I was not expecting to see the hashtag “#ActúaPorElClima” (ActOnClimate) on my trip to the Galapagos. Travelling with my sister to Darwin’s Enchanted Isles for her research project on local food production, I was struck by how many people named climate change as an issue of concern for these islands, and how well-informed people seemed about the changes that were occurring. On the Saturday night that we were on Santa Cruz Island, for example, an Earth Hour event organized by World Wildlife Fund and local partners highlighted climate change, local food, and other environmental issues facing the archipelago. It seemed as if everywhere my sister and I went on the islands, we were either among unique natural species or discussing efforts to preserve the priceless living laboratory that is the Galapagos.
Our trip to the Galapagos was far from the typical tourist experience, which allowed us to take note of the various indications of climate impacts, solutions, and challenges facing the islands we visited. Starting with the Baltra airport, the only LEED Gold certified airport in the world, we saw some great examples of small-scale clean energy, recycling, and conservation efforts, but it was also obvious that the rapid growth of residents and tourists is both threatening and straining the islands’ resources. Invasive species are public enemy number one, and in a changing climate with ever-growing tourism, their presence is an ongoing challenge. Despite an ambitious goal of 100% clean energy by 2017, the Galapagos remains largely dependent on fossil fuels (energy generation comes from petroleum-powered plants) and shipping operations from the continent for the provision of energy and food.
We learned from farmers that natural and economic challenges to local agriculture abound: this rainy season has been unusually dry, for one, and the high cost of taxis to the port towns has made transporting island-grown food to consumers difficult for farmers. The government’s narrow focus on tourism as the economic driver of the islands is often at odds with sustainability, local food production, and conservation efforts. But alternative, authentic “ecotourism” models might provide a way to reconcile these previously competing goals of tourism, local community wellbeing, and sustainability.
At the Earth Hour event, the interconnectedness of all the environmental issues facing the islands was a prevailing theme. In the same sentence, the people we talked with mentioned climate change, food sovereignty, overfishing and threats to the natural biodiversity. They’re all related on the islands. Galapagüeños have a holistic understanding of their environment that allows for great multi-sector collaboration and grand visions, but these visions are often difficult to implement politically – due to the siloed nature of government agencies – and economically. The cooking contest, local food demonstrations, trivia, and shut-off of street lights that happened at the event seemed more geared towards general consciousness-raising than any specific policy or project objectives.
On the second island we visited, our contact Milton Aguas led us on an unforgettable experience that lived out his vision for sustainable development and tourism on the islands. He and his wife took us to their family farm in the highlands, which he’s hoping to turn into an ecotourism destination. We hiked, swam among waterfalls, pressed sugar cane into syrup, processed coffee, and dined on a farm-to-table feast of fish in coconut-green pepper-garlic sauce with rice and fried plantains. Walking amidst that verdant landscape, it was easy to picture the Galapagos as they had first appeared to Darwin and other early explorers – volcanic, wild, and unique. Milton has aspirations of powering his farm with solar panels, and using his sugar cane to make ethanol for his vehicles. While the farm, guesthouses, and agroforestry landscape that he has built and cultivated himself are an impressive feat, community support seems necessary to fulfill his vision.
The natural wonders of the Galapagos are undoubtedly at risk – UNESCO named the archipelago a World Heritage Site in Danger in 2007 – but the islands retain pristine and beautiful reminders of the species we are working to save through climate change mitigation and conservation initiatives. The people of the Galapagos, struggling to make a living in an Edenic natural paradise, highlight the need for environmental and development solutions that benefit the local population, not just tourists. And the sustainability goals of the islands reveal that community-focused efforts to address climate change are present even in the far reaches of the world. This trip was an inspirational and unforgettable reinforcement of what’s at stake and what’s happening to address climate change in communities around the world. In the Galapagos, I found many climate stories to tell.