The idea for helping island communities—rich in natural resources and culture, but poor in terms of cash—preserve their ancestral forests and seas began in 1990, in the South Pacific nation of Samoa. The government had just given the village of Falealupo an ultimatum: Build a better school, or lose your government-funded teachers. Village residents wanted a good education for their children, but they simply didn’t have the money to build a new school.
Their only option, it seemed, was to sell logging rights to 30,000 acres of pristine rainforest around their village.
Dr. Paul Cox, an American ethnobotanist, was doing field research in the forest. When village leaders told him about the terrible choice they faced, he was horrified. Quickly, he came up with a proposal: If he could somehow raise the money to build a new school, would the village agree to conserve the forest in perpetuity?
Village leaders found the proposal intriguing, but were hesitant. Many had heard stories of Westerners cheating indigenous Samoans out of their land with empty promises. Dr. Cox went to great lengths to assure them he had no interest in the land—he just wanted the precious forest preserved. They agreed.
Dr. Cox was taking a big leap of faith as well. He was prepared to donate much of his own money to help Falealupo, but that wasn’t enough. He returned to the United States and reached out to friends and colleagues, including Ken Murdock, with whom he started Seacology. Amazingly, it worked. Falealupo got a new schoolhouse, kept its teachers, and preserved its ancestral forest.
What started as a plan of necessity came to define the Seacology model: Provide a material benefit to a village that pledges to protect its natural resources. This way, local people keep ownership of their own lands and are even more motivated to protect them.
Seacology still follows that model, and cofounders Dr. Cox and Ken Murdock still serve on Seacology’s Seacology’s Board of Directors.