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.