New York, NY –
"Nature doesn't need people. People need nature." These were the concluding remarks of Conservation International (CI) Vice Chairman Harrison Ford Wednesday night, during an engaging and powerful conversation with Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York City before an audience of nearly 450 guests at the organization's 16th annual fundraising gala dinner. Held at New York's Plaza Hotel, the evening raised more than $1.6 million to support CI's mission to ensure the sustainability of natural resources for the well-being of people. Conservation International also paid tribute to former board member Julio Mario Santo Domingo with a posthumous award as Global Conservation Hero.
CI co-founder, CEO and Chairman Peter Seligmann opened the evening with a speech about the organization’s vital mission. “Let's be really clear. We have got an urgent challenge ahead of us dealing with ecosystem health. We felt it with Hurricane Sandy, but every other country on earth feels it. And we cannot respond passively. We have to unleash our ingenuity, our innovativeness, our power. We have to have courageous partnerships and we have to communicate about why this is important.”
Following Seligmann, Secretary Clinton and Ford took the stage for a conversation about conservation, where Clinton spoke passionately about a range of urgent environmental challenges and tandem security threats in vulnerable regions ranging from sub Saharan Africa, to the Greater Mekong region of Southeast Asia, to the low-lying atoll nations of the Central and South Pacific, due to converging environmental stresses such as resource scarcities, illegal wildlife trade and global climate change.
There is a “direct connection” between nature's well being and the economic and national security of nations, Ford said, launching into a conversation with the Secretary about potential conflicts posed by Arctic ice melt and competition for oil and mineral resources, transboundary impacts on food and water security posed by mega dams along the Mekong River, and the organized, militarized and large-scale slaughter of wildlife in Africa fueling a growing illegal wildlife trade.
Telling the story of a dinner he had with Secretary Clinton and Peter Seligmann several years earlier, Ford recounted learning how conservation failures abroad could become national security issues for the United States and other countries. “We have reached a point in our human history where nature may be unable to support the weight and the appetites of the planet's human population. We've weakened the natural world's capacity to provide us with fresh water, natural pollinators for our crops, food, botanical sources of future medicines.”
Clinton responded, “I am increasingly convinced that in addition to what might be called the kind of traditional and important work that Conservation International and other conservation and environmental organizations have done to raise public attention to focus on specific issues, we now need to broaden the conversation so that it includes matters of national security and human well-being in the most basic way.
“Trying to prevent, at the best, mitigate, at the least, the kinds of conflicts that we're now beginning to see, in parts of the world that are facing scarcities, where the forests no longer are available, where erosion makes it difficult if not impossible for subsistence farming to occur, where fresh water is rapidly disappearing.”
These development challenges and the pressures they are placing on vulnerable peoples have only escalated, she warned, with poor land and ocean use decisions leading to depleted ecosystems that no longer support societies.
Ford asked Clinton about the strategic role of places like the Central and South Pacific to America’s interests.
“Unfortunately we still live in a state of denial of the importance to all of our futures of climate change. We see it, we experience it, but we have a great deal of difficulty in summoning the political will, not just in our country, but elsewhere around the planet, in trying to address it. And we are in a race against time. And we see the results in many different parts of the world, some of them whose existence, like the small Pacific island nations are truly at stake.
The two also discussed the emerging tensions resulting from polar ice cap melt in the Arctic, and the race for resources beneath its increasingly exposed earth and waterways.
“The Arctic, I think, is one of the most important conservation issues facing the world today,” said Clinton. “Organizations like CI and others need to be knocking on the doors of governments and making it clear that it is in all of our enlightened self interest to come up with a plan for the protection, the preservation and use of the Arctic in as environmentally sustainable and responsible way as possible.”
On the issue of illegal wildlife trade and the twin challenges of protecting supply while reducing demand, Clinton was strongly outspoken.
“We have a crisis. We have a wildlife, poaching, trafficking, murdering crisis,” she warned, emphasizing the plight of African elephants, mass murdered for their ivory in an international trade that often arms militant groups and funds organized crime. “It is not only criminal enterprises but is carried out by highly armed vicious bands who sometimes arrive in helicopters with night- vision goggles and their assault weapons.”
The private sector is a vital partner in confronting all of these challenges, Clinton explained. “We hope that not only American companies but also international companies will raise the standards in terms of not just general principles of corporate social responsibility but sustainable productivity and set the examples so that companies come from other countries, they are held to higher standards.”
The New York event also paid tribute to the conservation legacy of former CI Board member and Colombian business titan, Julio Mario Santo Domingo, who supported the organization for years in building a successful program in Colombia while raising awareness about the critical importance of healthy ecosystems and natural capital to the health of Latin American economies, biodiversity and people. Peter Seligman recounted Santo Domingo’s lasting impact, as he presented CI’s Global Conservation Hero Award to the late leader’s children, Alejandro and Andres Santo Domingo.
“He has influenced our board, influenced our organization and impacted everybody in our institution. He was one of the most extraordinary men that I ever encountered; a citizen of the world.
Seligmann continued, “All told, with the inspiration of Julio Mario Santo Domingo, Colombia has protected with CI, ten million hectares on land and at sea, which is equal to an area four times the state of New Jersey. We are honored to recognize Don Julio Mario Santo Domingo for his vision that his native land could be a beacon on the hill for sustainability and the commitment he made to making that vision a reality.”
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About Conservation International (CI) – Building upon a strong foundation of science, partnership and field demonstration, CI empowers societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature and its global biodiversity to promote the long-term well-being of people. Founded in 1987, CI is headquartered in the Washington, D.C. area. CI employs 900 staff in nearly 30 countries on four continents and works with more than 1,000 partners around the world. For more information, please see www.conservation.org or visit us on Facebook and Twitter.