Galápagos Islands: remarkable yet preoccupying

Posted on 25 July 2014 | No responses

We enjoyed last Christmas on the Galapagos Islands, giving ourselves the soulful gift of connecting with nature. We felt incredibly blessed to be in such a unique place on this remarkable planet of ours as animals approached us unguarded, unafraid of humans and as curious about us as we were of them. We wondered at the unique giant tortoises, tame sea lions and abundant bird life.

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Our visit was bitter sweet though, as we noticed the effects of tourism and the swell in population on the islands. We wondered if we should really be there, contributing in that way. Locals profess that tourism funds conservation and research but I couldn’t help feel that there would be greater conservation if we didn’t go there at all. My heart felt burdened as I contemplated the magnitude of destruction humans have unleashed on this planet, even in protected areas like this.

People flock to these islands because they view them as largely untouched… how ironic…

I couldn’t ignore the quiet sadness chaperoning our happiness, our highs and our fun during our visit. All of our wonderful experiences were thanks to tourism (after all, that’s the only way to even get there) but all of the extinctions and destruction are also related to humans and tourism. Weren’t we contributing to this problem simply by visiting?

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Tourism is relatively recent there and already the impact has been massive. The Galápagos became a national park in 1959 and tourism started in the 1960s. In 1959 approximately 1 000 to 2 000 people called the islands their home but by 1972 a census in the archipelago recorded a population of 3 488. By the 1980s this number had risen to more than 15 000 people and in 2010 there were 25 124 people in the Galápagos. Now, I’ve read that they estimate the population at 40 000! In the sixties, there were approximately 1 000 tourists per year and by 2001 there were approximately 80 000 visitors. Since 2007 tourist numbers have stagnated at around 170 000 annually because of the global financial crisis. If pre-crisis growth rates had continued, there were fears that number could have reached 300 000 tourists.

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The Galápagos Islands are remote and isolated, which allowed the ecosystems there to evolve over millions of years in a unique way. Many factors have interrupted these ecosystems drastically.  Now, there are a plethora of environmental problems plaguing the islands, some stemming from the pressures of world climate changes such as El Niño, others arising from commercial fishing, and overpopulation, and many resulting from the introduction of species by humans dating back to the 1800s… not to mention the grounding of the oil tanker Jessica in 2001 and the subsequent oil spill.

Humans have accidentally or willingly introduced plants and animals, such as feral goats, cats, and cattle, which have become the main threat to Galápagos. Quick to reproduce and with no natural predators, these alien species have decimated the habitats of native species. The native animals, lacking natural predators on the islands, are defenseless to introduced predators.  There are over 700 introduced plant species today. There are only 500 native and endemic species. This difference is creating a major problem for the islands and the natural species that inhabit them.

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There is also pressure on the natural resources and conservation problems that motor yachts and trash bring. Over fishing or illegal fishing has become a large issue. When migrants do not find work in tourism, they often find jobs in the fishing industry. The sea cucumber and sharks of the Galápagos have become alarming targets, both popular in Asian markets for their aphrodisiac or medicinal qualities.

However, some problems started way before the 60s, back when humans found out about these abundant islands. In 1793 the islands started being used as a base for the whalers operating in the Pacific Ocean. Whalers and maritime fur traders killed and captured thousands of the Galápagos tortoises to extract their fat and this hunting was responsible for greatly diminishing, and in some cases eliminating, certain species. Along with whalers came the fur-seal hunters, who brought the population of this animal close to extinction. Then, in 1820 the whaleship  Globe discovered sperm whales in the area which led to taking more than 2000 barrels of sperm whale oil and the news of the discovery back to the US. In turn there was an influx of whaleships to exploit the new whaling ground and the Galapagos Islands became a frequent stop for the whalers.

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It was surprising to us that “aside from the azure waters and nearby unspoilt white beaches, little distinguishes Puerto Ayora, where two-thirds of the islands’ 26,000 people live, from the mainland’s many grim towns of concrete and corrugated tin roofs”. According to this article, “many people on the Galapagos are locked in their own Darwinian struggle for a share of the dollars that tourism has brought in. Allegations of corruption and drug smuggling add to the small-town cauldron of jealous competition. Despite the estimated annual influx of $150m from tourism into the Galápagos economy, poverty remains a serious problem. A 2010 government study found that 31% of residents are poor, measured according to how well their basic needs are met. Galápagos also has above-average rates of domestic violence for Ecuador. More than 40% of the adult population have had only basic or no schooling at all, though literacy rates are higher than on the mainland. While Ecuador gets positive marks for the conservation effort, many locals feel hemmed in. They experience freedom of movement when they visit relatives on the mainland. At home, residents are restricted to the 3% of the islands not officially part of the national park, and prices for trips are too high for them to visit the same spots that tourists rave about. Mr Delgado believes this reduces their appreciation for conservation.”

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These were certainly our feelings as we counted in the new year on the Galápagos. We weren’t in the partying mood. Brimming with love and appreciation for nature and all that we were experiencing was enough of a celebration. We wandered around briefly – curious about the amount of litter and glitz that felt so alien and toxic in this natural sanctuary. We didn’t want to give our attention to the loud music and fireworks that we imagined frightening all the non-human beings tucked out of site. We didn’t want to gawk at the large plastic beer cups being thrown to the ground, that we’d later see in the ocean. We didn’t want to judge people staggering from too much alcohol. We just couldn’t imagine seeing in the new year in such a way in a place that deserves our respect, our light touch, clarity and peace.

We are not judging those for partying (although I am for littering!), it’s just that the way things are done on the islands don’t always seem to correlate with what we went there to experience: nature. I’m not just talking about the new year party. That example just made it clear. The way the tours are done, the shops, the streets, the way inhabitants on the islands live… I guess I had imagined that the sort of people who would live there would be passionate about that environment and be nature lovers but the truth is that many are simply there to make a living. Again, I’m not judging them… please don’t mistake my intention here as I’m just sharing with you how it is. I do think education is needed though.

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Whilst on the islands we read David Suzuki’s A Lifetime of Ideas. I think the following excerpt from his book is an apt summary of our experience too:

Homo sapiens is a truly global animal. Our adaptability, made possible by the inventiveness of our brain, has enabled us to occupy every continent. There is nowhere on Earth that we haven’t been. And we have invaded that hallowed biological laboratory that shaped Darwin’s thinking. Once remote hiding places for pirates, the Galápagos Islands are magical jewels attracting hordes of ecotourists.

The name Galápagos conjures up other words— HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin, finches, evolution. To a biologist, a visit to these fabled islands is a pilgrimage to the source of the inspiration for the great unifying concept in the life sciences. The remote equatorial archipelago, long protected from human habitation by its isolation, was an evolutionary laboratory seemingly made just for the observant scientist. Today, the islands are an Ecuadorian national park that allows the privileged visitor to take a trip back through time.

On arrival, my first impressions were of the animals that are present in awesome profusion—the iguanas, frigate birds, boobies, sea lions, flamingos, and tortoises. Birds, reptiles, and marine mammals, often in astonishing numbers, share overlapping territory, with remarkably little overt aggression. The most emotional part of the Galápagos experience for me was the animals’ complete lack of fear of humans. It was profoundly humbling to be ignored as a nonthreatening part of the surroundings. Based on what we have done to creatures elsewhere on Earth, Galápagos animals should flee from us in terror. I am deeply grateful that they don’t.

My second reaction was that the planet has grown so small that we can’t escape the evidence and impact of our species. It’s not just the bits of plastic and other human-created debris to be seen on every beach; ecotourism itself is the main force that shapes the fate of the flora and fauna here. Two airports allow jets to bring in a torrent of tourists, who support the islands’ human communities as well as the Ecuadorian government. As I watched the oil slick from bilge water being pumped from our small boat, I couldn’t help thinking that even the most enlightened tourists have an effect. And although ecosystems are resilient, there are limits.

When the second airport was built a few years ago, the ceiling on tourists was raised from 25 000 to 40 000 a year. The village of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island is exploding with unlimited immigration of Ecuadorians, and the impact of the 5 500 settlers is apparent everywhere. Continued growth of the island population will inexorably put greater pressure on the island ecosystems, and human and nonhuman needs will inevitably conflict.

The basic problem is that our ignorance is simply too vast to allow “management” of complex communities of organisms. The best approach is to be very conservative and tightly control the most destructive element in the islands, namely, us. History suggests that’s not likely.

Over tens of millennia of isolation, each island of the Galápagos was an evolutionary opportunity. New species arrived as part of the flotsam and jetsam that blow and wash onto any ocean islands. Most have disappeared; only a few survived. But like North and South America and Australia over the past five centuries, the Galápagos Islands in recent time have been radically altered both deliberately and accidentally by a succession of pirates, whalers, and settlers.

The famous giant tortoises, a source of fresh meat for ocean voyagers, were carted off by the tens of thousands, extinguishing them from some islands. Introduced plants such as elephant grass, guyaba, and wild cucumber have altered the species mix on some islands. Insects such as wasps and fire ants have taken hold and have become major pests for people, while the black-billed ani, a bird introduced to eat ticks and insect parasites on cattle, has become a major competitor with the endemic birds. But the real disasters have been the mammals such as cats, burros, goats, pigs, rats, and dogs. The government has instituted “control” programs to reduce or eradicate goats and cats by poison, traps, and hunting, but the logistical problems are enormous and each has its associated negative side.

The Charles Darwin Station on Santa Cruz Island supports research and has a breeding program to increase numbers of threatened animals such as tortoises for release back into the wild. But again, human perceptions and priorities based on limited knowledge are being imposed on the islands.

So although a visit to the Galápagos is a sublime experience, it does not provide an escape from the reality of the global ecocrisis. Yet sharing space that is home for other species is spiritually uplifting, filling us with awe, reverence, and indeed, love. These emotional connections could be the beginning of a new attitude that might eventually change the way we live on Earth.

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Bolivian Story: Alejandro Barrios

Posted on 25 June 2014 | 1 response

I met Alejandro whilst volunteering at vegan restaurant, Red Monkey, in La Paz, Bolivia. Ale was in charge of baking the bread and making the vegan cakes. I was fascinated by making cakes without eggs, milk or butter and I knew they must be good because Ale is the happiest, most laid back person there… high on life and baked goods! Actually, Ale’s wonderful attitude to life, his joyful presence and playfulness is what kept me going back on Thursdays to help out in the kitchen. I’m so grateful for the time spent with him, exchanging, learning from him and teaching him my sourdough skills too. I hope you enjoy this short interview with a charming Bolivian baker. :)

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I met you at Red Monkey, where you work as a chef, specialising in cakes and breads… can you tell me how you became a chef and interested in food?

I think that there are many reasons I decided to become a chef but the most important reason lies principally with my own experiences in life, the way I understand these experiences and how they influence all that I do. When I finished my studies in Marketing and Logistics I was feeling a little bit insecure, without many ideas of what to do next. I wasn’t sure if I sent my CV to some companies I would even be interested in working for them. I thought about starting some project by myself, but in any case I wasn’t sure if I was really made to develop in this area. Instead, I decided to start working with food. I contacted a guy in Santa Cruz who has a natural fish breeding center and I started bringing his fish to La Paz and selling them to restaurants. This continued for just one year because it was so expensive for me to transport the fish to La Paz and the business wasn’t attractive anymore. Then I worked with my father for two years in the “family company”, which is in dressmaking. I had many roles there but not the one that I knew would bring me a smile every day. At this time I started to spend more time in the kitchen, sometimes just because it relaxed me better than anything, and other times trying to get some ideas, prove some new flavours, and most trying to give an extra value to this products I was selling at that time. In 2012 I decided to go to Buenos Aires, Argentina, for a year and I took an intensive course in gastronomy. After a year of good results I returned to La Paz, and joined Pablo and Rebeca in this fantastic journey at Red Monkey of which I’m so proud to be part of!

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What is it that makes you proud about working at Red Monkey and what does your job include?

I am proud to be part of Red Monkey because it’s not just a food project or simply another restaurant, but it’s a whole concept that drives everything we do. We always try to make things with a purpose and aim to give the best to our clients. The concept of conscious food is that we commit ourselves to make everything we do with dedication, love and responsibility. All these things allow us personal growth and of course it also brings out the best in each of us. This work allows me to be creative, to be happy each day, to be in contact with nice people… and everything makes me a better person! Right now my job includes bread making and bakery work. I also have to be in the kitchen during service time, as a chef or as a supervisor. I experiment and create new dishes for new seasonal menus too. Basically, I do whatever is needed at the time though. The idea is to be capable of developing at any position you are in and that’s another good aspect of my job.

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What do you love about making bread and cakes?

What I love the most about making bread and cakes is of course to taste them!! I realised that I had the appropriate hands, the touch, for this job when I made my first bread in Argentina – I was at my bakery class and I had to knead my first dough, which I had excellent results in and my baked bread was awesome. At the end of the bakery course I realised I had real skills with dough and I got one of the best grades of the class. I have always been a lover of sweetness – I’ve always liked to eat cakes and chocolate, cookies and pies… and I’ve always had this admiration for good bread. So I think all this made me a good confectioner. Of course, I had to learn many things about vegan pastries, like how to replace an egg or milk, the temperatures, textures and many other interesting things. This made me love pastries even more and I’m so happy that I have the opportunity to continue learning and developing many things in this area.

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I’ve noticed the menu at Red Monkey has changed recently… can you tell me about how you were involved?

Yes, we have a new menu and it’s full of new flavours and textures! It is 10 months since we opened now and during this time we have improved our kitchen in many ways. For this new menu we mostly focused on bringing new and more intense flavours, trying to use uncommon ingredients that stand out for their interesting textures and colours. I was involved in the whole process of the new menu, first with the proofs we did with each ingredient, trying to match the flavours, then with the assembly of each plate and even the structure of the menu. Of course, my major responsibility was on the new bread flavours and deserts. I had so much fun working on this, because I’ve learnt many new things and had the chance to be creative during the whole process. Now we don’t just have cakes as desert options, but, as examples, we also have new and delicious chocolate mousse and some caramelized pears.

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What are your dreams for the future?

For the future I imagine being part of a big healthy food revolution. I would love to be part of conscious projects, working with communities and people who can help us reach our goals. I would like to teach some of my knowledge and try to make people love to eat their own food if its possible, or at least make them conscious about what they consume every day. Whatever the results are, I would like to contribute to the community, take care of nature and show people how can they make the difference with small actions and attitudes. Of course, I would like to be happy and make people happy too.

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Suburban food gardening in Perth, Western Australia

Posted on 5 May 2014 | No responses

Over the past year I’ve been following a facebook group called Jetto’s Patch, a Perth edible garden on less than half an acre (1482 square meters). Admittedly, my involvement in the group has been minimal as we’ve been in Bolivia gardening in a completely different environment. I’ve quietly sat back and read posts, information and advice from people all over the world but I’ve been specifically interested in Dario and Michele, who nurture their abundant garden with passion and research.

Friends of ours in Perth have found Jetto’s an inspiring and deep resource for their own budding suburban food garden. [...] Continue Reading…

Bolivian Story: Felipe Ballon

Posted on 3 April 2014 | 2 responses

I have known Felipe Ballon since very soon after our arrival in La Paz but most of my time was spent with him in his car! Felipe is the taxi-driver hired by the NGO I used to work with, so we would frequently spend the hour long trip to/from the airport discussing Bolivia and its intriguing contradictions.  As a taxi-driver I particularly enjoyed his punctuality – even when he had to pick me up from the airport at 3 am – and as a friend I enjoyed learning from him as he shared his perspectives on Bolivian society. So, [...] Continue Reading…

Bolivian Story: Maria Calzadilla

Posted on 26 March 2014 | 1 response

One sunny day I went to a Mercadito Pop [a fair] and discovered an amazing electric blue felted hat I just had to have to protect me from the harsh sun we get here at the high altitude of La Paz. The lady designing and selling these unique hats was Maria. I noticed straight away she was a woman caring about design. You know those sort of people, right? They look effortless. They always have something ever so slightly different hanging from their ears or neck, but never too over-the-top or in-your-face. This is Maria – comfortable, unique, creative [...] Continue Reading…

Bolivian Story: Sandra

Posted on 10 March 2014 | 2 responses

Just two weeks after I arrived in Bolivia I began daily Spanish classes with Sandra. She didn’t want to be interviewed or have photos taken, which is also why I haven’t included her surname. This Bolivian Story is to tell you about why she has been such a big part of my life here.

My first year in La Paz was difficult for me. Jean was frequently travelling for work, I didn’t know anyone and most days the only other person I spoke to was Sandra, for 1 or maybe 2 hours… in Spanish.  It was exhausting. Some days I [...] Continue Reading…

Bolivian Story: Daniela Lorini

Posted on 8 March 2014 | No responses

One day we visited the Christmas fair at the American school and discovered some unique, beautiful mirrors, paintings and coat hooks being sold by Daniela Lorini. She was there with her partner, Arnaud, selling her art works which stood out among the collection of crafts there. We started talking and before we left Dani asked for our contact details. At the time I thought she was just being polite but they were different. They remembered us and invited us over for dinner in the new year. We instantly connected.

I started hanging out at Dani’s place one day a week [...] Continue Reading…

Bolivian Story: Diane Bellomy, Artesania Sorata

Posted on 6 March 2014 | No responses

Soon after we arrived in Bolivia we met Diane Bellomy. Diane’s work was very interesting to me since she owns a Fair Trade business called Artesania Sorata, producing and selling hand dyed and handmade alpaca clothing, accessories and home wares that are generally made by women. Here in La Paz there are very few places that sell genuinely handmade, genuinely Bolivian or genuinely Fair Trade alpaca wear, despite the numerous shops in the tourist street Calle Sagarnaga claiming some of these. So, before long I started volunteering unofficially around 3-4 days a week, for around a year. During this [...] Continue Reading…

How to vermicompost: composting with worms

Posted on 4 March 2014 | No responses

We are packing. We are moving to Australia, starting all again. I find myself a little teary occasionally as I say goodbye to all our babies – our plants, bacterias and yeasts I’ve nurtured carefully over the years here in Bolivia. Kombucha SCOBYs, kefir grains, sourdough starter, worms and apple cider vinegar mothers all to be distributed to caring souls wanting to improve their health. I think about the future, starting them all again. I’ve had so much pleasure with my weekly routines – feeding the worms, watering the plants, kneading the sourdough, bottling the kombucha…

Anyway, I’m a sentimental [...] Continue Reading…

Bolivian Story: Enrique MacLean and Paola Recacoechea

Posted on 28 February 2014 | No responses

Our first trip out of La Paz after we arrived in Bolivia was to Lake Titicaca for a long weekend away. We spent a couple of nights on Isla del Sol in an eco-lodge, which is where we met Enrique and Paola. They became our very first friends here. During that weekend on Isla del Sol we enjoyed dinner together each evening, laughing and talking about everything from heavy metal to politics. Back in La Paz our friendship grew, including pot lucks at our home and sometimes Enrique and Jean would ‘jam’ together – Enrique on guitar and Jean [...] Continue Reading…

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