September 18th, 2015
Charles "Chipper" Wichman, president and Chief Executive Officer of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, believed that the IUCN World Conservation Congress could be hosted by the U.S. and more specifically, in Honolulu. Wichman played a leadership role in bringing the Congress here, an effort that started as early as 2009. Wichman currently serves as vice chair of the WCC Hawaii Host Committee's executive committee and vice chair of its program committee.
The Green Leaf had a conversation with Wichman about the upcoming Congress, which marks a milestone because it's the first time it will be held in the U.S. The summit is expected to bring 8,000 to 10,000 leaders (from government, businesses, academia, NGOs and unique indigenous communities) representing 160 nations around the globe to the Hawai‘i Convention Center from Sept. 1 to 10, with possible attendance by President Barack Obama, Prince William and the Prince of Monaco.
Held only once every four years, the Congress, which helps shape the direction of global sustainable development, also presents plenty of opportunities for Hawaii residents to get involved.
The Congress is expected to address topics ranging from climate change (on the heels of the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, November to December) to watershed management, conservation of marine resources, renewable energy and endangered species. The theme is "Planet at the Crossroads."
The United States has 84 IUCN Member Organizations, eight of which are in Hawaii (including the NTBG). The U.S. Department of State will need to process quite a lot of visas, and the state of Hawaii's host committee needs to raise $13 million to support the event. Visit www.fb.com/2016wcchawaii for updates.
Green Leaf: Where did the inspiration for bringing the Congress to Hawaii come from?
Wichman: We started talking about it right after the World Congress in Barcelona in 2008. It was actually a couple of colleagues of mine — Chris Dunn, director of Lyon Arboretum at the time, Penny Levin, who is involved in protecting indigenous crops...We thought, the world could learn a lot from visiting Hawaii. It would really put the fantastic work that's going on here on the world stage. Hawaii is a microcosm of all the issues the planet is facing in a very condensed and focused way because we live on islands. And the islands are engines of evolution...We're recognized as one of the world's unique regions. We're also recognized as an endangered species capital of the world...
GL: So this Congress is often described as the Olympics of conservation. Why?
W: The World Congress is an unbelievable event. To call it the Olympics of the conservation world is true. It's the only event that brings together delegates and participants at the cutting edge of conservation — thought leaders from 160 countries around the world...APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, which took place in Honolulu in 2011) is made up of 20 leading economies. This is 160 countries, not 20. So it's much bigger and much more diverse...
GL: So you feel Honolulu has a lot to offer the world in possible conservation solutions?
W: We have a lot of challenges here, and those are challenges everyone else in the world is facing. What's compelling is it's brought together indigenous knowledge, practices and pride, and combined with cutting-edge, western science, to create conservation programs that are community-based, which are much more powerful and effective than programs that don't involve indigenous communities. We're really at the cutting edge of those bio-conservation programs that are engaging cultural knowledge and practices and wisdom...
GL: What does Honolulu have to gain from the conference?
W: On the reciprocal side, we will be infused with ideas from people who are at the cutting edge in their part of the world. It's amazing to participate in one of these events — the exchange of ideas, practice, knowledge and connections made. The value of these personal interactions can't be replaced by online webinars. There's nothing that can replace the face to face personal meetings and relationships that take place in a venue like the World Conservation Congress...
One of my dreams (I refer to it as a Big Hairy Audacious Goal) is that the president of the U.S. and governor of Hawaii will stand up at the stage of the World Congress in front of all these people from around the world, and say, we recognize the importance of the biodiversity that exists in Hawaii. We recognize the importance of Hawaii and our Hawaii culture, and we are committed to creating a biosecurity plan that will protect Hawaii, that's as strong as any other biosecurity plan in the world.
In hosting it, all these people come to Hawaii and have a wonderful Congress, but if we haven't left a legacy behind us, then I feel we've missed the boat. I've been spending a lot of time focused on engaging our community to think about how to use this as an opportunity to create a legacy...I would never have undertaken this opportunity if I did not believe hosting this would not lead to a transformation in Hawaii.
GL: What kind of transformation?
W: I think that the majority of people in Hawaii, although they know the term 'conservation' and may know Hawaii has unique flora, most people in Hawaii don't truly understand the issues that we face. And this is a way of raising the profile of these issues so that the public can really understand it. Ultimately, if the public doesn't understand it, then we will never elect political leaders that have the will to make the right choices, and to put in place the kinds of regulations and laws we need to affect our environment. I see it as transformational in raising public awareness, in terms of engaging the hearts and minds of our students in Hawaii. I would love to see every student in Hawaii, kindergarten to 12th grade, and maybe even at the university level, be aware of this and be touched by it in some way...We're hoping we'll be able to find a philanthropist to say, 'I'm willing to sponsor all the school kids in Hawaii because I think this is so potentially transformative and inspiring'...If you can plant that seed of conservation, that's our future. Our children are our future. So I see the Congress as being potentially transformational, inspiring the next generation of leaders of our state...