Seacology’s 2016 annual report, looking back at perhaps the most exciting year in our history, is out now.

In this year’s letter to supporters (an abridged version appears in the annual report) co-founder and Chair of Seacology’s Board of Directors Paul Cox reflects on the spectacular growth of the organization he co-founded more than a quarter-century ago.

Dear friends,

Seacology had its greatest year in 2016 since its founding in the early 1990s. This extraordinary year of success was due, in large part, to friends of Seacology like you.

Seacology was founded nearly three decades ago based on an event that occurred in the Samoan rainforest. In 1988, I was living with my young family in a remote village in the Samoan islands. As an ethnobotanist, I was studying how the villagers used rainforest plants in their traditional healing practices. My goal of discovering new treatments for breast cancer did not reach fruition, but together with two local healers, Epenesa Mauigoa and Pela Lilo, and my colleagues at the National Cancer Institute, we found a new drug candidate for HIV/AIDS. Then the unthinkable happened: A multinational logging firm showed up and began clear-cutting the very forest that contained the plant that showed anti-HIV/AIDS activity. When we discovered that the village accepted the logging company’s offer because it needed money to build a school, we countered with an alternative. If my wife Barbara and I could raise the funds for the school, could the rainforest be saved?

Using our own resources together with generous gifts from family members, students, friends, and significant gifts from Verne and Marion Read, and Rex Maughan, Ken Murdock, we were able to halt the logging and build the school. That same pattern has continued ever since, with Seacology striking deals with island villages in 58 different countries for 276 schools, hospitals, water supplies, solar electric schemes, and other needed community projects in return for village covenants to protect precious terrestrial and marine habitats. Ably led by Seacology Executive Director Duane Silverstein since 1999, and supported by a remarkable Board of Directors, a cohort of Seacology Fellows, and a small but highly gifted staff, Seacology has gone from success to success. It is now internationally recognized as the world’s premier island-conservation organization.

Seacology has become adept at negotiating conservation agreements with island villages throughout the world. One of these, in Kiralakele, Sri Lanka, resulted in construction of a mangrove conservation area supported by a visitor center and research library. Completed with funds from Nu Skin’s Force for Good Foundation, this center also included an area in which local coastal women could sell handicrafts to visitors. This successful project gained national attention, and brought us into a close working relationship with the Small Fishers Federation of Sri Lanka (Sudeesa) skillfully led by Anuradha Wickramasinghe, who was awarded the Seacology Prize in 2001.

Fast forward 15 years. Last July, the Seacology Board of Directors met Sri Lankan President Sirisena and members of the Sri Lankan Parliament to dedicate the world’s first mangrove museum and to launch an extraordinary partnership. The nation of Sri Lanka has agreed to protect all of Sri Lanka’s mangroves, in return for Seacology providing microloans and training to 15,000 impoverished women. This ambitious project, at a cost of $4 million, essentially required us to bet Seacology’s reputation and future on a single endeavor. Could we trust our partners in Sri Lanka in such an ambitious step forward?

The answer has been a resounding yes. In an unanticipated move, Sri Lanka tasked its navy with planting and protecting mangroves. In July, I met with the head of the Sri Lankan Navy, who was proud to show me on his cell phone photos of mangrove seedlings that he had personally planted. On our side, Director Scott Halsted led a careful due diligence effort by our Board which anticipated every possible way in which the project could go wrong. The Seacology Board of Directors, led by Development Chair Doug Herst, responded to a challenge grant by Director Peter Read. Every Board member and most of our Fellows and supporters reached deep in their pocketbooks to make generous gifts to the project. And a significant anonymous gift helped push us over the threshold so we could fund the $4 million project.

I used to tell people that one of the best days of my life, second only to the day I married Barbara, was the day we signed the Falealupo covenant with villagers in Samoa in 1989. The formal inauguration of the Sri Lanka mangrove project last July comes very close to these landmark events. What astonishes me even further is that during the pursuit of this Sri Lanka mangrove project, Seacology has continued to develop smaller conservation projects throughout the world.

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is often cited as originating the phrase “leap of faith.” A closer analysis of his Danish text shows that he described a “leap to faith.” While Kierkegaard used the phrase in a theological sense, I certainly think that Seacology from inception has exemplified a leap to faith. Barbara and I were scared to pledge our home and finances to build the Falealupo school in 1989. Fortunately, many other good people hastened to help us, and we did not lose our house. In 1999, it was a leap to faith when we professionalized Seacology by hiring Duane Silverstein. How could we possibly recruit and retain such a gifted professional who had run the entire Goldman Environmental Fund? And, last year, it was a leap to faith when we decided to pledge $4 million to the most ambitious project in Seacology’s history.

Someone said that there is not much growth when we remain in our comfort zone, and not much comfort when we enter the growth zone. Seacology, which remains by design one of the smallest international conservation charities in terms of staff, has now significantly impacted not only Sri Lanka but the entire world due to this project, which has major positive implications for climate change and global warming. I invite you to join us in Seacology’s leap to faith as we continue to pursue an ambitious agenda to protect the world’s island habitats and cultures.

Paul Alan Cox, Ph.D.
Board Chair and co-founder, Seacology

1623 Solano Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94707 USA

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