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Wrong Path to Conservation in Papua New Guinea | The Nation

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Wrong Path to Conservation in Papua New Guinea

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Mark Dowie
Mark Dowie, an investigative historian based in Point Reyes Station, California, is the author of the forthcoming...

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A tribute to the pioneering environmentalist who put science in the service of social justice.


Coming of Age in Papua New Guinea

Arlington, Va.

Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.

Late one morning in September 2002, a luxury mega-yacht named the Reef Encounter cruised slowly into the tiny Milne Bay harbor of Kwaraiwa. There were twenty-one passengers and a crew of nine aboard. Each passenger occupied a private suite with bath. After days of scuba diving in resplendent coral reefs and visiting enchanting tribal villages, the passengers met on board for cocktails, a catered dinner and a PowerPoint presentation about the state of the area's ecosystems.

Milne Bay, a province that's a large archipelago off the southeast coast of Papua New Guinea, they learned, possesses some of the most impressive and bountiful reefs in Melanesia. While biodiversity remains high in the region, the impending collapse of about 8 percent of the area's reefs, and early signs of "habitat degradation," have raised the concern of local citizens and the international conservation establishment, a few key members of which were aboard the Reef Encounter. Their mission was pre-emptive: to stop the archipelago's decline in biodiversity before it becomes irreversible.

Along the shoreline of Kwaraiwa, islanders gathered to greet the passengers, among whom were rumored to be Harrison Ford and Clint Eastwood. But first to come ashore was someone the people didn't recognize--Peter Seligmann, CEO and chairman of the board of Conservation International. CI, based in the Washington, DC, area, is one of the largest international conservation organizations in the world ($117 million in revenue in 2006); Seligmann, its co-founder, had come to explore the ecosystems of Milne Bay and perhaps to restore some lost biodiversity to its shoreline. (A spokeperson for CI declined to confirm details of the voyage for this article.)

Eastwood, as it turned out, was not on board, nor was Ford. Ford might have been, though, as he is a loyal member of the CI board, its celebrity poster boy and a generous donor to the organization. Eastwood would have been along for the ride. World-renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle was there by Seligmann's side, as was Stone Gossard, rhythm guitarist for Pearl Jam. Gossard and his girlfriend were hoping to explore ways, through support of CI's work, to offset the 5,700-ton carbon footprint Pearl Jam was about to create with an upcoming world tour.

The major "targeted" donor aboard--and there is almost always at least one on such voyages--was H. Fisk Johnson, CEO of SC Johnson (a company based in Racine, Wisconsin, whose products include Pledge, Drano, Ziploc, Raid, Glade and Windex). Fisk is number 215 on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans, and he is known to be a generous supporter of conservation. Seligmann is a legendary fundraiser in conservation circles. He has to be. Aside from funding enormous conservation projects around the world, he must meet a payroll for more than 800 people, pay rent in twenty-seven countries, subcontract with hundreds of organizations and maintain boats and other vehicles around the world.

To court high rollers like Johnson, an internal department called CI Sojourns was created. It was that office that leased the Reef Encounter--which goes for $25,000 a day, according to the ship's owners--and made the arrangements for its expedition to Milne Bay. The trip paid off for CI Sojourns. Pearl Jam did not come through, but Johnson is now on the CI board with Ford; Queen Noor of Jordan; Lewis Coleman, president and CFO of DreamWorks; Nick Pritzker, CEO of Hyatt; Wal-Mart chairman Rob Walton; former World Bank president James Wolfensohn; Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel; and Lt. Gen. S.K.I. Khama, who ascended to the presidency of Botswana in April.

There were also four representatives of Moore's foundation, who flew in from San Francisco on a chartered jet and stayed at the plush ($500 per night) Karawari Lodge while they waited for Seligmann and the Reef Encounter to arrive from Cairns, Australia. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation was well into a ten-year, $280 million commitment to CI, the largest grant to a conservation NGO in foundation history. So a substantial portion of CI's future support was aboard the Reef Encounter that day, an impressive array of wealth and generosity. However, the islanders had no interest in CI's large donors: it was the mere mention of Dirty Harry and Indiana Jones that drew them to the beach and gave Seligmann the rapt audience he sought for his clear and simple message.

"Five years ago we dove in these waters and saw tuna and other large fish everywhere," Seligmann told the citizens of Kwaraiwa, according to islanders who remember the visit. "This week we have been diving wherever we could on our way to your island, and the big fish are gone. Our scientists tell us that the biological diversity, health and productivity of your marine systems are eroding rapidly. We want to restore biodiversity to your reefs and fisheries and believe that with sound science, enough money and your help we can do it in ten years." In a part of the world where fish is food and food security is a constant worry, this was a welcome message, particularly when spiced with promises of debt reduction, new schoolhouses, water systems, clinics and community centers.

"Peter told the island councilor to come up with a list of what the community needed, to be given in a week, and he would deliver in three months," wrote David Mitchell, a former CI staffer familiar with the practice of trading modern goods, known in the region as "cargo," for conservation, in an e-mail to CI staffers in 2002. "When I heard this I advised the councilor to put together a small list of mostly urgently required items and not to be greedy. I also told him that Peter was really looking for conservation and that this list should not be tied to it." To tide the village over while they awaited Seligmann's cargo, Sylvia Earle signed one of her magnificent marine atlases and donated it to the school.

For the next two weeks the Reef Encounter continued to cruise between dive spots, dropping anchor at islands with names like Nuakata, Iabam and Pahilele. At some the big-fish message was repeated, ecosystem collapse forewarned and more promises of cargo proffered. When the voyage ended October 1, passengers were driven to Alotau, the capital of Milne Bay province, where they caught chartered flights to Australia and beyond. Five stayed on to dive in Indonesia's lush and remote Raja Ampat islands, a future CI conservation site.

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