How Seacology are creating real change with the world's island communities
Karen Peterson, Senior Manager of Special Initiatives at Seacology tells us about her personal journey into environmentalism, what drives her passion for conservation, and the inspiring work that she's been involved with over the past twenty-two years.
Can you tell us about the origins and mission of Seacology?
Seacology’s origins date back to 1990, but it became a staffed organization in 1999. From the very beginning, our mission has been to partner with indigenous island communities to help them protect their unique habitats and cultures. There are distinct pressures on island terrestrial and marine ecosystems, and an alarming 80 percent of species extinctions in the past 500 years have occurred on islands. And island communities are on the front lines when it comes to our changing climate.
From the very beginning, our mission has been to partner with indigenous island communities to help them protect their unique habitats and cultures.
We partner with local communities and local conservation organizations to launch projects that protect precious habitats, like seagrass, mangroves, coral reef or rainforest. In exchange, we provide a grant for a tangible benefit that community members have identified as a critical need - for example, a new school or solar power system. To date, we’ve launched 249 projects in 65 countries, protecting 1.4 million acres of habitat.
How did you come to work for Seacology and what drives your passion for the work that you do?
My connection with nature is at the center of my being. I grew up in rural Vermont, and since childhood, nature has stirred me to my core. In my 20s, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and started doing administrative work for a few nonprofits.
I eventually ended up at the Goldman Environmental Prize. In 1997, Seacology cofounder Dr. Paul Cox received the Prize in the Islands and Island Nations category, along with the late Samoan Chief Fuiono Senio. The story of the Samoan rainforest that they helped to save, and the school that was constructed so the community did not have to sell their forest in order to afford to educate their kids, is the story of Seacology’s origin. In the summer of 1999, then-Goldman Prize Executive Director Duane Silverstein and I became Seacology’s first paid staff members. This June will mark my 22nd year with Seacology. Our office is in California, but six years ago I moved to Northern Colorado. My free time is spent in the amazing wilderness that surrounds us; I’m a trail ultrarunner, but also love to snowshoe, ski and just hike.
My connection with nature is at the center of my being.
My professional journey has been a unique one; I have a bachelor’s degree in creative writing, but my passion for conservation, as well as my love and respect for indigenous cultures, have fueled my fire. I have traveled all around the world to learn about the intense challenges and pressures facing indigenous island communities. We’re based in the US and we don’t pretend to understand the complexities of what these communities face.
We rely on a network of field representatives, who live on these islands and are deeply connected to conservation, to identify and monitor our projects. My passion is based on the spectacular diversity of these islands, as well as their common challenges. It is incredibly humbling that this is my life’s work.
Can you tell us a bit about a Seacology conservation project that is particularly close to your heart, and why?
That is a hard question! I am particularly proud of our projects in East Africa, in Tanzania and Kenya. Most recently, we have funded a mangrove conservation project on Lamu Island, near the Somali border, funding a water cistern, mangrove beekeeping equipment, and training and support for the mangrove reserve. This is a classic Seacology project where a relatively modest intervention can pay big dividends in terms of both conservation, and increased quality of life for community members.
Our latest country-wide project, the Dominican Republic National Mangrove Initiative, is something that I’m extremely excited and passionate about. It’s a five-year program, working with the DR local organization Grupo Jaragua, to educate stakeholders and the public about the critical importance of the DR’s mangrove forests, as well as about the threats that they face.
Most recently, we have funded a mangrove conservation project on Lamu Island, near the Somali border, funding a water cistern, mangrove beekeeping equipment, and training and support for the mangrove reserve.
These forests are crucial because they protect communities from hurricane damage and sea level rise, act as nurseries for reef fish, and also trap huge amounts of carbon, fighting global warming. But they’re disappearing quickly.
This program is so unique - it combines social and traditional media, education, grassroots community awareness-raising, coalition-building, and mangrove monitoring and replanting. In addition, we’re funding livelihood projects in communities around mangrove forests to provide more stable income, and shepherd guardianship of the mangroves on the part of local residents. We’ve been in the quiet phase of the project, and despite the COVID-related challenges, progress has been impressive.
What sources of inspiration do you draw on, both to remain positive in the face of negative climate dialogue, and to generate new ideas for Seacology?
I constantly look for connection with like-minded individuals and organizations; I’m particularly heartened and inspired by the climate dialogue that younger activists are generating, such as the content that Louder than the Storm is contributing. Of course, networking has looked so different over the past year, but many exciting virtual events have drawn in so many people who would have been unable to attend in-person events. I’ve enjoyed engaging in this way with activists and thought leaders from all over the world, even though time differences create scheduling challenges! I don’t mind occasionally getting up before dawn in order to get this charge of excitement and new ideas. That said, I do, of course, look forward to traveling again, as there is nothing like visiting island communities, seeing amazing habitats, and listening to and learning from local residents, to further understand the challenges and opportunities they face. That’s where the big spark is.
Meet the Movement: Meet inspiring people from across the globe making a real difference to their community. We can’t build a movement if we don’t know who each other are. Meet them, connect with them, be inspired, become one of them. Movements grow through people, let’s get going.