Seacology Builds Schools to Save the Planet 

Berkeley nonprofit is the most successful environmental organization you've never heard of.

When Duane Silverstein and his colleagues learn that a marine habitat is being decimated or a forest is about to be slashed and burned, they don't respond like a typical environmental organization. They don't pressure the government. They don't lobby for new laws. They don't file lawsuits. And they certainly don't mount public relations campaigns. Instead, they combat environmental destruction by building a school or providing an essential service to the local community. And it works.

It's a pragmatic, Obama-esque approach to environmental activism. And Silverstein, the executive director of the Berkeley-based nonprofit, Seacology, says it invariably results in a "win-win" outcome. To date, Seacology has saved reefs, fisheries, or forests on 100 islands in 45 countries around the globe in exchange for new schools, community centers, fresh waters systems, or some other piece of infrastructure. The trades work because most of the villages the nonprofit targets still employ barter systems. Money has no real value to them, and convincing the local government to pass a law is impractical. "We have village leaders who say, 'Are you serious? You're going to give us something in return?'" Silverstein said in a recent interview.

Started in 1991, Seacology is perhaps the most successful environmental organization you've never heard of. As of last week, the East Bay nonprofit had saved nearly two million acres of threatened island habitat, including more than 1.8 million acres of coral reef and other marine habitat around the world. In exchange, Seacology has built or funded 85 schools, community centers, water delivery systems, and other facilities. It also has funded or furnished thirty scholarship programs, medical services and supplies, and other critical support for island communities. "It's not a one-size-fits-all program," said Seacology board member and Treasurer Doug Herst. "It's about doing what makes sense for each village."

Seacology also has an enviable record for efficiency. More than 80 percent of the nonprofit's budget directly funds its programs, with the rest going to administration and fund-raising. It also doesn't accept government grants because, as Silverstein explained, they come with "too many strings attached" — strings that get in the way of Seacology's basic philosophy of saving the environment by providing something tangible. Before joining Seacology a decade ago, Silverstein was the director for twenty years of the Goldman Fund, one of the largest philanthropic organizations on the West Coast. He also ran the Goldman Environmental Prize, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for ecology.

Seacology is all about getting results. Call it Eco 2.0. The nonprofit employs just six staffers at its Berkeley headquarters, and then depends on fourteen to fifteen independent contractors — field representatives — around the world to locate island habitats that need saving and devise pragmatic, eco-friendly solutions. "They're the ones that largely come up with the project ideas," Silverstein said of the field reps. "It takes a special skill set."

Typically, the field reps are natives of the islands they're trying to help, or they at least speak the local language. Once a field rep identifies a forest or marine habitat that needs saving, he or she must verify that the local village actually owns title to it. Oftentimes, village leaders request impractical things for trade, such as a diesel generator. Seacology turns down those requests, because the villagers don't realize that when the generator runs out of fuel, they'll need to buy more — an impossibility without money. That's why the nonprofit prefers bricks and mortar projects, like schools and community centers. In the Maldives, for example, Seacology was able to protect the nesting grounds of sea turtles and ban the harvesting of their eggs in exchange for a new kindergarten.

So how does Seacology ensure that protected habitats actually remain protected after the nonprofit is gone? Silverstein said the organization relies on the agreements it reaches with each village and the individual promise of chieftains. Typically, such promises come with severe penalties for those who violate the agreements, up to excommunication from the local tribe. "If the village chief says it's a no-take reserve, then it's a no-take reserve," he said.

Seacology's projects also end up being inexpensive because they're the result of barter and employ local workers. In Fiji, for instance, Seacology built a kindergarten for just $11,000 in return for the establishment of a 17-square-mile marine reserve. The nonprofit also ensures that the trades are both good for the environment and economically sustainable. "We would never want to take all of a village's fishing or logging rights away in exchange for a school," Silverstein noted.

Seacology also is often faced with logical challenges because its projects are in remote areas. Silverstein and his colleagues once had to hire a bush pilot to fly them to the southern highlands of Papua New Guinea. Of course, the village had no airport nearby, so their small plane was forced to land on a small grassy strip after a harrowing flight. "There were no telephones, no contact from the outside world," Silverstein recalled. "We were the first group of Westerners to ever visit this village — other than missionaries."


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