Good sort: Sean Weaver
Charlotte Squire talks with environmental scientist and Ekos founder Dr Sean Weaver about carbon financing, saving rain forests and how to turn your world changing dreams into an “enduring reality.”
We start our interview with a series of hand-made fart noises, because Sean Weaver likes to keep things real (see picture above of Sean executing a particularly loud hand fart at Paynes Ford, near his home-town of Takaka). I laugh and he does too, gleefully adding a few more. We eventually shift to the reason I’m visiting: to get an update on his work. “There’s Ekos and there’s my consulting business, which intersect, because, well, they’re me,” he says.
Ekos is a social enterprise supplying ethical carbon offsets and carbon neutrality, and consulting on environmental financing.
He says he used to think financing was just “banks and stuff” but in fact all fundraising is financing. “If you have a dream, that’s one thing – it doesn’t really take much to have a dream. It takes a lot more to live the dream.”
If you want to turn your dream into an “enduring reality” you have to be able to finance it, he says. “This is really important part of philanthropy and compassionate work that many don’t get into in the not for profit sector and NGO space.”
A passionate “greenie” his whole life he says it’s been easy to justify saving rain forests scientifically and environmentally, but putting forward a compelling financial case is harder. “Voluntary work’s really valuable and important ‘cause the world wouldn’t keep going round without it. But if you want to save a rainforest that’s bigger than a hectare, there are bigger things at stake. Someone owns it usually and often they own it because they want to make a living out of it. At least they’ve got to finance it being there because they’ve got to pay rates on that land.”
He adds that the reality of the Pacific Islanders who own rainforests is that they’re very, very poor. In fact, the reason they still own it is they don’t have the prosperity attached with the development that generally happens after they turn their forest into merchantable timber.
“The people who have the rainforest are usually totally at the bottom of the economic heap globally. And you think ‘we need to save the rain forest’ but if we don’t think about the financing of it, we end up really destroying people’s lives.”
He says forcing those people not to log their rain forest keeps them in a constant state of poverty and creates social injustice.
His entire career has been a story of how to help people get out of poverty without cutting their rainforests down. Typically he says, in the Pacific Islands, people will cut their rainforest down not because they hate it, but because they don’t really see any other way to build a church, or a road, or decent housing, or get pipe water and power.
The carbon markets came on the scene in the mid two thousands. Sean saw them as a chance to help landowners keep their forests intact while still making a living out of the forest. “Carbon financing enables us to produce carbon credits instead of wood to sell in a market from the same forest.”
In the decades prior to this, he’d been doing the same thing. He’d worked on sourcing grant funding from governments to save forests. He saved his first forest in Fiji in the late 1980s and early nineties.He did the same thing on the West Coast in the late nineties.
“West coast communities in New Zealand are a relativity marginal economy. And then environmentalists were saying ‘we want to shut down one of your industries.’ Of course, they’re going to fight back hard”, said Sean.
“I saw a classic fight which I thought was really silly because it’s not rocket science to understand that people who suffer hardship aren’t going to want one of their industries shut down.”
He tried to work out how to support the coast’s developmental needs and finance them in a different way. He put a proposal to the government for a $120 million compensation package, “which was essentially seed capital to fund other forms of development.” Government accepted.
“I’m an economist as well as an ecologist. Conservation at scale costs big money. Environmental financing is about finding creative solutions, very tangible solutions, to very tangible problems of human need.”
Last year Sean’s charity Ekos won the Sustainable Business Network Award for Restorative Innovation. He describes Ekos as a ‘rainforest carbon boutique.’ He set it up to be a supplier of ethical carbon offsets for businesses seeking to go carbon neutral or offset their business flights.
“We built the Ekos supply chain of internationally certified, community rainforest carbon projects over the last eight years with funding from the EU, the German Government, the Asian Development Bank, the UK Government, and Te Puni Kokiri. We focus on the protection of indigenous forests owned by indigenous peoples and have developed the first, and so far only, rainforest carbon projects in New Zealand, Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.”
“I’m essentially a left-leaning greenie, so for me, it’s not about profiteering and commoditising nature, it’s about commoditising the human labour cost of looking after it. It’s just like the human labour cost of working in a hospice. If you have a hospice or a hospital you’re not commoditising human suffering, you’re commoditising the human labour and technology costs of looking after people.”
He says Ekos has enough customers now to soak up the supply from two of four projects, with demand growing as he and his team find new markets. “We’re now looking for investment support to take it to the next level. Ideally, we’d find an impact investor, someone who is an investor but who isn’t in it for maximising their profit, they’re out for maximising the social good that they can cause.”
Meantime he’s consulting. He just led a course in rural New Zealand economy and sustainability through Victoria University. This work took him to Taranaki and the central North Island into Tongariro National park.
He has a “nice wee job” for the African Development Bank designing a market-based financing instrument for climate change adaptation to be integrated into the United Nations Framework convention on Climate Change. He is also consulting for the Government of Vanuatu on their national forest carbon management programme and their national biodiversity programme. In New Zealand he’s working with the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council on integrated financing strategies for sustainable land management in the Wairoa District. “That’s my gig. I design nets to catch money to look after the place.”