ISSN 1108-8931


Year 6 - Issue 82 - Jul 06

Sponsored by: Hana Maui Botanical Gardens, Jorth Consult Limited, Pacuare Lodge,
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"The Global decline in coral reef health is alarming and the trend appears to be worsening rather than getting better"
Peter Raines MBE, Founder & CEO, Coral Cay Conservation (CCC)

The ECOCLUB Interview with Peter Raines
and the Coral Cay Conservation Team
Index of Interviews

Peter Raines and the CCC Team
The CCC Team and Peter Raines (far right)

Peter Raines is the founder and CEO of Coral Cay Conservation (CCC), a not-for-profit coral reef and tropical forest conservation organisation based in the United Kingdom. Born of Anglo-Irish parents in West Africa, at an early age Peter developed a passion for wildlife, a passion that matured during his summers spent exploring the rock-pools of the shores of Ireland into a career in conservation. In 1982, Peter gained a Joint Honours Degree in Marine Biology and Biochemistry from the University College of Wales Bangor, and went on to undertake post-graduate research at UCW Aberystwyth and at the University of London, during which time he founded CCC. Peter is Fellow of both the Institute of Biology and the Royal Geographical Society, and is a Chartered Biologist and Chartered Geographer. He has authored and co-authored over 250 scientific reports and publications, and has won numerous international awards and citations for his work in conservation. In 2004, Peter was awarded the MBE by HM Queen Elizabeth II for his ‘services to the protection of biodiversity’.

Coral Cay Conservation (CCC) is an award-winning not-for-profit organization that has been running conservation expeditions since 1986. CCC sends teams of volunteers to survey some of the world’s most endangered coral reefs and tropical forests. Our mission is to protect these crucial environments and provide resources to help sustain livelihoods and alleviate poverty. Since the establishment of CCC, thousands of volunteers of all ages have participated on expeditions throughout Asia-Pacific and the Caribbean. Volunteers play a crucial role in the conservation of threatened tropical environments through the collection of scientific data. Information collected in the field is compiled and analysed in order to formulate sustainable management recommendations. CCC, in partnership with local stakeholder groups, has helped to establish numerous marine reserves and wildlife sanctuaries around the world. Data gathered by CCC volunteers formed an intrinsic part in the designation of the Belize Barrier Reef as a World Heritage Site in 1996 and also played a crucial role in the establishment of the Danjugan Island Marine reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary in the Philippines in February 2000.

(The Interview follows:) Starting with Tourism: As a foremost expert in the field of reef conservation, how big a problem is Tourism for Reefs, compared to global warming, water pollution from agriculture, sewage and forest erosion?

Peter Raines: Before I start, let’s be clear on this: I’m no “foremost expert” in the field of reef conservation! At best, I am THE foremost expert in Coral Cay Conservation (CCC); big fish, small pond. However, if through my 21 years since founding CCC and through my work globally, some experience and wisdom has rubbed off on me and is perhaps worth listening to, then by all means read on.

Trying to answer a question like yours is akin to trying to come up with a cross-cutting, all-embracing answer to questions like: “How long is a piece of string?” or “How deep is a hole?” A meaningful answer, and I doubt one truly exists, can only be at best vaguely estimated at in the context of geographical location. On a global scale of 1 to 10 (10 equalling ‘big problem’) I personally, repeat personally, don’t see “tourism for reefs” being much higher than 2 on my highly subjective scale. However, having said that, I fully admit - and hold my hand up in recognition - that I have not even vaguely factored the detrimental effects of things such as the contribution to global warming in flying ‘tourist to reefs’ (or indeed ‘reefs to tourists’ – see below) etc etc …let’s not even attempt to open that particular can of worms, lest I get strung-up from the bough of the nearest sapling CO2-off-setted tree planted on Clapham Common!

Coral reefs mean big business for the tourism sector: reef-based tourism alone is estimated globally to be worth something like GBP 6bn (EUR 8.8bn) per annum. It has often been stated that tourism can be either the saviour of coral reefs or the final nail in their coffin; the difference between the outcomes depends on the manner in which the tourism activity interacts with the coral reef environment. Aside from the direct value of coral reefs for resource extraction (e.g. fishing and aquaculture), coral reefs per se do not have an economic value. Tourism is a very good activity for realising the potential economic value of coral reefs; and thereby ensuring that the impetus for their conservation is heightened and maintained, given the vested interests involved. The direct impacts of tourism development include sedimentation from development activities, direct damage from physical touch by recreational users and the input of extra nutrients from wastewater produced by the tourism industry. However all of these potential impacts can be mitigated against at the local level. Issues such as global warming and the bleaching events that result are Global issues that require Global solutions.

Someone, an academic perhaps, would describe what you do as Voluntourism. Would you agree with that characterisation or do you find the term slightly derogatory?

This definition of Coral Cay Conservations activities does have an element of truth. Using volunteers in the manner in which we do does however allow us to undertake meaningful conservation work without firstly having secured external funding- funding sources that in many of the countries in which we operate are not there for coral reef conservation. With a team of qualified marine biologists working full time for Coral Cay Conservation, it is then possible to turn this data into meaningful tools for management decision makers in our host countries. Finally, it is worthy of note that such volunteer organisations are often criticised for using a non-skilled volunteer work force and that this then jeopardises the quality of the data that is collected and the value of the findings. This however is nonsensical. If a small volunteer work force were used to collect data then the fact that they are not skilled and therefore have a greater degree of error in the data they collect, it could be said that there would be questions marks over the value of the data. However, using large teams of volunteers reduces the ‘error: actual trends’ ratio in the data sets thereby allowing us to draw meaningful and accurate management recommendations from the data.

What is the main motive for those that volunteer for you? Altruism, escapism, a good CV perhaps? Does it really matter as long as they pay the fee and do the job?

The motivation for our volunteers is as diverse as the demographic background from which they come; from 16 to 65 years old! Some volunteers are graduates from or are studying for marine science degrees and want to gain some valuable field-based experience. Some volunteers are travelling the world and want to put something back, some are experienced divers and want to answer the question of what they are seeing on their dives. Some simply want to have fun whilst doing something altruistic. Whatever the motivation, the important thing is that all volunteers leave the expedition with an understanding of conservation issues, a feeling that they have done something positive and ultimately have contributed their time to meaningful work in countries where it otherwise would not have been done.

Some would argue that your "volunteers steal jobs from locals"? Are they as thick as some who believe that "immigrants steal jobs from locals"?

Coral Cay Conservation has a unique scholarship programme funded through our charitable trust fund that provides four places per month to nationals of our host countries to come join our expedition, learn to dive and then learn the science. This programme proves massively popular in the countries where we work and has contributed a substantial amount to the capacity within country to maintain the types of programmes we have begun. To give you an idea; an entire research arm of the University of Malaya has now been established in Malaysia to undertake on-going coral reef conservation work; the core of this team was trained and hopefully inspired by Coral Cay’s scholarship programme having themselves been scholars. Additionally, Coral Cay works alongside and in close partnership with academic institutes and other NGOs in the countries in which we work. We support these organisations and they support us in a manner which is beneficial to both parties and ultimately to the coral reefs. With these arguments, it is often said by independent organisations in the countries we are working in that we provide more opportunities for nationals and that we never remove opportunities for those in these countries.

Since you started CCC has the situation for coral reefs improved or worsened worldwide? If we say that XYZ percentage of reefs have been lost over these years, what percentage has your organisation saved?

The Global decline in coral reef health is alarming and the trend appears to be worsening rather than getting better. To directly quantify this decline is very hard to do and is subjective on how you define ‘lost’. However, in the 20 years that Coral Cay has been in operation, the coral reefs of the Caribbean have shown perhaps the worse decline with many areas now all but gone. For these same reasons, it is very hard to say how much we have saved. Firstly, one needs to define “saved” and secondly it is important to understand that it is not us who does the ‘saving’; we merely provide support and recommendations to the counterparts who are the competent agencies in the host countries and it is then them that do the ‘saving’. To give you an idea of how much we can achieve however, since moving to Fiji five years ago, Coral Cay Conservation has surveyed 16% of the coral reefs of Fiji and has produced recommendations on all these areas. To date these recommendations have been turned into management plans and Marine Protected Areas with the creation of over 20 of these reserves having come about as a result of Coral Cays work.

You have helped establish many marine and forest protected areas around the world, and even got the Belize Barrier Reef - the worlds second longest- declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However even UNESCO admits that some protected areas are only protected on paper. So, what happens to a project once it is completed and you depart? Is it easy to keep in touch and even return or does a nexus of private interests and public bureaucracy shut the door?

‘Paper parks’ such as the ones that UNESCO refers to occur largely as a result of a lack of stakeholder involvement. If vast areas of reef that were formerly the traditional fishing grounds of an indigenous community are suddenly closed with no consultation with the fisherfolk, it is hardly surprising that the outcome is often not that positive!

By working closely with and supporting the management agencies in the countries in which we operate, and by working to ensure a ‘buy-in’ to the concept by local stakeholders, we are able to ensure that this approach to management is not taken.

Obviously, we have a skill base that has evolved around the provision of resources to the management agencies. When these resources have been provided and exhausted it becomes time for us to move on to other geographic areas that require our assistance. Often these new areas remain within the same country and as at Danjugan Island, we are able to maintain a presence and a degree of support to the management implementing agencies.

Perhaps victims of their own success, or envied, NGOs come increasingly under fire. The Right considers NGOs as politicised, while the Left as depoliticised. The south accuses them of propagating imperialism, while the North of propagating imperialism-guilt, The West as unaccountable, while the East as accountable to the west. Have you ever met such criticism, and did you find it annoying, helpful or irrelevant in your work?

Coral Cay Conservation prides itself on being a non-lobbying, apolitical organisation whose sole purpose in the countries in which we work is to provide technical expertise and manpower to producing comprehensive management tools. These tools are based upon sound science and fact and therefore have no political undertones. By taking this approach, we are able to keep out of the arena of political debate and criticism.

You are on record saying that CCC responds to invitations from governments, and local people and that your organisation is non-political. Have you, or would you ever decline a project due to political controversy? Say, if Zimbabwe or Burma were to invite CCC to help them set up protected areas, would you go?

Coral Cay Conservation is a founding member of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office ‘Know Before You Go’ campaign that looks after the interests of British nationals overseas. We also have on-going ties with British Overseas missions and value their input into each and every potential new project location. If after consultation with these authorities it is apparent that Coral Cay Conservation can operate safely, securely and in a manner that is not hindered by political agendas; then yes we have no issue in working there.

It must be a nightmare trying to work globally across many tax regimes doing great work but incurring expenses and unofficial costs that can not be proved to suspicious taxmen. We note that CCC has also set up a separate Trust, presumably to accept and manage donations. So do you subscribe to the current fashion that one organisation needs to be 'transparent' at all costs, or should it rather make full use of legal loopholes so as to maximise its effectiveness?

We have a marvellous finance and accounting team who handle all the headaches regarding taxes. It may give them nightmares, but they never complain to me.

The CCC Trust was set up in 1992 to support the charitable work that Coral Cay carries out. The three main areas that they function in are providing funds for local scholarships, supporting alternate livelihood schemes and producing educational resources to raise awareness of conservation issues. The Trust’s charitable status has obvious advantages when it comes to raising funds for these operations. Every individual that goes on a CCC expedition joins the Coral Cay Society, which is run by the Trust, and part of their expedition fee is paid into the Trust. The funds provided by the Trust allow our expeditions to do work that many volunteers cite as some of the most rewarding and satisfying of their expeditions.

Using the Trust, and its tax advantages, to assist us in this work makes perfect sense but we will always do so only as far as legislation permits. We have no interest in trying to hide what we do from anyone, least of all the taxman!

Is technological progress - such as artificial reefs - a boost for your efforts, or does it create complacency to decision-makers in the way that anything can be fixed at a later stage? And what would you describe as major technological improvements in your field in the last 10 years?

Artificial reefs and other technological progress can, in the correct circumstances, be extremely useful management tools. However, they do have a tendency to promote the ‘playing with God’ syndrome, which is something that Coral Cay most definitely does not advocate. Additionally, initiatives that involve for example transplanting corals we believe are not positive unless the reason why the coral in the receiving site died in the first place is thoroughly understood and removed. When and if this is done then transplanting may have a role if time proves that nature does not have the ability to regenerate that site- something that rarely occurs. Essentially what we believe is to treat the cause, not the symptoms!

One of the most major technological improvements is the increase in the availability of high resolution satellite images to assist us in the work that we do. These images help us at every stage of our process; from having a feel and being able to plan survey strategies before we even get to the site to being able to better illustrate and explain our findings to local communities with visual tie-ins.

How do you measure CCC's performance and contribution? Do you set economic targets, number of tourists, by numbers of protected areas set up?

On a raft of different levels. How many host country scholars have we trained, how many volunteers have passed through Coral Cay and have left with an improved understanding and appreciation of coral reefs and their protection. It is also important to understand that every country (and location within countries) in which we work has different performance indicators. Ultimately I guess it is being able to see that we are making a real difference to the countries in which we work on whatever level is most appropriate. This is something that cannot be quantified nor valued.

How would you prefer to evolve as an organisation - horizontally i.e. more projects around the world, or concentrate vertically in specific locations, expanding into resort-owning, protected area management and training?

Coral Cay is a dynamic organisation that has had to evolve to meet the demands of many different situations in the past. Looking to the future, the one thing that we can be sure of is that we will have to remain as dynamic and adaptable as in the past!

It is probably safe to say that we will expand into more projects around the world (in fact as we speak there are many irons in many fires) and it is also almost certainly true that we will develop our operations in already existing locations. In the past we have found that the relationships we build in our host countries often bear fruit in terms of other projects in those countries. I would think it extremely unlikely that Coral Cay would ever be involved directly in resort ownership. Certainly at the moment we don’t have that kind of financial clout!

The expertise that we have, when used in conjunction with local NGO’s, governments and local communities, has already allowed us to do a great deal of training, and that is a field into which we may look at expanding our operations in the future.

Coral Cay is run by a dedicated team of full time professionals supported by a group of part time (often pro-bono) experts from many fields of business.

And how are decisions reached in CCC? Do you vote?

We hold regular meetings at which anyone is able to raise issues and contribute to the decision making process. Votes are rarely needed; we are usually able to resolve any disagreements over a friendly pint!

So how can our readers volunteer for your tours or otherwise assist your efforts?

Probably the easiest way for people to get involved is to start at our website,

There they will find all the information regarding our ongoing projects around the world, information about the Coral Cay Society which holds regular, exclusive “mini-expeditions”, details of the CCC Trust as well as lots of fascinating reports and diaries from our projects. Anyone interested in getting involved as a volunteer staff member, either in London or on one of our overseas sites, can also get all the details from the website. Thank you very much

Find the complete list of ECOCLUB Interviews here


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