"I wish I could stand in front of you today and say the conservation organizations around the world know how to do this," Russell Leiman told an Asia Society Texas Center luncheon audience. "The simple reality is, there is nothing more important that we still have to learn."
Leiman, who spoke as part of ASTC's ConocoPhillips Environmental Speaker Series, recounted a series of initiatives TNC has launched in the Komodo National Park in Indonesia. The goal was to develop environmentally friendly industries that could survive in the marketplace and that impacted the lives of residents in a big way.
Poverty has driven locals into fishing practices that imperiled coral reefs, nursery grounds for many of the fish in the southern Pacific, he said. These destructive practices included squirting sodium cyanide at big coral reef fish to stun them so they can be captured for the live reef fish trade.
"Obviously sodium cyanide doesn't do corals or wildlife much good," Leiman said.
He emphasized that residents "weren't doing this because they wanted to" but because poverty left them few alternatives.
Mariculture projects seemed a logical option, he said, but proved harder than expected to pull off, in part because TNC found itself competing with an exploding Asian mariculture industry that "didn't do it in an environmentally friendly way."
"The markets overtook us. Yes, we were successful, yes, there are some people in Komodo today with mariculture nets. But ultimately it didn't solve the big problem on a big scale."
Looking ahead, more promising approaches may be vacuum-packing dry fish and sea weed farming, he said. The latter is both simple and "hugely lucrative," supplying the cosmetic and pharmaceutical trades.
Leiman concluded by stressing that conservation efforts must take into account the needs poor people to improve their material conditions.
"The quality of life of people in those [underdeveloped] countries must improve. People struggle just to survive, using the only resources available to them, which is the natural world around them. Protecting those resources while alleviating the struggle of those people is, I believe, humanity's greatest challenge in this century."
Reported by Fritz Lanham