Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Chile Revisited

I recently completed a trip to Southern Chile to begin filming Save the Waves next movie project, All Point South. The trip, for me, was bittersweet. I have always loved the country of Chile. Since my first trip in 1992, I have returned every year. My friends would think I was crazy. "Why go to some frigid place when you could go to the Mentawais or Tahiti?" they would ask. I would just smile, knowingly, because I don't mind surfing in a little rubber, and they didn't know what they were missing. The points of Southern Chile are some of the best in the world - and to top it off, there are no crowds.

Especially on that first trip, surfers were sparse on that coast. Things have changed a bit since then. There are sometimes crowds in the water, and sometimes tempers flare, but in general it is the same place I went to some fifteen years ago. In the deep south, still my favorite place to go, oxen pull carts and boats up the sand, and men ride horseback from one town to the next. Crowds only come on the weekend, if at all.

The landscape of Southern Chile is forested, and the people that inhabit the coasts make their living mostly from fishing, farming, or diving. At first the forests seemed beautiful to me, until later I realized that the trees were non-native, and planted in rows. In fact, I recognized the types of trees themselves - Monterey Pine, which grows where I live, and Blue Gum Eucalyptus. Two of the fastest-groing trees in the world. Still, my curiosity stopped there. I figured they were growing them as a crop in order for lumber or firewood, and didn't question it further.

Later on in life, as I became involved with Save the Waves, I started to learn of the environmental devastation caused by these false forests. They were feeding a pulp industry with a voracious appetite, and one that was growing out of control and polluting most of the major water sources around my favorite surf spots. It was then that it all made sense to me, and after some further digging, I discovered that at one time this part of Chile was a lush green forest of hazelnut and allerce trees, with abundant indigenous flora and fauna. Pinochet (Chile's former dictator), in one of his grand economic schemes, gave huge incentives to clear the land and plant tree farms, and (surprise) some of his good friends made out like bandits. The rest of the local population lost their native landscape. Walk around under the canopy of a tree farm, and you will see nothing. There is no life under the trees. Where once there was a huge diversity of plants and animals that fed on them, now there is only bare ground. The first time I visited a reserve in this area - a small plot of land spared from the former clear-cutting - I almost cried. I was astounded at the beauty of it. I left with pockets full of fresh hazelnuts and a lump in my throat.

Now with further resolve, Save the Waves Coalition is going after the industry that destroyed it all. CELCO, a company with potentially one of the worst environmental track records on the planet, has just built a new mill upriver from my favorite surf spot in the world. The pollution will indeed be overwhelming.

Our trip to film All Points South consisted of a great group of surfers and environmentalists. We visited the town of Consitucion, where five great waves lie in the path of pulp mill effluent. Three of us braved the waters to surf a wave right in front of the effluent pipe (if you had seen it, you would have considered it, too). The water was putrid. We also surfed waves further to the south, where the new mill at Nueva Aldea is building their pipeline to the sea.

I have no doubt in my mind that we have a great film in the making. Not only were the waves great, but the scenery and interviews we captured were priceless. We will continue working on this film until we have a top-notch film that will make wave across the world. Until then, help us out by buying a t-shirt, or donating a little cash, as we need all we can just to get there.
- Will Henry

Monday, March 5, 2007

Environmental Extremism

I was brought up in a family with deep ties to business. My father and grandfather, both Stanford men, were very successful businesspeople, which means I grew up in a home that propagated pro-business and open-market beliefs, where any extreme stance against these two pillars of Americana was considered an assault on freedom. I learned at a young age that many of my father's contemporaries considered the environmental movement to constitute such an affront. They considered many of the laws to have passed in recent decades to be devastating to the American economy, and to be the work of environmental extremists. Many a dinnertime was spent talking of different ways to kill a spotted owl, whose addition to the endangered species list prevented many landowners from developing their properties. This, according to many of my family's friends, was a call to arms, an attack on everything they stood for.

These days, I look back on these early experiences and try to learn from them, as they tell me a lot about the people who I frequently find myself up against. Extremism in any form, especially when related to anything political, rarely achieves results. Many blame extreme religious philosophies on many of the problems the world today faces, especially war. Political processes rely on compromise, which is something that many leaders - be they environmentalists or not - sometimes fail to do. One only has to look at the partisan bickering in Congress to know what I'm talking about. They don't get much done.

In many senses, extreme environmentalism has actually hurt the cause of creating increased sustainability on our planet. That is not to discredit many of the leaders who have helped to preserve the valuable natural places we still have left. Quite the contrary, it is a suggestion to many of those who still are working towards furthering the environmental cause to be good negotiators, because it is crucial to our success. All of my experience in the field of marine conservation have taught me that we never will achieve anything if we take an extreme stance. We must understand what motivates our opponent and be willing to find middle ground - otherwise we might lose everything we are fighting to preserve.

In Madeira, our failure to properly negotiate with the government ultimately led to the destruction of some of the world's best surf spots, most notably in Jardim do Mar and Ponta Delgada (pictured at left). We were the only international organization involved with this issue, and unfortunately, we made some mistakes. Ultimately the government labeled us as extremists, and then refused to deal with us at all. We no longer had them as an audience to our concerns, and surf spots were buried by concrete without a thought. It seemed like such a crime against nature to all of us there - but at the same time, I realized that if we had been more willing to find middle ground, or at least to appear as such, we would have stood a much better chance at protecting the waves. Sure, we wouldn't have stopped all the development, but we might have been able to spare the surf from harm. That thought continues to haunt me.

Some environmental organizations take a very extreme stance towards development, and have hurt the overall cause to promote more sustainable growth. We must realize that no governments will allow for economic growth to stop. We must find better, more intelligent ways to let the growth continue. Otherwise we will lose the battle entirely.

These days, when I sit at the dinner table with my family at holiday time, and brush shoulders with some of father's business friends, I must behave myself. No none wants to ruin dinner over political beliefs. According to everyone around me, I am a self-proclaimed environmentalist. Even though most of these people have known me since childhood, I am now in the enemy's camp, a traitor in their midst. Sometimes this leads to provocation, and arguments spoil the meal - but most times we are forced to be cordial and listen to one another's beliefs. I think for some of them, it is the first time they have talked to an environmentalist that knows where they are coming from, politically speaking. I may not agree with everything they say, but I listen to their words and afterwards try to reason with them. I even think sometimes that certain things I say actually get through to them.

I have never believed economic growth and environmental sustainability to be mutually exclusive. Look at Patagonia, Inc., proof positive that a large business can also be a model for good environmental conduct. By promoting these kinds of business practices, to both consumers and business leaders alike, our world stands a better chance at future survival. It might, in fact, be our only hope. But do we achieve this by burning down new developments with acts of arson? Absolutely not. This only hurts our cause, and invalidates what we are saying.

Thankfully, when we look at the battle between industry and the environment, the playing field in recent years has gotten much closer to being level. Developers in today's world, particularly in the US and in Europe, must be aware of most environmental issues, and conduct multiple studies at great expense to themselves. It's the only way for them to get what they want. In other words, due to better environmental policy, they have been forced to compromise. I think that we environmentalists should use the same tact. We might find that, in listening to the other side of the argument, we will actually do a better job protecting what is valuable to us.

Friday, February 9, 2007

The Challenges of an Eco-Warrior

A lot of people ask me the same questions about Save the Waves. So, what exactly do you guys do? How are you different from Surfrider? Where do you get your funding, and how is it spent? And do you really think what you do makes a difference?

These are all valid questions, and in this first posting on my blog I will address them to the best of my ability. First, though, let me tell you a little bit about Save the Waves Coalition and how it all got started.

I founded the organization in 2001 to fight a marina proposal in Madeira, Portugal, that stood to destroy a wave I had surfed many times, and had given me more barrel time than almost any other on the globe. I had been traveling to Madeira for many years, returning each year like falling back into the arms of an old lover. Suddenly my lover was being raped in front of my very eyes. I stood watching the waves at Lugar de Baixo with some of my Madeiran friends as bulldozers raked rocks from the line-up and hastily built up a seawall along the shore. The water was brown and stinky, but being surf addicts we paddled out anyway. The session was tainted. My friends explained that a marina was being built on the very spot. They felt that because Madeira was so unknown to the rest of the world, and there were only 30 or so surfers who lived there, they stood no chance of stopping the project.

There are no words to describe to you the feelings I had that day. I screamed. I cried. This beautiful nature-made place, with it's rounded boulder bottom, perfectly placed by time and wave energy to produce glorious blue-green barrels, was going to suffer the same fate as Killer Dana. This wave had brought me so much joy over the years, and so had the friends I had made on the island. I made a commitment to myself to do whatever I could to stop the project from happening on the point. Not just for me, but for everyome who rode the waves there, or even watched them in awe when they broke.

Well, to make a long story just a litle bit longer: Save the Waves was formed that afternoon, and together we stopped the project. I returned home and suddenly was overwhelmed with phone calls from old friends and acquaintances who had heard about our new organization, and wanted to help. As we put things together to become a 501 (c)(3) and formed a Board of Directors, the emails started flowing in from all over the world. Cries for help. Surf spots were being destroyed everywhere. Governments and developers could give a flying fajita about what they considered barefoot tourists, surf bums, who didn't spend enough money and just wasted their time with frivolity. They saw cash signs on the coast and surfers were like bugs in their ears.

But I digress. These please for help gave me a commitment to continue. I have been blessed in my life with being able to make money at an early age, and hence a 9 to 5 job (and a salary) was not an absolute necessity at the time. So for three years I worked for free, trying to raise money from a mostly stingy surf industry only interested in profits, and a host of foundations that placed surf spots far below world hunger on their list of priorities. Needless to say, raising money has been the hard part, and unfortunately, it takes me away from my job of protecting the world's surf.

So now on to the questions:

What do we do?

Well, we treat every problem that comes our way differently, as there are always different variables and forces behind the wave-destructive projects that we find ourselves fighting. Since we work worldwide, there are also cultural considerations to be careful of. Lastly, we don't want to seem like a bunch of Americans telling other countries what to do. (For the record, we are an international team, but we have to be based somewhere). For each endangered wave there is a new strategy. We gather facts, write letters to the proponents of the projects urging tem to protect the surf and find alternatives, and generally try to be as diplomatic as possible. I have found that being their friend - or at least pretending to be - often achieves the quickest results. We also motivate the world community to gather togther and apply pressure on the project's proponents. You would be surprised at how effective this can be. We live in a global economy, and developers don't like the threat of international scrutiny. We use it like a weapon. If all diplomatic effots fail, then we pull out all the stops and take it to the streets. Read the story about Jardim do Mar on our website (under damaged waves) and you will see what happens when we get angry.

How are we different from Surfrider?

The Surfrider Foundation is a wonderful organization and run by a great group of people. However, they are by design ill-equipped to deal with international problems. In essence, they only operate in countries where active Surfrider chapters exist. When I first heard of what was happening in Madeira, I called Surfrider's national office in the US, and then the one Europe. They told me that they were overwhelmed by their current projects, had no money to help us with, but agreed to help us publicize what was going on. At the time I was a bit upset that they couldn't do more. Alright, I admit it, I was pissed off. But thankfully I held my tongue because now, after six years at the helm of my own non-profit, I completely undertsand their position. All of the ocean non-profits are in the same boat - we are underfunded, and we are fighting multinational corporations and governments who have very deep pockets indeed. We need to stick to our respective missions, do what we are good at and not get distracted by peripheral issues, or we dilute our strength.

Where do we get our funding?

This has been our greatest challenge over the years. Most wealthy philanthropists could care less about surfing, unless they actually do it themslevs. They don't realize the economic benefit it brings to remote regions of the globe (i.e. the Mentawais, or Mexico, to name just a couple), nor the happiness it fosters in the world's population. Advisory Board member Terry Gibson once told me, "I think surfing will save the world." At first I thought he was exaggerating, but as I examined the thought more closely, I saw the validity in it. Is there any greater sport to bring cultures together, and to make the world a more happy, peaceful place? I sometimes struggle with the fact that we seem to be asking for money for a cause that may seem trivial to those who are aware of the world's more dire problems. But at the same time I see our work's positive influence on the world, so I feel justified in seeking monetary support.

Unfortunately, the industry that we are out there protecting - the surf apparel and travel industries, to be specific - are for the most part uninterested in helping us. They are interested in profit and profit alone. When I look at the way some of these guys are making tens of millions per year - and consistently slam the door in our faces every time we knock - I am truly disgusted. There are a few good apples out there - Newman's Own Organics, Patagonia, Clif Bar, XS Energy Drink - but the funny thing is, with the exception Patagonia, none of them even makes a surfing product. How will we achieve our goals if the one industry we support will not support us? I don't like to be negative, but it is hard to put a positive spin on this. The only salvation for the surf companies is SIMA, whcih raises money for ocean non-profits at its Waterman's Ball every year. I commend them for that, but it's not enough. That leaves us with a challenge of growing our membership base, of which all of you are an important part. For those of you that have given, I can't thank you enough.

How do we spend our funding?

You can actually view the 990 form for any non-profit on the web, as they are public documents. These are the forms we are required to file with the IRS and have all of the organization's details, including staff salaries and program spending. You can view ours at www.guidestar.org. We also are planning on posting our 990's on the website soon. In a nutshell, though, about 65% of our money goes directly towards active field work. The rest is our overhead, and the salaries for our staff, who are dedicated people who could probably make a lot more money working for someone else. Personally, my annual salary (for full-time work) is $12,000, and our highest paid staff member is at $22,000. What that means is that we don't use your money to make ourselves rich. We use it to make good things happen, and don't waste a dime.

Do we really think what we do makes a difference?

Absolutley, yes. Otherwise I'd be doing somehing else. We have already been successful in helping to save many waves, and not only that, in improving world opinion about our sport and its benefits. When I see the smile and hear the thank you on a young grom's face, I know that what we are doing is right.

I hope this answers some of the questions some of you may have had over the years about us. We are always trying to present a transparent image to the public, to let you know how deeply committed we are to our work. I hope you can tell your friends about us, and if possible, become a member. It really does help us, more so than you can imagine. If money is a problem, at least register on our website so that you can follow what we do over the coming years. It's free, and you will receive our monthly newsletters and announcements, and nothing else.