The World Conservation Congress (in Hawaii) came hot on the heels of the World Congress of Herpetology (in China). Having just corrected 7 hours of jet lag East, I piled on another 11 hours of jet lag West, leaving me wondering whether the ensuing discussions about protecting our world would fly clean over my nodding head. Plus conservation conferences have the capacity to be very depressing affairs. In previous experiences, I had found locating any good news at these events to be like searching for a unicorn, as delegates take turns in draining the hope out of one other. The take-home message is usually along the lines of “everything is getting worse and nothing is working”, leading to a sense of futility that makes you climb back onto the giant carbon churning plane home with your head hung in a combination of shame and sadness.
However, Hawaii kicked off with the heart-warming news that Barack Obama has just expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, making it the largest expanse of protected ocean in the world, and (at 583,000 square miles or 1,510,000 km2) the world’s largest protected area for that matter. For the Opening Ceremony of the World Conservation Congress, we were all willingly stripped of our possessions by the security team at the Hawaii Conference Centre and bundled on to a fleet of coaches in the great hope of hearing the wonderful news from the man himself. This would have fulfilled a personal ambition of mine on day one in Hawaii – to hear Obama speak, and in his home state no less. I would dine out on this experience for, well, the rest of my life, whether anyone wanted to hear it or not. I’m still telling people about the day I may have caught a glimpse of Obama’s profile as the Presidential motorcade barrelled past me in Washington DC a while back – an anecdote that really begs for an upgrade. Sadly, Presidents can be elusive creatures to behold, and Obama had made the (quite frankly wholly understandable) decision to spend that morning viewing the biodiversity of this marine idyll from the safe location of the Midway Atoll at its edge.
Broken-hearted, I somehow rallied and settled back to watch a fascinating traditional welcome from our Hawaiian hosts, which included much singing, dancing, symbolism, and chanting. By the time the speeches started – including a particularly rousing one by the President of Palau (a country which leads the world in terms of marine conservation, having protected 80% of its territorial waters from extractive activities) – I had all but moved on.
So on to the reason we had assembled in Honolulu for that fine first week in September. The World Conservation Congress takes place every four years, and is a meeting place for thousands of conservationists, policy makers, environmental activists, academics, artists, writers, government representatives, and anyone else who cares about the responsible stewardship of the Earth. This year’s theme was “Planet at the crossroads”. Thousands of delegates frenetically milled around in the vast expanse of the conference centre for a week of general sessions, followed by a week of elections and other decision-making by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Around every corner you could find people from all over the world clustered in circles, sat around tables, or crouched on the floor, talking passionately about their conservation activities. Opening every door was like walking through a portal to another world; lying on the other side could be anything from a serious board meeting of politicians, to a lively gathering of tribal leaders in elaborate national dress. I spent a memorable hour listening to a writer read a piece about how the loss of the world’s biodiversity is an unimaginable tragedy, all the while accompanied by a pianist expertly hammering out Rachmaninov. This effectively ripped my heart out, in the way that issues tackled in an artistic manner tend to do. As the piece concluded, I turned to the 85 year old gentlemen to my right and said I wasn’t quite sure what to do next, but curling up in a dark room and crying seemed like as good an idea as any. He gave me a wry smile, and then we went off together to attend a workshop on finding solutions to improve the impact of amphibian conservation. Since I was a speaker and organiser, any tears would have to come later.
However, the days ahead afforded many reasons for optimism. I divided my time between meetings and sessions devoted to developing the activities and networks of the Amphibian Survival Alliance (ASA), and getting swept up into the wonderful world of conservation activities supported and promoted by Synchronicity Earth. It was this dichotomy that injected fresh life into my thinking regarding the way forward for ASA. Alliance building is clearly an art form, and I have much to learn as we move ahead. However, the passion and perspectives of that variety of conservation stakeholders – all rubbing shoulders, sharing stories, and swapping ideas and approaches from sun up to late into the night – gets you thinking. It helps to challenge assumptions and break moulds that accumulate in your working life, and allows you to imagine future scenarios that are ever more diverse, dynamic and inclusive. You learn more about your colleagues, and meet new people who may help shape the direction of your activities. Many partnerships and initiatives were coming together across the Congress that promised new and positive ways forward for a wide variety of conservation causes. I even had the opportunity to spend part on an afternoon with Dame Jane Goodall, alongside my colleagues from the Amphibian Specialist Group. She showed us her favourite frog-themed comic strip and offered the wise reminder that frogs are, in fact, very funny. Certainly too funny to be lost from the world, which is something I will bear firmly in mind!
I spent the final day with Synchronicity Earth’s Katy, Adam, and Jessica at an event organised by the Gaia Foundation for indigenous groups fighting to save sacred sites all over the world. People from tribes in Siberian Russia, the United States, Mongolia, Papua New Guinea, Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Ecuador (to name but a few) stood together in a circle, holding hands on a beach next to the ocean. We were headed to a Hawaiian sacred site to learn about the local culture and help clear weeds to rehabilitate the area. But beforehand, we would be blessed in this circle, and were asked which of our ancestors were coming with us today. It was incredibly moving to hear about everyone’s ancestors on that sunny morning, as the ancient sound of waves crashing against the shore reminded us how fleeting our lives are, and how beautiful. We are blessed everyday on this Earth, just breathing in and out, and looking around us at the majesty we have inherited from our ancestors. The importance of cherishing it for future generations rings loud and clear through the ages. In my mind, this is why conservation is a celebration of being alive, and ultimately one of the most optimistic causes you can pursue.