What can you add?

The Richard Dawkins Foundation site pointed me to an article from The Raw Story concerning the rapid decay of the Galápagos due to eco-tourism, which I thought was worth a post, especially since it ties in with another that I’ve been working on that will be along soon.

Permit me to elaborate for a moment on what may be old news for three of my four readers. The Galápagos are a short string of islands off the coast of South America that Charles Darwin visited during his travels on the Beagle, and the specific nature of their environmental niches and the traits of the similar species therein helped him develop the idea of natural selection. The tortoises and the finches found on each island, while presumably the same species as found on the other islands, possessed certain traits that worked well for the foliage and conditions specific only to the island where they lived. In other words, natural selection had dictated which minor changes in their makeup would be best suited for their survival. And because of their location and especially isolation, these islands are unique in the world insofar as their native species and environment, including the lack of a fear of humans that many of the species display. All of these contribute to the idea of eco-tourism, where people visit to see the unique species and behavior and to see where Darwin’s theory was born.

Therein lies the problem, since where there is any kind of demand, somebody will look to exploit it, even in a thriving economy – this applies even more so to the fluctuating economy of Ecuador, of which the Galápagos is a province. Tourism is now the principal activity on the islands, and their development over the past few decades has been devoted almost solely to this. With this, of course, comes population pressures, land clearing, greater traffic, trash, pollution, and introduced species. In short, the very nature of the islands is now being irretrievably altered by the same people who come to witness it.

It could be easy to blame the government of Ecuador, which failed to introduce or enforce adequate safeguards against such exploitation, or the tour operators themselves who place the tourist income over the ecosystem – but this is similar to blaming our popular media for producing vapid pablum. It is the tourists themselves that directly contribute to the decline of the area, and ironically enough, solely due to the interest in it as an unspoiled region.

I touched on this before in the book review for Last Chance To See. A side effect of telling people about the rarity and delicacy of any particular ecosystem, most especially ones with their own distinctive fauna, is that it increases the desire for people to see this for themselves. I understand this, insofar as I have felt the same thing personally, but it merits highlighting just how utterly pointless this is. For instance, I might have the opportunity to produce my very own images of marine iguanas or Darwin’s finches, but this is little more than a personal accomplishment – photos from others abound, and none of them even required any kind of hardship or effort. Any contribution to “awareness” would be minuscule at best, and worse, even if it actually did confer some kind of status to me due to my images of such species, it’s an empty accolade, a plastic trophy for having the neatest desk (okay, a bad example.)

Yet to an unknown extent, those that have visited are a part of an elite club, or at least the perception of one. They’ve not only gone to an exotic place, but one that holds a special environmental/biological prestige – they’ve done something important on vacation. How many people feel they’ve been active in conservation efforts with such a trip, and have done their part for ecology? Since the islands are not (yet) resorts brimming with amenities or activities, the draw for such tours lies almost entirely with the allure of the Galápagos’ reputation, not the fun of clambering around rocky barren surfaces. Doing a search of “Galápagos tours” demonstrates what the companies (take note of how many) have found to be the biggest selling points, and even the conservation organizations promote tours as ways to support their cause, as well as reinforcing the concept of the unique experience. While it’s probably impossible to calculate the positive and negative effects of such efforts with any accuracy, it’s not hard to imagine that the small percentage of the package prices that goes towards conservation efforts does not offset the actual destruction that tourism brings. How many “conservation efforts” of such a nature would accomplish more by simply shutting down operations?

More importantly, how much would it take to convince people to find legitimate, worthwhile conservation programs and just donate to them without expecting anything in return, keeping damage to a minimum and realizing the best value for that money? This is an approach rarely used because people aren’t motivated solely by cause, but by their emotional experience – and in fact, this describes an unknown, but potentially very high, percentage of any activism in the first place. People want to see the pandas up close and swim with the dolphins, brag about their trip to Mauritius and distribute authentic souvenirs from the Amazon basin. In a culture where what you do for vacation implies both your success and personality, eco-tourism has a message all its own. Unfortunately, that message is not yet, “I care more about the impression of being environmentally conscious than actually doing something beneficial,” though this is too often the grim reality. Regardless of how legitimate any particular eco-tour is, avoiding any impact at all from human presence is better in all cases.

The linked article illustrates why this continues to deteriorate. Not only was the reporter present in person to write the story, but she also mentioned an art exhibition, initiated by the Galápagos Conservation Trust and the Gulbenkian Foundation, that has sent a dozen artists to the islands apparently to produce a firsthand experience, which influences their art exhibitions. One artist, Marcus Coates, was quoted in the article:

“I had no idea that anyone even lived on the Galápagos,” says Coates. “There’s this huge conflict between people and animals and this bizarre situation where people are almost second-class citizens compared to the wildlife.” The impact on his art has been profound, he says; it’s made him entirely rethink what it is to be human.

Well, isn’t that fantastic? Coates is now profoundly impacted by information he could have gained over the phone. Yet, the profundity of it all is especially communicated in his performance piece of having walked around the island trick-or-treating as a blue-footed booby because, you know, nothing raises awareness and promotes responsibility like pointless confusion. Even if we assume, rashly I think, that someone actually got a useful message out of that, right there in an article decrying tourism is the direct implication that this artist’s personal visit was necessary to change his way of thinking. That’s exactly the opposite of what you really need to communicate.

I’m not arguing against the small amounts of damage that may be done in the interests of greater advances, and realize that film crews, for instance, can drive an impression home to millions of people who require the visual stimulation. But for most places targeted for eco-tourism, the information has been produced hundreds of times over in the past several decades and is readily available to some schmuck just sitting at his computer (ahem.) What is necessary is the fostering of a specific attitude towards genuine benefit, and especially efforts to highlight the misleading impressions of eco-tourism and activism. It’s not a difficult message: “Send your money, not your ass.” Your personal impression is only of value if you can reach thousands of people and are effective in changing their minds. Otherwise, explore a swamp near home, negate the carbon impact of the airliner and the cruise ship, and learn something real about ecosystems.

And while we’re at it, tackle a photo subject where an encounter takes real effort and skill, as opposed to having a tour guide walk you up to habituated penguins. You’ll be prouder of the results.