Paul Cox had no idea the rain forest near the village where he and his family were living in Falealupo, Western Samoa, was about to be destroyed until he heard the roar of bulldozers one morning in 1987.
Villagers had reluctantly sold more than 12,000 hectares of forestland to raise money to build a new school. Building the school was required by the Samoan government; financing it was left up to the village. “The villagers didn’t want to allow the loggers into the forest,” explains Brother Cox, who is on leave from Brigham Young University while he serves concurrently as director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii and as a professor of environmental science in Uppsala, Sweden. “In fact, they had held off the loggers for 10 years. But they had no other way of getting funds for the school. They felt they had to choose between their children and their forest. It was a terrible, terrible decision for them.” 1
Many people would feel powerless in such a situation, but in that difficult moment, Brother Cox made a decision. “I offered to raise the money to build the school if the villagers would protect the forest. … I had no idea how we’d get the money.”
But a more immediate challenge than finding the money was getting the villagers to accept his offer. Many of the village chiefs were suspicious of Brother Cox, but High Chief Fuiono Senio trusted him and persuaded the other chiefs to accept Brother Cox’s assistance.
The loggers had already begun clear-cutting the forest when the chiefs gave their agreement. Chief Senio ran several kilometers down the road, machete in hand, and chased the loggers away.
The next day, after talking with his wife and receiving her support, Brother Cox flew to Apia, Samoa’s capital, and signed a mortgage for the amount needed to build the school. Then, he remembers, “I came back to my wife with the good news and the bad news. The good news was that we’d helped save a 12,000-hectare rain forest; the bad news was that we’d have to sell our house and our car and we still might not have enough money.
“I guess it’s at a moment like this that you know your marriage is working because Barbara took my hand and said, ‘Paul, how often in our lifetime will we have a chance to do something so wonderful? What a great thing!’”
Brother and Sister Cox began preparing to sell their Utah home, but soon Brigham Young University students, family members, and community members heard about the cause and raised enough money that the Coxes did not actually have to sell their house and car.
Brother Cox worked out a covenant with the people of Falealupo that protects the forest for 50 years. Villagers can still use the forest as they always have: to gather food, medicinal plants, or materials to build homes and canoes. Loggers or other commercial developers, however, cannot harm the forest in any way.
Preserving the Earth
Brother Cox did not stop after saving Falealupo’s rain forest. In 1997 the international community honored him and Chief Senio for their work in Falealupo with the Goldman Environmental Prize, which has been referred to as the Nobel Prize of environmentalism. Brother Cox used his portion of the prize money to set up a fund that will protect the Falealupo forest permanently, even after the original 50-year preservation covenant runs out.
By 1997 he had also established the Seacology foundation. Seacology works to “save the world one village at a time” by helping other Pacific island villages finance schools, water systems, health-care facilities, and other necessities without having to sell their forests. 2
“They’re small projects that we’ve done in little villages,” Brother Cox says, “but they mean a lot to the people who live there. These projects are not changing the whole world, but they’re helping improve the lives of a few people in several villages, and that’s worth my time.
“I hope that when I leave the world, I can leave it just a little bit better than when I came. Let’s face it: the Falealupo forest is a small place. The country of Samoa is a small country, but at least I’ve made a difference there. And I think that’s what it comes down to—each one of us. We can all make a difference in our own way.”
Preserving a Family Tradition
In his work to help preserve the environment, Brother Cox is also preserving a family tradition. His parents taught him to love the Lord and His creations. Paul’s father worked as a park superintendent, and his mother was a wildlife and fisheries biologist. Both were active members of the Church. “Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve prayed for the plants and the animals that Heavenly Father created,” Paul says.
Today Brother Cox tries to teach his own family the same love of the gospel, love of the earth, and love for all people that he learned from his parents.
“Our children pray for the forests and the animals,” he says. “It’s sort of a family mission we have—to do what we can to help protect the planet. Our children all have a deep love for nature and a deep appreciation for cultural differences. They enjoy learning ways that people in different parts of the world live, and they particularly enjoy their affiliation with members of the Church in different parts of the world.”
Paul, his wife, and their five children have moved around the world together as he has worked in Samoa, Australia, New Zealand, and now Hawaii and Sweden. In Sweden he has been invited to teach and research for two years at a university in Uppsala. There he serves as the King Carl XVI Gustaf Professor of Environmental Science.
The invitation to teach in Uppsala was a great academic honor, and it was a personal honor as well. During an earlier visit to Sweden, Paul’s commitment to his standards was tested.
“I had given a talk at a fancy dinner hosted by the king and queen,” Brother Cox recalls. He was sitting next to the queen, and someone stood up and offered a toast in her honor. “There were about 600 people in the room. I looked, and raised wineglasses were everywhere. I didn’t know what to do, so I picked up my water glass and raised it. There was a gasp—people were just amazed I would do that.
“After the toast, as I sat down, the queen leaned over to me and whispered in my ear, ‘You are very wise.’ That was eight years ago, and now they’ve invited me back again. I think you gain respect from people if you’re true to what you believe.”
Though Brother Cox has devoted much time to the pursuit of scientific knowledge, he never lets that become more important in his life than the pursuit of another type of knowledge—spiritual knowledge. He believes that scholarship and the gospel can work in harmony. “There are a lot of people who believe that faith and reason are located across a gulf,” he says. “Some say if you learn too much you’ll lose your testimony. Others say if you pray too much you’ll lose your mind.” 3 However, Professor Cox believes a person can have both a well-developed testimony and a well-developed mind. His life shows the truth of Nephi’s words, “To be learned is good if [we] hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Ne. 9:29).
Preserving a Culture
This balanced approach to learning is much of the reason Brother Cox has been successful in Samoa. “A lot of people come to Samoa wanting to see things change,” says Dr. Namulauulu Tavana, president of the Pesega Samoa Stake and of the LDS Church College of Western Samoa. “But Paul Cox is different. He comes and lives with the people; sleeps like a Samoan, on the floor; eats and talks like a Samoan.”
Brother Cox learned to appreciate the culture when he served as a missionary in Samoa, beginning in 1973. But it wasn’t always easy, recalls Daniel Betham, first counselor in the Apia Samoa Temple presidency. “His mother told him that whatever the Samoans place in front of you, you eat it all to show your respect. The first village he went to was in Savai‘i. He was given breadfruit, the whole breadfruit, cooked. So he ate everything in the breadfruit, even the seeds.
“He didn’t understand that inside the breadfruit is a part Samoans don’t eat—they throw it away. They call it fune. But he ate it all. While he was eating, the kids in the village were laughing, and when he went out to proselyte that day, everyone was calling him ‘the palangi (white man) who eats the fune.’” However, people were touched by his willingness to try to adapt to their culture. “From then on he became very popular with the people here,” Brother Betham recalls.
During his mission, a chief who was also a branch president drilled the young Elder Cox every evening on a seemingly meaningless series of syllables. Eventually Paul realized the chief was teaching him the highly formal chief’s language. 4 Today, his ability to converse with Samoan leaders in the respectful chief’s language has opened many doors.
President Tavana says Brother Cox is respected by Samoans because he respects them. “He wants to preserve our culture and environment and help people appreciate what we have—he sees us as rich in our culture and environment and language. That’s the difference he’s making. He works with the people to help them appreciate their identity and see the value within themselves, saying, ‘Look, you are great!’ That’s why he’s successful. I love the man.”
After his heroic preservation of their forest, the people of Falealupo honored Brother Cox by making him a Samoan high chief in a traditional ceremony. He was given the name “Chief Nafanua,” one of the highest titles in Samoa. Nafanua is a goddess in Samoan legend who loved the forest, helped the villagers fight their battles, and saved them from oppression. The title seems to fit.
Preserving Healing Knowledge
Brother Cox’s cultural understanding has been an essential part of his ethnobotanical research. When his mother died of cancer in 1984, he decided to study how plants can be used to cure diseases. Later that year, he moved to Western Samoa to study the traditional medicine of Samoan healers. Brother Cox believed that by listening to the healers, who use plants to treat all types of illnesses, he could be guided to plants with medicinal value. He wanted to preserve the healers’ knowledge before the profession died out and the rain forest plants were all destroyed.
Many of the plant species Brother Cox has identified have been proven to fight diseases. One is a tree bark Samoan healers have been using for centuries to treat viruses. From it, researchers have extracted prostatin—which the National Cancer Institute has found slows the growth of the HIV virus in healthy cells. The tree from which prostatin is extracted grows only in an isolated area of Samoa—an area that was nearly logged.
If prostatin is marketed, Samoan people will receive half of the profits. This agreement to protect the rights and property of an indigenous people is the first of its kind.
Preserving a Respect for Creation
Brother Cox has a deeper motivation for saving forests than finding new types of medicine. He believes taking care of the earth shows respect for “that … God who created the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are” (Morm. 9:11).
He explains, “I believe that we live in a beautiful painting, a masterpiece, and that if we love the artist we should not slash the painting.”
Paul says that people of many cultures believe the world is sacred. “When they walk through the forest and look at the light filtering through that canopy, they see the face of God.” He believes that restoring this reverence in all cultures would do more to protect the world than anything else.
“If we are respectful of the planet, the creation, if we have a humble and a meek attitude toward the creations of our Heavenly Father, each of us in some way can indeed make a difference. That may mean doing something as simple as turning off a water tap that’s running, or cleaning our home and property so it’s pleasant and beautiful, or being careful in how we use energy so we don’t waste resources. It may mean treating domestic animals with kindness and compassion, or doing what we can to pick up litter and clean up local areas. I think the issue is not what we do; it’s that we do something, and that we do it with an attitude of praise.”
Several quotes in this article are taken from interviews of Paul Cox by Julie Walker of Brigham Young University Public Communications. Used with permission.
As quoted by Sharon M. Haddock, “Saving rain forests is professor’s forte,” Deseret News, 14 April 1997.
As quoted by Greg Hill, “International acclaim doesn’t skew priorities in BYU scientist’s life,” Church News, 20 May 1995, 6.
As related by Sheridan R. Sheffield, “Botanist’s studies motivated by desire to help sick, afflicted,” Church News, 5 September 1992, 7.