An islander who sees ‘little miracles’ every time she dives joins Seacology
For new Seacology board member Sonia Toledo, Seacology’s focus on islands is personal. Toledo grew up in Puerto Rico before moving to the mainland US for college. She now lives in New York but maintains a close connection to her home island. She also brings valuable expertise in infrastructure financing and sustainable development to Seacology’s leadership.
How did growing up in Puerto Rico shape your views on conservation?
Coming to the mainland helped me appreciate the contrasts between life here and in Puerto Rico. The Latin-American culture is very matriarchal, it’s colorful, it’s multigenerational, it’s closely knit. Everything revolves around food… although I guess that is a common element across many cultures.
My fondest memories of Puerto Rico come from our summers. My parents would rent a small house on a beach near where my mother grew up, and my sisters and I, and about 20 cousins, would spend the entire summer playing, swimming, hiking on the shore, and making friends. It was beautiful. In retrospect, at the time we didn’t really have an appreciation for the fragility of the environment, or an understanding that we would be the next caretakers of our beaches and oceans. I became more exposed to environmental issues after leaving, and it started changing my thinking about what I as one person could do.
How did you become acquainted with Seacology?
Duane [Silverstein, executive director, who was also born and raised on an island] gave a terrific presentation about Seacology here in New York, and I subsequently joined a group of Seacology supporters on a liveaboard trip to Palau. I got to meet some of the board members and field representatives. I got a really good sense of how the organization is run, how impactful it is, and of the commitment of these people Seacology has working on the ground. The trip was magical. And it became something I wanted to be part of.
What did you think when you visited your first Seacology project?
The visit to our project site at Ngerkeklau was very moving. The project is so intelligently and passionately designed by the local partners. It was developed around the touchpoints that are critical if we’re going to change behavior, in particular a hands-on program focused on the environmental education of local children. With such limited resources, to be able to develop this effective curriculum, was really impressive.
You’re a diver. Has that affected how you see the environment?
Diving certainly has enhanced my perspective. Every time I go underwater, I see something new. I see a little miracle that no matter how small, plays a vital role in preserving harmony and balance in the entire ecosystem. No matter where I dive, I am reminded that that tiny being—that fish, or that coral, or that mollusk—is critical to everything around me.
Are there any new projects that you’re particularly excited about?
That’s difficult because they’re all fantastic and I want to go see all of them! [laughs] I would have to say Palau is one, because I was able to interact with the people there and I fell in love with the country. They’re doing a lot of things right there.
Also the upcoming national Dominican Republic project is very exciting because of the scope of the commitment. Like a lot of Caribbean islands, development can run unchecked, and I feel like this project can change the conversation and greatly benefit the local people.
And then there is a project in Wales, which is completely different! The developed nations can learn a lot from the kind of grassroots efforts Seacology is funding.
The pandemic and economic crisis are hitting some island communities hard. How can organizations like Seacology help?
The biggest industry for all of these islands that is going to be affected is tourism. When tourism dollars leave, what happens to the islanders’ standard of living, and what can take the place of that income? Those are the overriding questions. The bad news is that these islands are losing important revenue. The good news is that there’s an opportunity to develop self-sustaining systems that do not rely on an industry that historically hasn’t been smart about development. What Seacology is doing with its investments in local economies and teaching people about sustainability is really important. Hopefully the pause in outsiders coming in will create the space for island communities to think about how they can live–and make a good living– out of protecting their environments.
We all have to rise to the occasion, to realize that our lives may not go back to the way they used to be, but that we have an opportunity to make them better.
What do you most look forward to when we get a handle on the pandemic and things get back closer to normal?
After I just got finished ragging on tourism, traveling. [laughs] It feeds the soul, and it is the part of life that I miss the most. And unfortunately I don’t expect to be able to get back to it soon. But when it is possible to travel internationally again, I hope we learn to tread softly on the earth and learn to contribute something to the places we visit. Let’s carry this mission with us wherever we go.