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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