In September 2010, CI's Vice President of Marine Conservation Sebastian Troeng was recognized as one of the "Devex 40 under 40" International Development Leaders in Washington D.C., a prestigious honor for the lifelong marine biologist and conservationist. Devex, which describes itself as "the world's largest community of aid and development professionals," published this first-of-its-kind list of the top 40 international development leaders in Washington D.C. who are 40 years of age or younger. Included among other honorees from the World Bank, Women for Women International, and USAID, Sebastian is the only environmental conservationist recognized in the 2010 list. This impressive acknowledgement is significant on its own merit, and also in perfect alignment with CI's new vision and mission, which focuses on empowering societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature and our global biodiversity for the well-being of humanity.
Courtesy of Sebastian Troeng
Below, Sebastian talks with CI's media team about his inspiration, his career highlights and his vision for the future.
Tell us, Sebastian, how does it feel to be honored by "the world's largest community of aid and development professionals" as one of their top 40 young leaders?
It is very humbling both because the other honorees on the list are extremely impressive in their own right, but also because throughout my career I have met many people who are dedicating their lives to conservation and international development. And I feel that my being named on this list is simply a result of my having been able to learn from the many insights, successes, and failures that those people have lived through and shared with me.
Let's go back to your very young years. When and why did you decide to pursue a career in marine conservation?
It's just about the only thing I've ever wanted to do, growing up in a coastal town in Sweden where some of my neighbors were fishers, and the ocean – and its amazing range of biodiversity – were part of my everyday life. I remember the excitement of getting up early in the morning to help my neighbor haul in his fishing nets, and the thrill at seeing a shape like a pike or a flounder take form. It was like winning the lottery to see those fish appear! But I also read about declines in populations of fish and whales, and I was upset with how we were exploiting the ocean, and using and abusing its life so inefficiently. That seemed foolish to me, because if we have all this wealth, and all of these free natural ecosystem services, it just seemed stupid to squander them. So between those feelings, and the fact that my parents had been doctors in refugee camps who raised me with acute awareness of my own good fortune and my responsibility to give back, I guess I felt compelled to try to make things right.
One of your earliest jobs was as a substitute school teacher. In some ways though, you're still teaching. What ideas and information do you most want people to learn now?
I want to inspire people about the exciting aspects of international development and conservation, and how the two goals perfectly complement each other since people need nature, and a healthy ocean, to not only thrive, but to survive. Marine conservation is critical to international development for many reasons. For example, it's estimated that almost two-thirds of global ecosystem services come from the ocean at an estimated annual value of $21 trillion…most of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean…and large populations of people – more than a billion – get their primary animal protein from the ocean. So it's absolutely critical to manage the ocean's resources in a sustainable way for international development efforts to succeed.
I also want to share our exciting success and heart-wrenching failures, so that people are more aware and have opportunity to replicate and scale up successes and start preventing failures. One of the reasons oceans have been and continue to be so badly treated is that people don't easily see what's going on underneath the surface. The kind of things we have allowed to take place in the oceans would be unfathomable on land. Of course we didn't know the extent of the damage 50 or 60 years ago. People were taught that the ocean was an inexhaustible resource that we could take from, use, and dump into. But now we know the extent of the damage, and the ocean's very real limits. Now we know that there are upsides to taking care of the ocean. And now we know that we can reap tremendous benefits from the ocean that we are still only beginning to fully understand. There is no longer an excuse for abusing it.
What are you most passionate about in your work?
It's simple. Seeing concrete results on the ground – such as seeing the ocean rebound and people learn that they can prosper at the same time. But also, seeing the mind-blowing diversity and colors of tropical reefs, which are kind of like an explosion of colors and shapes swirling around you that just doesn't exist above water. I also love hanging out with giant sea creatures like leatherback turtles and hammerhead sharks, or looking into the eye of a manta ray, and seeing what looks like curiosity as it tries to figure out what I am. It's almost reciprocal, and really, really cool.
What has been your most rewarding success working in international development and why was it meaningful to you?
For years, I worked in Central America, specifically Costa Rica, studying the migration of sea turtles from the Caribbean to waters off the U.S. and Canada, a perfect example of how the ocean is connected across vast distances. Engaging closely with the local coastal community who lived there, which had traditionally hunted turtles for meat and taken eggs for food, we helped them see how a healthy sea turtle population could prove to be an attraction that would drive increased tourism to the region and improve livelihoods. Since that time, we've documented how the people in that same community have experienced improved access to government services, such as health and education, as direct result of economic development related to sea turtle conservation. And we've observed measurable increases in development indicators such as the community's Unsatisfied Basic Needs Index being much lower than in neighboring communities. In other words, empowering the local people to act as stewards of their local sea turtle population has in part, led to that same community's economic development. That is personally very satisfying for me.
That said, it isn't always easy, convincing people to see the importance of healthy marine ecosystems and species. Can you tell us about one some of the setbacks and challenges you have faced as a marine conservationist?
You're right, it isn't always quick or easy, but building partnerships and earning support from local stakeholders is hugely important to our long-term management of the planet's limited natural resources. Sometimes, we experience backlash from fishers or others who are concerned that protecting marine areas will negatively impact their ability to earn income, or feed their families. This has occasionally happened as we've introduced sustainable management approaches that we call "seascapes" to holistically manage the competing uses of the ocean at the local and regional level. The resistance we've seen from fishers and others has been personally disappointing to me because it resulted in a loss of momentum, it set us back, it prevented our success in the short term, when our best intention was to improve conditions for those fishers as well as for the ocean and other people. But what I learned from these setbacks is that before pushing for what might be perceived as innovative policy reform, you need to anchor the reform with key constituencies that have the power to derail or embrace it.
What is your personal philosophy toward your work, what do you think makes good development leader?
I focus on making sure that what's important to the global development agenda is relevant to local people, and bridging the gap between major institutions and governments and the average Joe. Conservation is about figuring out how to align individual incentives with societal benefits as a whole. And I think a successful leader has to be able to see global and regional trends, but also to relate to local people, understand how decisions are made and what incentives are at work, and appreciate and understand the very different realities that people on this planet live with in order to be able to design and implement workable solutions.
Describe your best case scenario for conservation and development in the future. What's your vision?
I envision an ocean teeming with life that is appreciated by people everywhere. I imagine people treating the oceans like true stewards – able to think not only about where to find their food for today, but what the best options are for ensuring that they continue to get food from the ocean tomorrow. More personally, I picture my now two-year-old daughter growing up and being amazed by an even more abundant marine life than we have today – being able to dive with hammerhead sharks, hawksbill sea turtles and giant schools of snappers and knowing what a tuna looks like in real life and not only in a can.