When Stefan and Nina moved to Peru together, the first obstacle to overcome was language. For the first year, while Stefan was learning Spanish, he worked as a travel guide for German tourists. After this time he and Nina approached different conservation groups in Peru to enquire about working with them on marine issues. They were surprised to learn that most of the organisations only focused on rainforest habitats. From the two small grass root NGO’s working on marine issues, they received a negative response and a feeling of competition.
“Well, we’ll have to start our own organisation then!” Stefan and Nina concluded one day. Being conservationists who are motivated by the problems facing all life in the oceans, they decided to focus on general marine issues as opposed to purely dolphin related ones.
In 1999 Nina and Stefan formed Mundo Azul. The early years of the organisation were a wonderful adventure with incredible opportunities and expeditions. Because of their broad focus, and Stefan’s diving skills which very few people possess in Peru, they were able to attract funds from larger organisations to carry out underwater biodiversity research. The Nature Conservancy, for example, needed to acquire baseline information for marine protected areas. Stefan dived up and down the coastline carrying out research that was essential to proposing conservation measures for the area.
For about three years Mundo Azul was involved in setting up and taking part in the most amazing expeditions funded by larger NGO’s, photographers and film crews. Stefan and Nina were fortunate enough to explore some of the most beautiful and untouched parts of Peru. They were the first people to dive in the Lake of the Condors and the Peruvian rainforest, and Nina became the first woman to dive at high altitude in Lake Titicaca. This period provided some of the highlights of their time working together.
Stefan also continued to dive frequently along the coast of Peru. He was alarmed to come across many dead dolphins on these trips. He would find their bodies washed ashore on beaches, obviously slaughtered with their muscle meat taken. In 2002 the family went to the beach for Christmas. On their first day they marveled at two dolphins swimming gracefully in the surf close to shore. The following day they found two dead dolphins on the beach.
Dolphin killing had been illegal in Peru since Nina and Olga’s victory in 1996 so what was happening here? Stefan came to a decision, “Something has to be done about this.” There followed a huge undertaking by Mundo Azul to investigate and eliminate the illegal killing of dolphins taking place in Peru. I will detail this further in a future post, but to give an overview, the work included information gathering and undercover investigations, police raids, training of police and prosecutors, and appealing to the world at large to help end the illegal trade in dolphin meat.
However, despite all their efforts, they lacked the funds and resources to complete the task of eradicating dolphin killing. It continues to this day. By 2005, their funds had dried up. In Peru there is no state funding for conservation work and a severe lack of money from any source. NGO’s rely on funds coming from larger organisations based in foreign countries, from foreign volunteers and investors, and from their own ingenuity to find other ways of financing themselves.
In 2005, Stefan and Nina’s first child Aysha was born. Nina was working for Conservation International, one of the biggest conservation organisations in the world, but still her income was not enough to sustain the family in Peru, and the pressure was on Stefan to bring in enough money to support the family.
In what appeared to be a moment of good fortune, one of the biggest national NGO’s offered Stefan the role of Executive Director. Against Nina’s intuition and better judgement, Stefan accepted. His role was to re-float the NGO which had run into financial difficulties. He was responsible for making the difficult decisions which would enable it to survive. He cut their workforce by 50%, identified and eliminated corruption, and began to pay off their labour debts. He succeeded in turning the tide and was doing so well that his board of directors gave him a salary increase as an official well done. However, while investigating the organisation’s finances he discovered there was some unusual activity taking place. Thirty accounts existed for 12 projects, with money shifting between accounts and files being erased. To this day Stefan does not know exactly what was happening or who was responsible, because three weeks after being given a pat on the back he walked into his office to be told “We want you out of here in five minutes!” Stefan was fired, with the official reason given that he was making the organisation bankrupt and had raised his own salary.
In 2006 Mundo Azul received its last grant from an external organisation, Humane Society International, to organise seminars and a conference, with the aim of promoting whale and dolphin watching in Peru. After this conference there were no more funds to continue the work.
The last five years have been a fight to survive for Stefan, Nina and their family. They would have loved the freedom to focus purely on Mundo Azul and continue the campaign against illegal dolphin killing and other marine conservation initiatives, but this was simply a luxury the family could not afford. Instead Stefan has taken on any work available, including teaching and consulting for other organisations, and creating Lima’s first ever ecotourism company Nature Expeditions. Of course, Mundo Azul was not forgotten entirely. Indeed during this time the organisation began a unique research project implementing the first ever photo identification studies on bottlenose dolphins, financed by foreign volunteers and grants from local companies.
In mid 2009, Nina ended her job at Conservation International, after having worked for more than seven years on rainforest projects and some marine initiatives in alliance with Mundo Azul. The family’s economic situation became more uncertain. However, nine months ago, Stefan was hired to help on a social project. One of Peru’s biggest economic family groups wanted to develop an industrial port in one of the very few but beautiful bays in Peru; Ancon. Ancon is a fishing port and seaside resort, its development would have resulted in the destruction of the tourist and fishing industries, plus impacting negatively on the area’s ecosystem. 300 jobs would have been created, for which 5,000 jobs would have been lost. Stefan’s role was to campaign, lobby politicians and unite local stakeholders from all social levels. The campaign is still in process, but with growing public attention, united stakeholders, and support from politicians and other wealthy families, it is looking likely that the bay will be declared untouchable by law. This is the first time that a project by this particular family group has ever been brought to a grinding halt.
And that brings us up to the current day. Mundo Azul’s roots are in marine research, species protection and environmental education; it was never intended for the organisation to have a political or social agenda. However, Mundo Azul now works at the forefront of social conflicts, defending the rights of communities against large companies. This change of profile is a consequence of current issues in Peru, with proposed industrial projects, particularly on the coast, having social, political and environmental impacts. Even before Ancon, Stefan had been involved in two other socially oriented cases, but Ancon raised Mundo Azul’s profile considerably. The organisation now receives requests from all over the country to work on social and political projects.
This post has barely scratched the surface of the many facets of Mundo Azul’s work. In forthcoming posts, I hope to bring you stories of the beautiful moments from Nina and Stefan’s work together, the toughest moments in the fight against dolphin killing, plus Stefan’s views on the weaknesses of conservation in general. I also hope to share with you his dream for the future; one in which he does not have to worry about providing for his children, can profit from more pleasurable work and choose which fights, if any, he still wants to fight.
Next time… The wonders of diving in some of the most magical and extreme places on Earth…