Passion Points: Green/Eco
Dr. Philip Kramer, the director of The Nature Conservancy’s Caribbean program, first fell in love with the region from under the sea. Originally from South Carolina and with degrees in biology and marine geology, he has completed more than 2,500 dives all across the Caribbean, exploring the incredible biodiversity found in an area comprised of some 7,000 islands, cays and reefs. “I still don’t really have a favorite island,” he says. “As a geologist, I’ve always approached the region as a whole.”
Approaching the Caribbean as a whole is also central to The Nature Conservancy’s efforts to protecting and conserving its diverse ecosystems for future generations. The perils facing the region are great: overfishing, thoughtless coastal development, and climate change are just three of the top threats Kramer outlined during a recent conversation. Besides building a wide-reaching commitment to sustainable environmental change among the Caribbean’s governments, he and his team are also passionate about educating visitors to the region.
The Caribbean islands are one of the most-visited tourism destinations in the world, especially for Americans, yet few travelers seem aware of just how threatened the region’s incredibly fragile ecosystem is. For example, several frightening studies have indicated that without massive conservation efforts, the corals of the Caribbean Sea could be gone in less than fifty years (the region harbors nearly 8,000 square miles of reefs, a tenth of all the world’s corals). “The true wealth of the Caribbean is in its waters,” says Kramer, who spoke to Indagare about his work, the program’s regional initiative called the Caribbean Challenge, and how travelers can make a difference.
Read more about The Nature Conservancy on their Web site (www.nature.org).
When did The Nature Conservancy (TNC) launch its Caribbean program?
As you may know, The Nature Conservancy is one of the oldest conservation organizations in the U.S. We launched sixty years ago with a focus on serious land protection in the U.S. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the organization began dabbling in international work when we assisted the British Virgin Islands in securing the 30-acre Fallen Jerusalem Island which later became a national park. By the mid-1980s, we had staff on the ground in the Caribbean, who were working with the local governments to create a few national parks that could serve as beacons of hope for the rest of the area. We began in the Dominican Republic, followed by Jamaica and the US Virgin Islands, and then launched the Bahamas initiative in 2000.
When did you join?
For years, the programs were focused on small-site work, mostly freshwater and land conservation. But it soon became clear that to make a real difference in the Caribbean, we would have to expand into marine conservation, which is when I was brought on in 2003. Sea-wise the region is totally interconnected and interdependent. What you do in one area, greatly effects the others.
What were/are the main challenges?
The complex political landscape obviously presents a major challenge. We work with twelve countries and seventeen island territories. You can imagine the delicate balance this represents. On the other hand, we have also found many of the governments open to the idea that to make a splash on the global stage, they have to work together. Alone, none of the islands stand out. Together, they could have a powerful voice in places like the U.N., where decisions about the world get made. We are really working on getting the countries to recognize the benefits of banding together. Overall, the region has so much going for it: there’s little political unrest and a high literacy level throughout.
Can you describe the idea behind the Caribbean Challenge?
We launched this region-wide campaign in May 2008 with the Bahamian government, alongside leaders from Grenada, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Since, we’ve been joined by St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, and the Cayman Islands with others poised to follow. The goal is to protect the health of the Caribbean’s lands and waters. The leaders recognize that it’s not enough to establish new parks or marine protected areas because that’s actually only half the conservation equation. The other half, the one that makes lasting conservation possible, is permanent funding.
What are the focuses of the program?
Creating networks of marine protected areas expanding across 21 million acres of territorial coasts and waters – 20% of the total coastal and nearshore area of the region; establishing legislated protected area trust funds to generate permanent, dedicated and sustainable funding for those protected areas; and developing national-level demonstration projects for climate change adaptation. We hope that if successfully seeded with private funds, the Caribbean Challenge will result in a transformation of national park systems, both marine and terrestrial. It will nearly triple the amount of marine and coastal habitat currently under protection, setting aside millions of acres of coral reefs, mangroves, sea grass beds and other important habitat for sea turtles, whales, sharks and other wildlife.
Is climate change the biggest concern the Caribbean is facing?
It’s one of the big three (the other two are over-fishing and inappropriate coastal development). The Caribbean is already experiencing the effects of climate change in rising sea levels and temperatures. We can also see it in the intensity of hurricanes, which effectively re-equilibrate the coastlines. We are seeing massive flooding, a significant impact associated with increasingly damaging storms. Coral bleaching has also gotten worse. Climate change is a major regional threat, and all countries are sobering up to the fact that the Caribbean seems to be heating up more quickly than other world regions.
Do you ever have days where you feel like it’s all hopeless or are there beacons of hope?
Absolutely, I believe there is great hope for the region. I get encouraged when, after just two years of working in the Dominican Republic, the government there designates 34 new protected areas in one overreaching legislation that really puts them on the cutting edge of land protection. Of course, now the real work starts, which is turning what I call “paper parks” into actual, sustainably managed ones. But look at Yellowstone: turning it into the gem it is today took some forty years. When it was first designated as a national park, there was still cattle ranching and mining going on there. These projects take a long time, so I feel confident about the progress being made in the Caribbean in a relatively short amount of time. And that’s where tourism—thoughtful, sustainable tourism—can play a huge role.
Obviously the national parks need people using them. Travelers can choose to visit and support protected areas; if you go, always support voluntary user-fees, which go directly to supporting the parks. The Nature Conservancy’s Caribbean program is offering opportunities to join field trips and observe work being done in the field, such as diving to our coral nursery projects in the USVIs, in which we are growing and restoring corals in large underwater nurseries, like greenhouses under the sea. At Del Este, in the Dominican Republic, we’ve developed a host of activities, like whale watching and sea turtle monitoring to help support the management of these parks. Seeing the work in the field is key to changing attitudes, educating the public and getting everyone to think about long-term change.
If you are planning a trip to the Caribbean, contact Indagare to find out if The Nature Conservancy has a program you can visit in the area: 212-988-2611 or email Indagare
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