In 2008, as economies around the world were reeling from the collapse of the U.S. financial market, a taro farmer on Maui had an idea to bring the world’s largest conservation conference to Hawaii.

Penny Levin was herself a conservationist working to restore the Valley Isle’s native landscapes and ecosystems.

She was worried local, state and federal governments struggling with the global financial meltdown had lost sight of the importance of supporting conservation efforts such as hers.

“The conservation community was in a situation where funding had really been cut back,” Levin said. “Everyone was really struggling with what to do and how to continue with what we were doing without lapsing.”

“I maybe threw the first seed. But it was a lot of other people who made it happen.” — Penny Levin

Levin started talking to a small group of like-minded individuals about luring the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress to the Aloha State in an attempt to bolster their efforts.

The IUCN, created in 1948, is one of the most well-respected environmental organizations in the world, having helped to set the international agenda on everything from ecotourism and climate change to protecting indigenous rights and endangered species.

Convincing the venerable organization to come to Hawaii, however, wasn’t easy.

The IUCN had never held such an event in the United States.

On Thursday, more than 8,000 delegates from more than 190 countries will descend on the Hawaii Convention Center for the 2016 World Conservation Congress, a 10-day conference that’s expected to snarl traffic, attract protesters and garner headlines across the globe.

President Barack Obama is coming to Hawaii at the same time as the IUCN World Conservation Congress, yet will not speak at the event as many expected.
Barack Obama has come home to Hawaii every holiday season of his presidency. He helped seal the deal for bringing the IUCN World Conservation Congress here. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Its purpose is serious and high-minded: shine a spotlight on the global crisis facing all of us.

Among the all-star cast are primatologist Jane Goodall, biologist E.O. Wilson and marine biologist Sylvia Earle. Numerous foreign dignitaries are also expected, including Hilda Heine, president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Prince Albert II of Monaco.

President Barack Obama was expected to make an appearance in light of his recent announcement to expand the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. He’ll be attending an event at the East-West Center on Wednesday night instead.

The administration also appears to be giving greater attention to the third Our Ocean Conference, to be hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington, D.C., Sept. 15-16. Its focus is on marine protected areas, marine pollution, sustainable fisheries and climate-related impacts on the world’s oceans.

Hawaii A Long Shot

While many consider Levin the pioneer who brought the IUCN to Hawaii, significant politicking went into actually pulling it off.

“I maybe threw the first seed,” Levin said. “But it was a lot of other people who made it happen.”

Hawaii was announced as the host of the IUCN World Conservation Congress in 2014, an honor that had Aloha State politicians gushing with pride.

“At the time it was thought to be impossible. How could a state compete against nations? It had never been done before.” — Neil Abercrombie

They said the event would bring at least $50 million in tax revenues to the state as well as allow Hawaii to showcase its commitment to environmental sustainability and renewable energy to a global audience.

“This is the first time the United States is hosting this important meeting of world leaders and it is an honor for Hawaii,” U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said at the time. “Hawaii is the perfect location for the United States to welcome global leaders to work towards solving some of the world’s greatest conservation and energy security challenges.”

Schatz’s former boss, Neil Abercrombie, was governor when the IUCN made its announcement. He told Civil Beat this week that few people actually thought Hawaii stood a chance to host an international event with the stature of the IUCN World Conservation Congress.

“At the time it was thought to be impossible,” Abercrombie said. “How could a state compete against nations? It had never been done before.”

Many people consider Hawaii strictly a tourist destination, one more suited to hosting beachgoers than well-heeled scientists seeking to influence international politics.

Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie testifies at a field hearing of the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held at the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The hearing was chaired by Senator Brian Schatz. 4.16.14 ©PF Bentley/Civil Beat
Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie made the IUCN a priority for Hawaii. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Abercrombie said Hawaii’s bid required coordinating and networking with many stakeholders, including grassroots environmental groups, state agencies, the U.S. State Department and the White House. Hawaii officials even traveled to IUCN headquarters in Switzerland in an attempt to secure the conference.

What ultimately influenced the selection, Abercrombie said, was that Hawaii is a “textbook operation” in confronting the very issues that the IUCN is focused on. They include water conservation, protecting endangered species, reducing dependency on fossil fuels and developing clean, renewable energy sources.

Delegates, he said, could experience “everything from field trips to neighbor islands to in-person review of issues that are affecting their regions, all demonstrated in three dimensions in Hawaii,” said Abercrombie.

The state also had the advantage of being a highly sought-after tourism destination serviced by multiple airlines with plenty of hotels rooms and meeting spaces.

Honolulu had previously — and successfully — demonstrated that it could host an international event, as it did in November 2011 with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum for 21 Pacific Rim member economies. Like IUCN, APEC involved high-level attendees and stringent security requirements.

But when Hawaii needed a boost to finally secure the conference, it came from its Hawaii-born president.

In a May 2014 letter to the IUCN’s director general, Obama described Hawaii as “one of the most culturally and ecologically rich areas in the United States, with a wealth of unique natural resources and a distinctive traditional culture that draws from the United States and the Asia-Pacific region.”

After successfully hosting APEC, the president wrote, “It is appropriate that Hawaii now turn its focus to the intersection of economic development and environmental sustainability.”

Why The IUCN Matters

There’s a lot on the agenda for the upcoming conference. In fact, there are over 1,300 events listed in the official program, some technical, others not. While many of the sessions are informational, several key decisions are expected to come out of the conference that could influence international law.

For example, the delegation is set to vote on a motion that would encourage the closure of domestic markets for elephant ivory. While a vote affirming the motion won’t carry the weight of law, the fact that it comes from the IUCN could influence future decisions by governments.

Similarly, the organization is expected to announce a “major update” of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which tracks various plants and animals that are in danger of extinction in an attempt to inform the public and policymakers about the threats to certain species.

“It’s going to be catalytic.” — Chipper Wichman

Other major announcements could include calling for an end to the use of lead ammunition and more protections for certain shark and ray species.

Chipper Wichman is the president and CEO of the National Botanical Garden on Kauai, and a member of the IUCN organizing committee. He worked closely with Levin when she came up with the idea to bring the IUCN to Hawaii in 2008, and helped shepherd the idea to fruition.

He said a lot has been made about how much money the conference is costing the state of Hawaii, which has ponied up millions of dollars to help make sure the conference takes place. The total budget was estimated earlier this year to be $21.5 million, with the IUCN’s share pegged at $8.2 million and Hawaii’s projected cost to be $13.2 million.

Wichman said that a major benefit of hosting such a prestigious conference here is that it can influence local policy decisions, from City Council members to Gov. David Ige. He hopes that the conference will also capture the attention of the average Hawaii household.

“When we look at the return on investment in terms of impact on conservation, not only for Hawaii, but for the world, it’s incredible,” Wichman said. “It’s going to be catalytic.”

But as he, Levin and Abercrombie all noted, it wasn’t easy.

“This thing wasn’t spontaneous combustion or immaculate conception,” Abercrombie said. “It took a lot of hard work, a lot of perseverance and dedication, commitment and faith that if we kept plugging away, the merits of the case would win out. And, wonder of wonders, it actually did.”

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