In an era of seemingly unlimited threats to the environment, ocean health is one of the most urgent and severe challenges facing activists today. The oceans are under fire from almost uncountable ills, including rampant overfishing, ocean acidification, plastics pollution, oil spills, and ocean dumping, to name a few. But although the challenges are humbling, there are some activists who have faced them head-on, and with astounding success.
Jean Wiener and Howard Wood may live 4,000 miles apart, but their lives have taken many similar turns. Both grew up surrounded by water, and have a deep love of the ocean, expressed through years of snorkeling in Haiti’s tropical waters in Wiener’s case, and through chilly dives off the Scottish coast in Wood’s. Over time, both witnessed dire changes in their local coastal zones, and both responded by working tirelessly for marine protection. Through decades of persistence, both men built community support for improved marine management and helped shape stronger national ocean policies. And on Monday, both were among this year’s recipients of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.
Growing up in Haiti, Wiener’s family spent every weekend at the beach, and he remembers being drawn to the water from the time he could walk. After attending college in the United States — where he fittingly chose to major in marine biology — Wiener returned to a changed Haiti, finding that the Caribbean waters had deteriorated while he was gone. In particular, mangrove forests were being decimated for use as fuel and coastal zones were being severely overfished.
Eighty percent of the population in Haiti lives in poverty. Local communities that use – and often deplete – natural resources are merely trying to get by. Recognizing this crucial link, and realizing that there were no other organizations addressing natural resource protection issues in Haiti, in 1992 Wiener established the Foundation for the Protection of Marine Biodiversity (FoProBiM), which combines coastal protection campaigns with economic empowerment.
Through FoProBiM, Wiener has worked with local communities to develop educational programs as well as conservation projects that provide a source of income for local residents. As Wiener put it, if you ask people to stop fishing or to stop cutting down the mangroves, “you are basically asking the person to stop making a living, but you need to provide an alternative.”
So Wiener has worked tirelessly to “revalue” the resources for communities. One example of this revaluation is the use of mangrove trees for beekeeping businesses. “Not only will [people] hopefully defend the mangroves against people who want to cut them down because they are making honey out of it, but in doing that they will also let the mangroves do their job to protect the coast, to protect them from storm surges and waves, to sequester carbon, and everything that mangroves do,” Wiener, 50, explained in a recent interview.
FoProBiM has also initiated mangrove reforestation efforts, coral reef restoration programs, and fruit tree nursery projects. By the end of this year, Wiener hopes to begin seaweed production and sustainable shellfish production programs, “things that can help the environment while providing a decent livelihood.”
The work has not been easy. Wiener admits that he has received threats from time to time, but emphasizes that once “the coastal communities understand that we’re not there to stop them from doing anything, we are there really to help them manage their resources better so that they can make a better living, they tend to come around.” He has also contended with an instable central government, including the 2004 coup d’état in Haiti. Without government support, FoProBiM faces ongoing difficulty in enforcing existing marine management laws (let alone updating them).
Across the Atlantic, Howard Wood noticed similar marine overuse in the waters surrounding the Isle of Arran, the island he calls home and the largest in Scotland’s Firth of Clyde. When Wood was young, the Firth of Clyde was known for its abundance of fish, protected by a 100 year-old ban on destructive fishing practices like dredging and trawling. In 1984, the Scottish government overturned the ban, and Wood noticed “significant declines” in marine populations within four to five years due to large-scale commercial fishing operations. Finding inspiration in New Zealand’s No Take Zone (NTZ) model, Wood decided to take on commercial fishing interests and the Scottish government and to set up a similar zone in the Firth of Clyde that would be completely off limits to fishing.
Although the root cause of overuse in the Firth of Clyde was different than that in Haiti, like Wiener, Wood found that community involvement and support were essential to success. So he and long-term friend Done MacNeish decided to found the Community of Arran Seabed Trust (COAST). “By 1995, we had realized that a couple of guys were probably not going to get very far,” Wood, 60, said. “It wasn’t likely to happen unless we really had the community behind us.”
Believing that what is out of sight is often out of mind, Wood began taking underwater photos to show community members what was “going on under the water, all the amazing life there is, but also some of the destruction that was going on.” He also made a special effort to reach out to local fisherman in designing the NTZ. “We invited them all to a pub,” Wood said. “And we just said, ‘We would like to do a trial closed NTZ. Where would you think would be a good place? Would you support this? Where wouldn’t it affect you too badly?’ And … they all kind of came to one area.”
In 2008, after more than a decade of lobbying the Scottish parliament, that same area — in Lamlash Bay off of Arran’s southeastern coast — became Scotland’s first NTZ. So far, the NTZ has been a success, and sea life, including scallops and lobster, is rebounding.
In 2009, Wood enjoyed a second big victory: In a meeting with COAST, the Scottish government finally conceded that “the seas of Scotland are a public resource” and should be managed for more than just big commercial fishing interests.
Building on their successes in Haiti and Scotland, Wood and Wiener both set their sites on establishing Marine Protected Areas (MPA) around their islands. Once again, both men prevailed. In 2014, the Scottish government established 30 new MPAs, including one proposed by COAST, which buffers Arran’s NTZ and is Scotland’s first community-proposed MPA. And in 2013, after 13 years of work by Wiener that included drafting a legal framework for MPAs in Haiti, the Haitian government established two MPAs protecting roughly 10 percent of the country’s territorial waters.
The work doesn’t stop there for either Wiener or Wood, as on-the-ground management and enforcement continue to pose challenges. Wood notes that scallop dredging is permitted in 70 percent of the Arran MPA, completely undermining its value. Yesterday, COAST launched a new campaign targeting this policy. And Wiener will continue work to development management plans for Haiti’s MPAs.
Recognizing the power of local, community-based activism, every year the Goldman Environmental Prize honors six grassroots environmentalists like Wood and Wiener for their perseverance in environmental advocacy. Now in its twenty-sixth year, the Goldman awardees receive financial support for their work, as well as global recognition of their efforts. For Wood, “winning the Goldman Prize couldn’t have come at a better time,” as it has increased publicity of COAST’s new campaign.
For Wiener, the award will provide much appreciated financial help, and perhaps a break from fundraising. “The Goldman prize here will certainly go a long way towards letting us take a much needed, deep breath … [and] to get our toes back in the water.”
Here’s to hoping that both men have a chance to don their snorkel masks and diving gear and enjoy some well-deserved time in the oceans they have helped rejuvenate.