Diving The Galapagos

a blog for DiveTheGalapagos.com

Visitors can ‘green’ the Galapagos…here’s how

reform_greenWhat started as a simple trip report, but ended with what to me seemed like a condemnation of any land-based operations based on the assumption that boats are a greener choice ended up as the seed for something that I hope we can build from this year.

I thought I would begin simply by copying our scubaboard exchange:

posted:…Definitely worth visiting but if you’re serious about the environment, think carefully. The inhabitants of the island (15000 in Porto Ayora and 8000 on San Cristobel) are only there because of tourism and the damage these settlements is doing to the islands is evident – trash goes to land fill on Santa Cruz and there is no sewage treatment – it’s just pumped into the sea in a long brown slick. Water treatment must surely be a priority for these towns else they risk destroying the very marine habitat the tourism and land wildlife so depends upon.

If you’re not part of the the solution – you’re part of the problem

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DTG: I always love reading dive trip reports, especially from the Galapagos, but I’m afraid I have to ask why visitors think cruises are a ‘greener’ choice than anything land based? Add them all up and all of the food scraps and sewage (and sometimes worse) from roughly 3000 people per week are going into the Marine Reserve. Annually, that’s more than 6 times the population who lives there. Townspeople don’t spill fuel nor motor 24/7 (therefore burning that much fossil fuel) nor toss big anchors and damage the undersea environment.

New permits mandate sewage holding tanks, etc, but even with laws in place to protect the environment, there’s no one around to enforce such regulations once boats are out to sea. The law already states that boats must finely grind food scraps before dumping at sea and yet, I’ve seen whole pieces being tossed. There’s a reason sharks, etc always accompany the boats.

I do think the more often visitors like yourself remind others of the need to be as environmentally conscious as possible, the better things will be. Once visitors themselves demand it by choosing only those companies who truly are environmentally sound, well a company’s financial well being will always be the single largest source of motivation for most. Most visitors make their choice by reputation or price. The visitor who inquires into environmental policies falls into a very small percentage overall.

To me, land-based vs cruise isn’t the issue. Both have a long way to go and cudos to those, both on land and at sea, who are getting there or are there.

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posted: You make some good points. Since you have business in the Galapogos, I assume you have some knowledge about the operations that go there. Which Op’s would you recommend as being environmentally friendly? Which are not?

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DTG: I think you might ask that question again a year from now. With new cupos, the National Park mandates many boat upgrades that will protect the Marine Reserve. For many, it is a difficult financial strain in these tough economic times, but to keep their permits, no choice but to comply. This applies to small local boats, too.

Ecoventura owner Santiago Dunn is a true pioneer in environmentally sound practices in the Galapagos on his Naturalist cruises/boats. They are the local partners for SkyDancer.

As one Galapagos owner said to me, “You know we Ecuadorians don’t care anything about being green.” While there are some exceptions to that mentality, it is the stereotypical norm. It is also cultural – as it is cultural that travelers often ask many questions, but rarely do those questions include queries about a company’s sustainability practices.

As someone once had to remind me, it was in my youth that “Don’t Litter” campaigns first began in the US. It used to be perfectly acceptable to throw your cans and garbage out the window. Imagine how ridiculous that seems to us now? Someone reminded me of “Give a Hoot…Don’t Pollute.” There’s a joke here in Ecuador about bus drivers warning you not to litter the bus, but rather throw it out the window. That’s the cultural context.

Now the owner learned that it’s good for marketing purposes, so went along with changes. Others are being mandated by the Park. Bottom line…the motivation doesn’t have to be pure as long as the results are the same. And as long as there is progress…which many are now making…I think that deserves support in order to inspire further progress.

Again, guests being vocal speaks volumes. Everyone asks for feedback. Give it to them. Ask why don’t companies include environmental practices feedback on their customer feedback forms? Or use the open comments sections to make unprompted observations about environmental practices.

As part of permit applications, everyone had to submit a sustainability plan. I doubt anyone has translated theirs to English. On most live-aboard websites now, you can find a scan of their PNG permit. That can be directly attributed to travelers insisting upon it after the 2007 fiasco. If enough people asked, perhaps sustainability plans would be posted, too.

And ps… even if management is solid in their environmental philosophy, the day to day task is up to locals, most of whom think ‘more = better.’ As in “What do you mean that organic cleaner is concentrated and we’re only supposed to use a tiny bit? Why when we can splash on the cheap clorox in such abundance?”

Maybe there should be a list of questions travelers could pose…beginning with insisting all companies include feedback on their environmental practices on their own customer feedback forms.

1. Do you use biodegradable: soaps, shampoos, cleaning products and especially plastic bags?
2. Do you use clorox?
3. Do you have black water holding tanks?
4. How is your food disposed of? Describe the process.
5. What do you recycle and how?
6. Do you use chemical bug spray?
7. How do you protect the marine environment when you anchor?
8. How many supplies are shipped to you each week from the mainland vs purchased locally?
9. How do you purchase your seafood? (Any suppliers known to have been involved with shark finning, illegal sea cucumber fishing?)
10. Do you heat your pool or jacuzzi with solar panels?
11. How do you support the local community?

IMHO…no non-biodegradable plastic bags should even be allowed in the Galapagos. No clorox, no bug spray, no air fresheners, no styrofoam, etc. I could go on a little too long about this. In my former position, I had the unenviable and often frustrating position of being labeled the ‘green police.’ But after some time, there were huge changes relative to when I began.

Again, it is changing in general and that’s the good news. But primarily due to demand, be it PNG or travelers. Having said that, many forget sustainable includes people, not just the environment. And many now greenwash their marketing efforts.

What traveler can actually check anything once you’re there and focused on your own activities? Who wants to be the green police? And do companies say they support the local community or do it? Even if you ask for references to support their claim, how do you go about tracking them down to verify…call their Ecuador cell phone? Uh huh.

Locals often get paid less (and sometimes not at all) from those who have the most. And if they want the continued business, they get to shut up and take it. Again, cultural. On mainland Ecuador, there is a healthy middle class, not so true in the Galapagos. It’s only been 11 years since the special law was enacted to protect the Galapagos and Galapaguenos. And so the process is ever evolving.

Certain groups of providers do pretty much establish pricing, but others don’t have that collective power. Sorry…this is a raw nerve and one that no one talks about because the other thing about the Galapagos is that there is the equivalent to the proverbial ‘blue code’ in the US. And if no one talks about it for fear of essentially being the snitch (and the Galapagos is so very small so you can imagine how hard it could be to continue operating under such conditions), how can it change? Certain practices remain in place and will remain until visitors themselves demand the change, imho. And, unfortunately, promotion by attraction doesn’t grab the attention that pointing out problems seems to, thus the catch 22.

We need both…the eco-leaders like Santiago Dunn and a means for visitors to get more involved in the solution by becoming savvy travelers and demanding it from operators.

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posted: Thank you for a very thorough answer DTG. Our LDS has a trip in Sept that I am part of. I think I will bring your article to them and see what they think about asking those very important questions. The trip is scheduled and paid for already, so changing Ops is not an option (as most Galapagos trips need to be- far in advance) but maybe we can get the ball rolling and hope that the locals see the long term benefit of a more environmentally friendly attitude.

Thanks for all the information.

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For more information, check wikipedia’s definitions and links:

Responsible Tourism and Ethical Consumerism

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