presented at the association’s annual meeting in San Francisco. 

“We set up a very unusual program,” said Seacology Executive Director Dune Silverstein. “One hundred percent of the donations we received went for relief. Seacology didn’t keep one penny.” 

Because major charities and relief efforts were dealing with the immediate needs of survivors, Silverstein said Seacology concentrated on longer-term issues, focusing their efforts on four villages. 

“We asked them, ‘What do you need?,’” he recalled. “For a village in the Andaman Islands, the answer was 20 chickens and one goat for each family.” 

The animals not only met the villagers’ needs for sustenance, but they also provided a source of revenue. 

“Sadly,” Silverstein said, “many organizations don’t listen to the wishes of the people.” 

Another village asked for replacements for fishing gear that had been swept away by the massive quake-generated wave; another asked for boats. 

“We worked with trusted village leaders so we knew we would have significant impacts, rather than spreading our efforts over hundreds of thousands,” Silverstein said. 

Seacology raised $261,716 for tsunami relief efforts, and every donor, regardless of the size of her or his gift, received a detailed account of how the money was spent, along with photographs. 

Seacology’s goal is to save the environments in and around the earth’s islands. 

“Islands contain some of the world’s most endangered ecosystems,” Silverstein said. “You hear a lot about endangered rain forests in the Amazon and in Africa, but well over 50 percent of the total species extinctions—and 90 percent for birds and reptiles—have occurred in the islands. People think of islands as isolated, but with global warming, acid rains and other factor, they are no longer isolated the way they once were.” 

To save the vanishing ecologies of the world’s islands, Seacology’s staff meets with villagers to learn their needs and then agrees to provide them—if the villagers agree to set up a preserve on the island or in the coral reefs near the shoreline. 

In the organization’s 12 years, it has managed to create reserves totaling 1.7 million acres. The group has only five staff members in the Berkeley headquarters and several part-time staffers scattered throughout the world. Seacology accomplishes all this with a modest budget of about $1.2 million a year. 

“In the developing world,” Silverstein explains, “a little money goes a long way.” 

Seacology’s efforts and methods have won high praise. A 2002 article in Pacific Magazine on the organization carried the subheadline, “American NGO Seacology Shuns Environmental Colonialism.” 

Its advisory board includes some of the greatest luminaries in the scientific world, including noted author Jared Diamond, Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson, Thomas Elmqvist, scientific research director of the Swedish Biodiversity Center, and John Ogden, director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography. 

Dr. Paul Cox holds a special place on the advisory panel as the founder of Seacology. 

A specialist in island botany and the ethnobotany of island cultures, Cox has won numerous awards and currently serves as Executive Director of the Institute for Ethnobotany of the congressionally chartered National Tropical Botanical Garden, which is based in Hawaii and Florida. 

He was named a “Hero of Medicine” by Time magazine in 1997 and is a recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize. 

Silverstein was serving as executive director of the San Francisco-based Goldman Environmental Fund, when Cox won the award for his work in saving the rain forest in Samoa, inspiring Cox’s later move to Seacology when it gained an office and full-time staff in Berkeley. 

It takes only a few seconds’ conversation with Silverstein to catch his infectious enthusiasm for Seacology’s work. 

Unlike many environmental groups, Seacology does not offer memberships, which eliminates some financial burden. 

The group’s operating style has won the highest four star rating from Charity Navigator, the leading reference base on nonprofits relied on by contributors who want to see that their dollars are well spent. 

From a modest office at 2009 Hopkins St., a small Seacology staff is making a big effort to save a vanishing but critical part of the world’s ecosytem.