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Verve People
March 29, 2019

Celine Cousteau Has Made It Her Life’s Mission To Protect The Deep Amazon

Text by Shirin Mehta

Documentary film-maker, adventurer, jewellery designer and public speaker Céline Cousteau speaks to Verve of her recent India visit as an ambassador for The TreadRight Foundation. She tells us about exploring and filming the deep Amazon and its indigenous tribes and being on the research vessel Calypso with her legendary explorer-oceanographer grandfather, Jacques Cousteau…

The telephone line connects us over time zones…. The voice at the other end is faint, but I am excited to hear what it has to say. I have already formed a deep admiration for the courageous lady who is probably just getting herself her morning cuppa — intrepid explorer, film-maker, saver of the environment. Céline Cousteau and her documentary film company CauseCentric Productions (CCP) provide “a megaphone” in her own words, to men and women who are doing incredible work to protect ecosystems, species and people. Very often with hardly any, or no resources at all….

Telling stories with the specific intention of igniting action, Cousteau urges that everyone be ‘cause-centric’ and lend a hand to those with a message to share. Having inherited Jacques Cousteau’s (French explorer-film-maker-scientist and her grandfather) spirit of adventure, she travels to Melimoyu Bay in Chile capturing the narrative of this diverse ecosystem and the organisation protecting it, the Melimoyu Ecosystem Research Institute (MERI). She visits with the non-profit Mesoamerican Reef (MAR) Leadership Program which approaches conservation through ‘intelligent investment in people’. In India, she works with elephant conservationists and recognises the problems of survival for these animals. She traipses through fjords. She dives into secluded lagoons. She traverses giant rivers. And all this, sometimes, with her young son (now seven) in tow….

Excerpts from a conversation with Verve….

Could you tell us about CauseCentric Productions (CCP)?
Sure, so CCP really began with recognising the need to create short visual content for smaller organisations and individuals who are doing great work in the world, but don’t necessarily have the funding or the time to put together a visual communication tool to tell their stories. I wanted to support and give back by creating these short stories. It was started as a non-profit organisation, and eventually we created The Céline Cousteau Film Fellowship. We have currently been concentrating all of our efforts on the film, Tribes on the Edge.

What is this impact campaign about?
It is three different initiatives — action, communication and education. For the action component, there are tangible projects that we will be putting into place with the guidance of the indigenous people in the Brazilian Amazon; we will work with them to create a strategy plan for the implementation of the projects and solutions for some of the issues they face. The communication initiative is about creating dialogue by sharing the film, and the media and PR campaign to highlight the challenges faced by the indigenous population of the Javari and Amazon. The third component, education, has reached over 4,500 students in more than 40 countries by simply using tools like Skype and Google Hangouts. It’s taught them a little bit about the importance of indigenous people as the guardians of the rainforest, the importance of biodiversity in the Amazon and why it matters to us.

Is this what brought you to India?
No actually…and I hope I will have to come back, because I’ve seen so little of the culture and the country. The possibilities, I think, are so vast.… What brought me to India was my relationship as The TreadRight Foundation ambassador. This is the charitable arm of The Travel Corporation — a very large company of travel brands — and I am on their advisory committee and their spokesperson for the efforts they support around the world. If you take a quick look on their website, you’ll see some of the extensive work that’s been done; they want to support the people and the wildlife in the places where these travel companies take their clients. So there are projects to support artisans and women’s co-ops; in India the work is with Wildlife SOS, which is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation centre.

Why should the Amazon and its indigenous protectors matter to us here in India?
Primarily, I think the big message is that we are interconnected with everything on the planet. A lot of people say, ‘Oh well, it’s on the people in the Amazon, it’s so far away from us, what does that have to do with us?’ First of all, it’s about human rights; this is their land. You have a lot of illegal activity — such as logging, gold-mining, fishing, people encroaching on their land. And it sometimes leads to violent conflict. You have the government that wants to reduce the amount of land that these tribes have. So we consider that a kind of violation of their rights. On a bigger scale, if you look at indigenous territories in the Amazon and in this case, the Brazilian Amazon, there is no deforestation as indigenous tribes do not indulge in this practice on their land. And when we think about the fact that 20 per cent of the world’s oxygen is generated by the Amazon rainforest, we can see that the indigenous people are the front line guardians of this ecosystem. And if it’s 20 per cent of the oxygen that’s generated by the Amazonian rainforests, we literally depend on them for every sixth breath that we take. So, globally speaking, this is an ecosystem that matters to all of us.

Do you have memories of being on the famous ship Calypso with your grandfather?
I remember being on it…. My grandmother (Simone Melchior-Cousteau) travelled on the Calypso more than my grandfather did. That’s not something a lot of people talk about, but I think it’s important to know. I would accompany her when the vessel would go on an expedition and my grandmother and I would return on the Calypso, while my grandfather, my father, anyone else on the crew, would fly in and out. And so really I see the legacy of my grandfather very much tied to my grandmother; she was at the front line of those stories. At the time that my grandfather was going on his expeditions, there weren’t satellite or cell phones, we didn’t have Skype or FaceTime and all of that, so travelling on these kinds of expeditions wasn’t as safe as it might be today, purely because of the lack of communication and access. I did travel to the Amazon with my grandfather when I was nine, and I spent a couple of weeks aboard the Calypso, which I believe really generated my affinity and passion for that region of the world. I was in college when he passed away, so I feel like I had plenty of years to know and remember him by. What I think is beautiful is that one person has the ability to inspire people around the world, no matter the country, culture, or language. And that’s something we should remember today — that each one of us can be an inspiration, and I feel that part of my heritage is to give back. Part of my heritage is the legacy that we can all inherit. If we were influenced or inspired by my grandfather, we can pass that on to our children and future generations to do something positive for people on the planet. And I think that’s a responsibility I can carry with pride.

How did your mother and grandmother manage a little girl on expeditions? Do you now take your son with you?
My mother (Anne-Marie Cousteau), as an expedition photographer, travelled with essentially a bunch of men and she was inspiring. She didn’t start travelling till I was nine years old, she wanted to make sure she was there for my older brother and me for our first formative years. What’s different now is that my husband (Çapkin van Alphen) and I work together quite a bit, he’s a cameraman and a co-captain and the chief diver, and at times we have taken our son with us when we’re able to bring somebody to help take care of him. We want him to really have an understanding of the kind of work we do and why we do it; we are very much focused on telling stories about environmental and humanitarian challenges but also about the earth. I think it’s healthy for a child to see that but at the same time I want him to be able to see his friends on a regular basis and have the stability of that kind of a childhood. So we are always finding a balance in when he can travel with us and when he needs to stay home. It’s not always easy.

When have you felt the most connected to the Earth and to the universe?
I think there are times when I feel really small in the world. In the middle of the jungle you feel tiny, in the ocean…. I’ve been with humpback whales in Hawaii and when you have this giant animal swim by you, glance at you, you feel very much alive…. I feel like those are great moments of perspective on how small we are in the world and this universe. It’s really those moments of isolation in nature that I find have a big influence on me, so I would say…in the oceans, in the Amazon and in Antarctica too…. I mean when you’re sitting on that ice plain and there are thousands of penguins around you, you realise how amazing nature actually is.

How do you prepare for your expeditions?
Fitness-wise I just make sure I am in constant movement; I take yoga classes; I do a lot of walking in the forest here where I live, and then depending on what I’m doing (on expedition) I might have to be more vigorous about actually going to the gym. Typically I’m just an active person, so I’ll go for a walk several times a week and maybe take one or two yoga classes and I find that’s enough. I have a healthy diet, I try to eat mostly organic; I don’t have a 100 per cent vegetarian habit but 80 per cent. In terms of a beauty regimen, now as I age, I take much better care of my skin because I’m out in the sun a lot. I really just need to be careful of what is most exposed which is my face, so I see a dermatologist to make sure everything is okay and that I’m always wearing sunscreen. I try to choose the most natural products possible to put on my skin.

What is your connection with La Prairie and Swarovski?
I have been with La Prairie about five to six years, and what I felt was that just because they’re luxury products doesn’t mean we have to let go of the environmental factors. If anything, we should be able to access people who are buying these products and this was an opportunity to work with the brand which had at the time created a line that was about using ingredients in a sustainable way for a younger generation of clients. And they wanted an authentic voice to speak to the clientele. I felt the people who buy these products have the monetary ability to make a difference. So I felt it’s important to connect with different spectrums of society no matter what the economic standing is.

With Swarovski, the relationship was more on a creative, artistic level. I have a background in art and I used to make jewellery so when they invited me to be a guest designer, it felt natural for me to tell a story through jewellery. For me the form that the story takes is not what’s most important, it’s the message. I think that there are a lot of people who react to art, to painting, to sculpture to jewellery who maybe will not watch a documentary. So it gives me an opportunity to reach out to more people.

Is there anything that you collect on your expeditions?
I’m not a collector; I don’t like having things sitting on shelves that need to be dusted. I take photographs, I take videos…. I do enjoy finding things for other people though. So we’ll bring a rock back for my son from somewhere and tell him the story around it. For example, I found a rock on top of a glacier in Patagonia and that rock had been carried for many kilometres before it got there…so I’m able to tell him the story of the clay, the rock, which may seem to be a strange gift to bring back, but I think it has great significance.

Why are the oceans important for our future?
The oceans, first of all, provide 50 per cent of our oxygen; microscopic plants are actually creating oxygen that we breathe. They also help regulate wind patterns and air temperature which then obviously leads to weather patterns. The oceans provide a large percentage of the world’s protein, and there are communities that are completely dependent on them, and those food systems are at risk from unsustainable fishing processes and global warming. The tourism industry depends on the health of the coastlines and healthy coral reef systems. Whether we know it or not we are interconnected on so many levels — through our economy, food systems and weather patterns — and the oceans are at the centre of so much of our lives.

How do you see the earth in 10 years’ time?
There are days when I’m sad and pessimistic because we hear so much bad news, but then I realise there are so many amazing people who are fighting to protect the planet. I really feel that positive energy is important, I think it is essential for us to keep fighting the good fight, to keep moving forward in implementing solutions. I also feel like there’s no way the next generation should have to deal with issues that we and our predecessors have created.

What do you see as your legacy?
I’m not sure…. If I can inspire a few people to do better, to care more, that could be part of my legacy. I want people to experience a shift in consciousness in their relationship with each other and nature and if I’ve influenced a few people then maybe I’ve done my part.

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