Dr. Philip Kramer, the director of The Nature Conservancy's Caribbean program, first fell in love with the region from under the sea. Originally from South Carolina and trained as a biologist and marine geologist, he has completed more than 2,500 dives all across the Caribbean, witnessing the incredible biodiversity found in an area comprised of some 7,000 islands, cays and reefs.
"I still don't really have a favorite island," he says. "As a geologist, I've always approached the region as a whole."
Approaching the Caribbean as a whole is also central to The Nature Conservancy's efforts to protecting its diverse ecosystems for future generations. The perils facing the region are great: overfishing, thoughtless coastal development and climate change are just three. Besides building a wide-reaching commitment to sustainable environmental change among the Caribbean's governments, Kramer and his team are also passionate about educating visitors to the region.
The Caribbean islands are one of the most-visited tourism destinations in the world, especially for Americans, yet few travelers seem aware of just how threatened the region's incredibly fragile ecosystem is. For example, several frightening studies have indicated that without massive conservation efforts, the corals of the Caribbean Sea could be gone in less than fifty years (the region harbors nearly 8,000 square miles of reefs, a tenth of all the world's corals). "The true wealth of the Caribbean is in its waters," says Kramer, who masterminded the program's regional initiative called the Caribbean Challenge designed to make a lasting difference.
Melissa Biggs Bradley: When did The Nature Conservancy (TNC) launch its Caribbean program?
Dr. Philip Kramer: As you may know, The Nature Conservancy is one of the oldest conservation organizations in the U.S. We launched sixty years ago with a focus on serious land protection in the US It wasn't until the 1970s that the organization began dabbling in international work when we assisted the British Virgin Islands in securing the 30-acre Fallen Jerusalem Island which later became a national park. By the mid-1980s, we had staff on the ground in the Caribbean, who were working with the local governments to create a few national parks that could serve as beacons of hope for the rest of the area. We began in the Dominican Republic, followed by Jamaica and the US Virgin Islands, and then launched the Bahamas initiative in 2000.
MBB: What were/are the main challenges?
PK: The complex political landscape obviously presents a major challenge. We work with twelve countries and seventeen island territories. You can imagine the delicate balance this represents. On the other hand, we have also found many of the governments open to the idea that to make a splash on the global stage, they have to work together. Alone, none of the islands stand out. Together, they could have a powerful voice in places like the U.N., where decisions about the world get made. We are really working on getting the countries to recognize the benefits of banding together. Overall, the region has so much going for it: there's little political unrest and a high literacy level throughout.
MBB: Can you describe the idea behind the Caribbean Challenge?
PK: We launched this region-wide campaign in May 2008 with the Bahamian government, alongside leaders from Grenada, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Since, we've been joined by St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, and the Cayman Islands with others poised to follow. The goal is to protect the health of the Caribbean's lands and waters. The leaders recognize that it's not enough to establish new parks or marine protected areas because that's actually only half the conservation equation. The other half, the one that makes lasting conservation possible, is permanent funding.
Phil Kramer carrying out a survey of Andros reefs Bahamas survey
Fish and corals in the Bahamas Exuma Lands and Sea Park Photo: J. Yonover
Fallen Jerusalem, in the British Virgin Island's Virgin Gorda Photo: Chuck Diggins
Andros island Photo: Eleanor Phillips
Research divers at a healthy reef in the Cayman Islands
A coral restoration technician at a coral nursery Photo: Kemit Lewis
Danny Green affixing coral fragment at a coral nursery in St Thomas Photo: Kemit Lewis
A green sea turtle Photo: Kemit Lewis
Photographs courtesy of The Nature Conservancy.