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SALT LAKE CITY — Prince Albert II of Monaco recently awarded a native Utah scientist the 2015 Prince’s Prize for Innovative Philanthropy for his work in rainforest preservation.
When Dr. Paul Cox was living with his family on a remote Samoan island in 1990, he and the villagers became upset as they watched loggers come to take down the 30,000 acre rainforest in their small village.
Cox confronted the village chiefs about why they would allow the destruction, and he learned a sad truth: if they didn’t get the money to build a school, the government would remove the teachers from their village.
“I found out they’d been offered $85,000 for the rainforest, so we said, ‘What if we could raise the money to build the school?’” Cox said.
Within six weeks, Cox, his colleagues Ken Murdock and Rex Maughan, their family members and friends raised sufficient funds to build a new schoolhouse.
From there, Cox founded his non-profit organization, Seacology.
Seacology donates funds to build schoolhouses, medical clinics or other needed facilities on remote islands in exchange for the villagers’ promise to protect their resources for an extended period of time, Cox said.
In the last 23 years, Seacology, now based in Berkeley, California, has helped 200 villages on 152 islands in 54 countries, preserving about 1.3 million acres of rainforest and marine sources, according to its website.
“It’s been a really great success story,” Cox said. “The only resource (the villagers) have to sell is their rainforest or marine areas, so we make it possible so they don’t have to do that, so they don’t have to choose between protecting their coral reefs or helping their children.”
The only resource (the villagers) have to sell is their rainforest or marine areas, so we make it possible so they don't have to do that, so they don't have to choose between protecting their coral reefs or helping their children.
–Dr. Paul Cox
After Seacology donates between $25,000 and $35,000, the villagers put in “sweat equity” to build the facilities, Cox said. If the villagers are unable to perform some of the work, Seacology will hire specialized engineers.
“Governments welcome us wherever we go, because we don’t take political stands, we’re just there to help,” Cox said. “It’s been a lot of fun and we’ve done some good for these wonderful, indigenous people.”
Seacology has met diverse needs in some of the villages.
On an island in Haiti, some of the women were carrying buckets of water on top of their heads for eight miles to transport it. Seacology was able to meet their need by hiring specialized engineers to put in a solar pump and make sure their water table was clean, Cox said.
Last year, Seacology funded a school in Madagascar then learned the children had to swim across a river to get to it. Seacology then built a bridge, but because the villagers had never been on a bridge before, they were crawling on their hands and knees to get across it before gaining the confidence to stand.
“I feel really lucky that I’m able to somehow participate,” Cox said. “They trust us, we trust them, this whole thing is based on trust and respect for indigenous cultures, we do it their way.”
Jan. 26, Prince Albert II of Monaco flew Cox and the executive director of Seacology to Monaco to present the award.
“I sort of felt like Cinderella before she turned into a pumpkin,” Cox said. “They put me up in a really nice hotel and then spent the day with the prince and he was charming and terrific so it was a real thrill.”