Coming of Age in Papua New Guinea

Arlington, Va.

Mark Dowie’s “The Wrong Path to Conservation” [Sept. 29], a distorted account of an ambitious project that encountered difficulties but also accomplished important results, failed to help your readers understand both the challenges and promise of modern conservation work.

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a global conservation priority that faces multiple threats to the ecosystems and natural resources vital to its people and their livelihoods. Conservation International (CI) has worked in PNG since 1991 and has invested more than $16 million in the cause of conservation there.

In 2001 our work with PNG conservationists led us to seek an expansion of our efforts in Milne Bay, an archipelago stretching across hundreds of miles in one of the most remote places on earth. We entered into an agreement with the UN Development Program (UNDP), the Global Environment Facility and the Milne Bay provincial government to develop a network of protected marine areas to be managed by local communities. It was the biggest project of its kind at the time.

The goal was to empower Milne Bay communities to manage their fish stocks and coral reefs, which were under threat. All involved, from international organizations to local communities, embraced the project as sound and desirable. It had nothing to do with a “cargo” mentality of trading money for conservation, as Dowie asserted. Effective and sustainable conservation means linking people’s livelihood and quality of life with saving the biodiversity essential for human survival.

After we suspended the project in 2006, a UN report graded our achievement of objectives and outcomes “satisfactory.” Valuable biodiversity data had been gathered, local communities engaged and draft conservation agreements negotiated.

But the report also cited problems in management that caused the project to run out of money a year early. CI accepts responsibility for its role in the lack of sufficient oversight, and we have made necessary changes in oversight in our work worldwide. Contrary to Dowie, CI accounted for all the money in the project, UNDP approved the financial reports and a final audit by international accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers found nothing wrong. Also contrary to Dowie, CI never left Milne Bay and continues there with three full-time and five part-time staff. All are Papua New Guineans.

The purpose of my 2002 trip to Milne Bay was to match committed and passionate donors with projects. People willing to contribute time and resources to environmental causes are essential to our work and to many other organizations striving to improve global sustainability. Of course, these donors want a firsthand look at what they are supporting. Such exposure should be encouraged, not mocked.

Two of the participants on that trip, Fisk Johnson and Stone Gossard, are leaders in their commitment to environmental causes. Pearl Jam helped pioneer carbon offsets in the music industry, and SC Johnson has more than a century of real and demonstrable environmental actions. No one from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation was on the trip.

CI will continue to work with all partners interested in effective global conservation, including governments, businesses and indigenous and local communities. Conservation must engage people and communities everywhere to fight climate change, species extinction and other unprecedented threats.

PETER SELIGMANN, chairman and CEO
Conservation International



Dowie Replies

Point Reyes Station, Calif.

Peter Seligmann responds as if I were accusing him and Conservation International of wrongdoing and faulty judgment, when I was merely reporting others alleging wrongdoing and faulty judgment on the part of CI in Papua New Guinea. When I heard the accusations I considered them serious and reliable because they were being made by serious, reliable people working for large, credible institutions like the United Nations, the Global Environment Facility and the government of PNG. These were not enemies or adversaries of CI. Enemies there were, to be sure; they had much worse things to say about the organization, but I ignored them.

Three of my sources were independent observers hired by funding agencies to evaluate the project. They were unanimously critical of CI’s role and attributed the project’s failure to CI’s decisions and behavior. It was people in PNG, not I, who used the term “cargo conservation” to describe what CI was doing in Milne Bay. It was they, not I, who expressed disappointment and in some cases a sense of betrayal at the hands of CI’s leaders in PNG and Washington.

I’m glad to hear that CI has accounted for the missing money. If it had cooperated with me in the course of my research and later during fact-checking, instead of stonewalling and, until the very last minute, refusing to answer my questions–submitted at their behest in writing–that and other clarifications would have been reported in the article instead of in Seligmann’s letter.

But that would not have changed the fact that an arrogant First World organization strode into a tiny Third World country with a lot of grand ideas about how to accomplish conservation with gifts and money and failed to accomplish much.

MARK DOWIE



Winehouse ‘Better & More Interesting’

Georgetown, Del.

In her haste to drink oh so deeply from a 128-ounce bottle of Haterade of Amy Winehouse, Daphne Brooks left a glaring omission in her review [“Tainted Love,” Sept. 29]: for all the civil-rights-related, black-power-and-respect sensibility Motown exuded and inspired, one of its brightest stars, Diana Ross, has a far-and-wide reputation as a world-class bitch and bad-behavior diva extraordinaire. What, she gets a pass because no one ever snapped a picture of her smoking crack?

Don’t blame Amy Winehouse just because she’s better and more interesting than 95 percent of the soul singers out there. To me Brooks’s argument is akin to saying the Clipse are disrespecting Grandmaster Flash (and thus hip-hop) because they rap about selling coke instead of its ill effects on the black community. Please.

It’s not Winehouse’s fault that Lauryn Hill isn’t making records; and while we’re on the subject, Hill is hardly the “last great hope” for neo-soul hip-hop, as Brooks claims. Uh, Erykah Badu, anyone? Jill Scott? Jamie Lidell? Solange Knowles? Divine Brown (not that Divine Brown)?

PATRICK VARINE


Santa Monica, Calif.

Daphne Brooks may be correct in identifying Amy Winehouse’s inspirations, but her characterization of Dame Shirley Bassey as an “Afro-Scottish pop legend” is wildly inaccurate. Bassey was born in 1937 at Tiger Bay, Cardiff, Wales. She is Welsh.

MICHAEL DEAR



Boy of Steel Foiled by Error

Takoma Park, Md.

No wonder Superboy failed to prevent Abraham Lincoln’s assassination–if he traveled back in time to April 14, 1864, as D.D. Guttenplan’s review claims [“An Inky, Well-Paneled Place,” Sept. 29]. That means he arrived a year before the end of the Civil War and several months ahead of Lincoln’s re-election. Surely Guttenplan intended to say 1865. Tsk tsk.

FENWICK ANDERSON



Guttenplan Replies

London

The late, great radical journalist (and Nation editor) Andrew Kopkind once proposed a magazine, an unofficial compendium of errors titled Oops! In the years since, I have often thought, “One for the annals of Oops!” I’m thinking it now.

D.D. GUTTENPLAN