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Michael Wall, Ph.D.
Director of the Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias

Exequiel Ezcurra, Ph.D., Michael W. Hager, Ph.D.
Exequiel Ezcurra, Ph.D., Michael W. Hager, Ph.D.

Peacemaking, Naturally

By Jessica Holmes Chatigny

This month, Museum Provost and Director of the Biodiversity Research
Center of the Californias (BRCC) Dr. Exequiel Ezcurra and Museum
President and CEO Dr. Michael (Mick) Hager will receive the international
Peacemaker Award from the National Conflict Resolution Center (NCRC).

So, why are representatives of the Museum receiving a prestigious
award for peacemaking? Resolving conflict between vertebrates and
invertebrates? Between ichthyologists and lichenologists? Actually,
Dr. Ezcurra and Dr. Hager are being recognized for creating a crossborder
environmental preservation effort, effectively preserving one
of the most important places in the world. Due in large part to the
Museum’s efforts, the Sea of Cortés, including 244 islands and
coastal areas, was designated as a United Nations World Heritage
Site in 2005.

This will be NCRC’s 19th Peacemaker Award. Awards are given
to outstanding leaders in collaborative problem solving and
prevention. Many recipients are well known—elected officials,
university presidents, government consuls. Others are relatively
unsung, such as the tattoo parlor owners who removed gang tattoos
as community service. NCRC looks for diverse issues and
geographic representation; issues have included land use, violence
prevention, peer mediation, and human rights.

Sea of Cort?s. Photo courtesy of Ocean Oasis
Photo courtesy of Ocean Oasis

Cecil Lytle, chair of the Peacemaker Awards committee, is professor of music at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and former provost of UCSD’s Thurgood Marshall College. Regarding his chairmanship he states, “The work of the National Conflict Resolution Center is at the heart of what makes a civil society.”

In 1991 Dr. Hager led a strategic plan that redefined the Museum’s mission, focusing on research and preservation of the southern California and Baja California region. This led to the creation of a binational advisory board that oversees education and research programs at the Museum; these programs have included the production of Ocean Oasis and several multi-disciplinary research trips into Baja California, all integral to achieving World
Heritage status.

Dr. Ezcurra played a pivotal role in securing the World Heritage designation for the Gulf of California. Dr. Ezcurra, who returned to the Museum after his four-year tenure directing Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology, developed the first environmental-impact assessments in Mexico and has been active in conservation initiatives in Baja California over the last 25 years. He edited a compendium of scientific research documenting the significance of the area, A New Island Biogeography of the Sea of Cortés, which was published in 2002. This book provided essential evidence in the argument to place the islands on the UNESCO list.

The Museum’s award-winning giant-screen film, Ocean Oasis, presents a compelling argument for preservation of this unique part of the world in terms a nonscientist can understand and appreciate. Hundreds of thousands of viewers, in more than 15 countries, in 11 languages have discovered the Sea of Cortés through Ocean Oasis. Critical screenings included one at a NAFTA Commission for Environmental Cooperation meeting.

As a World Heritage site, the Sea of Cort?s (also known as the Gulf of California) joins a list of the world’s most spectacular places, including the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, the Galapagos Islands, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef, and Yosemite National Park. According to UNESCO, “What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application. World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.”

The Sea of Cort?s is unique in the richness of its biodiversity: the area is documented as containing 695 vascular plant species; 891 fish species, 90 of them endemic; 39% of the world’s marine mammal species; and a third of the world’s marine cetacean species. Basically, it is home to a veritable tapestry of exotic and unusual plants, reptiles, fishes, invertebrates, birds, whales, and other creatures of every size, shape, color, and rarity. In a research tradition from the earliest years of the San Diego Society of Natural History and continuing today, scientists from the Museum have conducted numerous expeditions and inventories illuminating the area’s vast natural resources.

The designation of the Sea of Cort?s as a World Heritage site has focused international attention on the importance of continued conservation of the area, which is currently threatened by development and degradation. The decision to list the area as a World Heritage site demonstrates unequivocally to the Mexican government, the residents of Baja California, and the rest of the world that this area is deserving of protection.

Peacemakers need not be world leaders, or work for the United Nations; they need only be individuals who care passionately and work ceaselessly to make a positive change where they see a critical need. With disturbing news of violence and conflict so prevalent today, people are hungry for concrete instances of cross-cultural progress and collaboration. Dr. Ezcurra and Dr. Hager’s accomplishments in preserving the Sea of Cort?s personify the idea expressed by Margaret Mead who said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that has.”