Sean Weaver's mission to save the world's indigenous rainforests
Dr Sean Weaver is a self-confessed rainforest conservation junkie.
After saving his first rainforest in Fiji at the tender age of 21, he says he's still "quivering" from the hit.
The impact of that experience left the Golden Bay man with an insatiable desire to preserve rainforests in New Zealand and overseas and turn that passion into a successful business.
Warm, at ease and humorous; Dr Weaver is like a little smiling Buddha with glasses, radiating an ambiguous aura of serious lightheartedness.
Today, the Zen teacher saves indigenous rainforests for a living, and he's on a mission to revolutionise the carbon market with the ethical carbon offsets provider, Ekos.
Ekos has saved over 7000 hectares of native rainforest in the Southland and the Pacific Islands and has reduced over 84,000 tonnes of CO2 annually.
It won the New Zealand Sustainable Business Network Award for Restorative Innovation last November.
Weaver dreams of making it so easy for the average person to go carbon neutral, that it becomes the new normal.
"Anyone who has saved a waterway, or protected a forest knows it's something you can't explain," Weaver says.
"For me, when I saved that first rainforest, the scale of that hit in terms of the 'feel good', was enormous. I'm like a junkie; I need to get that hit every five years."
The idea of turning conservation into a business enterprise had been a long-term goal for Weaver.
While undertaking postgraduate research in the 1980s on the Fijian Kauri rainforest, he learned the lush native bush, also home to endangered species, was set to be logged.
"I just couldn't let [the logging] happen," he says.
"When I came back to New Zealand, I rung the Minister of Forestry and got some advice, then I did some research and developed a proposal. I found the owners — very, very poor Fijian people, and at that moment, it cured me of any intention to help nature, over people," he says.
He eventually persuaded the Fijian government to write a $7 million cheque to the owners — the value of the logging royalties that they would have received. In turn, they forfeited their right to log the rainforest.
Years later, when the carbon markets came along, Weaver says he saw it as a way of financing rainforest protection, while also helping build resilient communities.
"I've always wanted to work with private landowners," he says. "But I've always wanted to do it without begging governments to do all this work because they just don't have the money. It's the private sector that holds the vast majority of the world's wealth."
After working for over a decade as a environmental science lecturer at Victoria University, Weaver moved to Golden Bay with his artist and psychotherapist wife, Jo Campbell, and their two sons, Reuben and Leo.
Weaver says it was the simple pace of life, fewer crowds, the natural beauty and the wonderful mix of subcultures from farmers to alternative lifestylers, that drew them to the bay. Their boys had the space to grow and adventure.
It was in the small office of their large 1890s bungalow, near Takaka, that Weaver formed his life-long forest conservation dream, Ekos, in 2008.
While it has taken years to build the infrastructure for its projects, it has recently begun to take-off.
Ekos is not a part of the Trading Emissions Scheme, but the International Voluntary Carbon Market.
It is the first of its kind in New Zealand, and uses voluntary buyers from the business sector to fund the preservation of existing rainforests.
The projects are developed collaboratively with indigenous people who own the forests, with the aim to help those communities become resilient to climate-related natural disasters.
The payments are tied to over 700 hectares of rainforest on Maori land in western Southland adjacent to adjacent to Fiordland National Park.
Other payments are tied to 4000 hectares of tropical rainforest in Fiji; over 200 hectares of lowland coastal rainforest in Vanuatu; and over 2000 hectares of lowland coastal rainforest in the Solomon Islands.
Weaver says many people have disregarded carbon neutrality as an expensive voluntary activity, where the cost of membership, consultants and certification fees outweigh the benefits.
But Weaver says he's created a platform where buying carbon offsets is so painless that the average person can offset their return domestic flight using the online calculator and payment method, for around $4 each.
He says he's also helped a one-person start-up business go carbon neutral for just $63 per year.
"This was after the same business had received quotes for around $10,000 from other carbon service providers."
Weaver says his role is "sort-of like the farmer from the farmers' market".
"We are making our own credits so that people can buy them off us for cheaper. We don't just go fishing on the international trading wholesale market and buy whatever we can get," he says.
"Someone might say, 'you're silly if you're charging so little,' but we're a charity and our purpose is to do as much good as we can. As long as we can make enough money to cover our costs, we are serving a purpose."
When Weaver is not out saving rainforests or in nature, he's spending time with his family and friends and practising Buddhism.
After 20 years of rigorous meditation and Zen training, Weaver was ordained to teach within the Diamond Sangha Lineage in 2015.
In an oblong room dotted with black meditation cushions at the top of their old bungalow, Weaver and his wife hold regular meditation evenings.
They also run Zen retreats in Golden Bay, which merge Buddhist practise with compassionate action training.
Weaver says the Zen practise helps him to develop forfeiture, which he channels into his work.
"Zen is all about clarity. What we are doing is training our minds to be clear. When things are clear, we can see what damages are being done to the earth and people, and from that place, what the right actions are to take."
Weaver also says Zen helps with the difficulties people often face in resource management, such as working with opponents, and how one might deal with the emotional responses and feelings that arise as a result.
"Particularly in resource management, it can bring up those feelings. There's no shortage of conflict [in that area]," he says.
"The Zen approach is to drive the middle path through both sides and to recognise the significant elements of both – then we can create something which is greater than the sum of its parts."
Weaver says he's concerned that globally, humanity will face some big challenges in the coming decades.
"Yes, I am concerned about the effects of climate change. Ultimately, it's drought that we are facing, and drought is more powerful than water,' he says.
There are many reasons why Weaver says he's motivated to save rainforests.
Firstly, there are the spiritual and emotional aspects, he says.
"I love nature. When I see it damaged, I feel as if my self has been violated. We go on holiday to beautiful places because instinctively, we know that our connection with natural beauty makes us happy.
"Also, from the point of view of economics, [rainforests] are really important ecological infrastructure, which we all get benefits from."
Weaver says rainforests provide a myriad of ecosystem supports and services.
"They lower the impact of extreme weather events and provide protection from floods and tropical cyclones. They also create micro environments that are really beneficial to us. From a climate change point of view, they are like storehouses of carbon," he says.
"About 80 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions are from fossil fuel burning, and 20 percent are from land use such as deforestation and degradation. That's the reason why carbon markets are being used to protect them, they are directly part of the climate change story."
Weaver says rainforests also have an incredible habitat for biodiversity; in particular, tropical rainforests, which are the most biodiverse places on earth.
"We can have infrastructure, economic prosperity and beautiful nature, all at the same time. It's not a trade off. It's not about having one or the other, and these [Ekos] projects are a living example of how you can have both."