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 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.