Without the forest, the lemurs of Madagascar could not survive. Berkeley-based Seacology is helping locals preserve their forests.
How? It's all about striking the right deal.
"We ask island villagers what tangible thing they want in exchange for establishing a forest or marine reserve," said Duane Silverstein for Seacology.
For example, in a village in Indonesia, some local fishermen were practicing bomb fishing using explosives to stun the fish.
This of course, was destroying the coral and without reefs, eventually the fish were disappearing.
So Seacology brought in eco reef modules, in other words fake reefs. With the help of villagers and dive operators from the national park, these modules were installed.
In exchange for rehabilitating the reef, the village promised to stop bomb fishing. Today the area is a five acre no-take reserve and the local indigenous laws make sure this promise is fulfilled.
"If the chief says no fishing, there is no fishing and the punishments are very simple and very swift including being thrown out of your village," said Silverstein.
Field inspectors check the area regularly. Today baby corals and other sea life are now thriving on these modules.
Paul Cox and Ken Murdock founded Seacology in the early 1990s. Cox, a well-known scientist, was doing research in the Falealupo Rainforest in Samoa when he encountered loggers.
"He said to the chiefs, what is going on here? They explained the government of Samoa told them if they didn't build a better school the teachers would be removed," said Silverstein.
With no way to afford a new school, the village began selling off parts of their forest.
Cox made a deal: we'll come up with the money to build your school and you promise to preserve your rainforest.
Cox had no idea where that money would come from.
"The good news is I think I saved this forest, the bad news is we may have to sell our children to raise the $85,000 to build this school, but through a few generous people the money was raised very quickly. The school was built and the village did sign an agreement saving a 30,000-acre rain forest in perpetuity," said Silverstein.
This act won Cox the prestigious Goldman Environmental Award. Ironically, Silverstein was its executive director at the time and few years later he was asked to head Seacology.
Today Seacology has saved more than 166,000 acres of land and nearly two million acres of coral reef and other marine habitat. They've built or funded 87 schools, centers and water systems. Their projects are now known in scientific circles around the world.
John McCosker is the Chair of Aquatic Biology at the California Academy of Sciences.
"It's teaching people that there are smarter ways to do things and two buying time," said McCosker.
Seacoogy puts up the money but the villagers themselves build the projects. This gives them a sense of pride and ownership.
There are legally binding contracts with the villagers to make sure they are living up to their agreement. Field representatives also monitor the projects several times a year.
That's convincing enough for philanthropist Doug Herst who helps support some of these projects. He's personally traveled to some of these islands.
"The chief, the big chief of one of the major towns stood up and said you know our government tells us what we need and you listen to us and have given us what we have asked for," said Herst.
"Something that is so small in U.S. terms, $25,000, you couldn't even hire an architect here and you are doing a school or building a medical clinical that these people have tried to get for 30 to 40 years its indescribable," said Silverstein.
ABC7 salutes Duane Silverstein and all the people who support Seacology for helping maintain an ecological balance around the world.