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Ecology award winner Howard G. Buffett calls for humility, perseverance in tackling hunger

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 14, 2011 - As Howard G. Buffett spoke to a desperate, agitated woman during his visit to a remote part of Angola, he found she wanted to give him something he didn't expect -- something, in fact, he'd have to turn down.

She tried to hand him her child.

"She'd just buried one of her children and literally was saying to me that if I didn't take her child that her life was in my hands," he recalled in an interview with the Beacon. "You feel pretty helpless and in some ways, even embarrassed because you don't know how to handle it."

Actually, there are a number of things Buffett doesn't know how to handle -- and he's the first to admit it. After all, he's in the demanding business of taking on some of the most intractable environmental, political, ecological and economic issues of our day from hunger to land reform to deforestation.

"There are things I look at and say, 'How the heck do you solve that problem?'" he said. "You have to be honest about it and be willing to say we don't really have a good answer. We're going to continue to work on it."

Doing that work has been Buffett's driving passion and this week it's earned him a recognition. Buffett, 56, is the 19th recipient of the World Ecology Award, an honor he received Friday evening at a Missouri Botanical Garden dinner. Presented by the Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center in conjunction with the Garden, the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the St. Louis Zoo, the award recognizes his work in some of the world's most impoverished and troubled areas to build sustainable social and ecological ideas for the future.

Past award recipients are an eclectic group, including Jacques Cousteau, Ted Turner, John Denver, Jane Goodall, Prince Charles and Harrison Ford.

A noted philanthropist, photographer and head of a charitable foundation bearing his name, Buffett's quest for better answers has taken him to more than 100 nations. He has had a hand in many things: from land reform among Central American farmers to well-digging projects in West Africa.

During the evening ceremony, Buffett, the son of noted investor Warren Buffett, told participants that sustainability issues are key to the future.

"Everything has limits and I would say that I'm concerned that at this point in world history we're approaching some of those limits," he said. "Water, soil, air, mineral-based energy. They've all been abused. The biggest problem of all is that we continue to do it. Why? Because the truth is that very few of us, certainly very few of us in this room, suffer the consequences."

Avoiding those consequences would take a willingness to alter long-held ideas, Buffett said. He emphasized that change was a two-way street. Sustainability isn't just ecological but economic as well. It's difficult to criticize people on the edge of survival for choosing life over nature. "No one will starve to save a tree," he said. Good conservationists must be interested in good development ideas.

"Environmentalists must also embrace farmers as agents of change rather than thinking of them as an enemy," he said.

The Poor Must Be Stakeholders

Buffett told the guests that conservation concerns are intricately tied to economic and political issues, particularly land reform, something he said was among the most difficult problems his foundation tries to tackle.

"After 20 years of philanthropic work, I've come to the conclusion that the only way to be successful in ending hunger or saving precious habitats is to turn the poor into stakeholders," said Buffett, who was appointed a United Nations goodwill ambassador against hunger in 2007. "They must be participants, both in solving the problem and sharing the benefits. They must have ownership."

He spoke of political problems in parts of the world where nations riddled with corruption and incompetence threaten both people and resources.

"That's actually a pretty important thing to understand if you are interested in trying to save the world," he said, speaking of a "sovereignty deficit" in some countries. "Those are governments that fail to perform or provide the most basic functions of a modern state."

Interviewed by the Beacon after the event, Buffett admitted his work could be inherently frustrating.

"I used to come home so many times thinking it was hopeless," he said. "You can't go to some of the places that I've visited, hear some of the stories and see the people and not come home and be overwhelmed."

"But you can't let that stop you from trying," he added.

Buffett said that it was important to understand that no magic bullet exists, noting that a billion people are still hungry worldwide.

"You think in my lifetime we're going to get all those people fed?" he asked. "It isn't going to happen. Part of it is being honest about it and saying the challenges are so big that we can't just solve them by setting some goal. I'm not knocking goals. People need goals. But they need to be realistic."

It can also be a game of failure. Many ideas simply don't work, he said. Still, he said, without trying new things, there really is no hope.

"Our job is to find innovative ways to make change happen and if it means we're going to take risks with our money so what?" Buffett said. "Let's do it intelligently, but we should be the first ones in line to say we're willing to try it."

That's an attitude that can sometimes meet skeptics, he said, remarking that politicians, academics and bureaucrats often get locked into the path of least resistance with flawed development efforts.

"I don't mean they are disingenuous at all," he said. "They are very sincere, but at some point you have to say this isn't working. We have to do something different, and we're at the point where, in the discussion over hunger and agriculture and nutrition, let's wake up and admit that what we've done hasn't worked."

Change On A Systemic Level

Buffett has tried hard to focus on creating change on a systemic level rather than initiating smaller-scale projects.

"There's nothing wrong with [small projects] and we still continue to do some, but they really don't change the big picture," he said. "That's when I really started to think about somehow we've got to get more engaged in policy. You've got to look at land ownership, governance issues, democracy and building institutions."

Buffett shared his experience in Sierra Leone, a small West African nation where he spoke with former child soldiers about the atrocities they committed such as dumping toddlers in wells to drown and burning individuals alive. He then spoke with nearby villagers, many of whom had had limbs chopped off by local military leaders.

"One of the things they kept saying was 'People come here and they leave and nothing changes,'" he recalled. "'No one's helping us. We really need help. It isn't like we're incapable of doing things for ourselves. Some of us are missing arms. Some of us are missing legs, but we have good minds and we have ideas and we want to do things.'"

A well was drilled. Entrepreneurial grants were given. Five months later, Buffett returned to find the village quite unlike the one he'd left nearly half a year earlier.

"People who had been completely hopeless, almost dead, no spirit, no reflection of hope at all, their whole life had changed," he said. "They were smiling. Their eyes were lit up. It was an amazing difference."

"These are some of the most incredibly difficult circumstances and in this case, we were able to really make a difference," he added. "It's really encouraging."

David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis. 

David Baugher
David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis who contributed to several stories for the STL Beacon.