The doubts of an ecological conscience

During these first two months of travel we have often wondered about the ecological protection of the places we visited and, as often happens when you go into the complex issue such as the environment, things instead of becoming simpler, become more complicated and the reality presents itself in a way that is more difficult to comprehend.

Pelicans lined up at the fish market
Pelicans lined up at the fish market

Sailing like we do is certainly the most ecological way to travel long distances. Our boat is pushed by the wind and the little diesel fuel we have available is only needed to occasionally charge the batteries that power a refrigerator, freezer and all the instruments on board. Part of the energy we need is also provided by a hydro-generator, which would be completely ecological, but it only works at full capacity when we reach constant speeds above seven knots. For the rest, the life of a sailboat like ours is the most sustainable one can think of. Fresh water is a precious commodity that we produce with a watermaker and we soon learn to use it sparingly, not only in drinking, but especially in washing dishes or for personal purposes. The dishes are pre-washed with salt water – foot-pumped into the boat – and a little soap, then a quick rinse of fresh water is enough to remove the salt. Even the shower, when we are on long voyages, is made with buckets of salt water from the sea with a minimum amount of fresh water used only for rinsing at the end. We adapt to the conservation of a truly precious commodity while at sea and we learn that we need much less water than what we use in our homes. Obviously we do not throw waste into the sea, except organic waste and at a distance of several miles from the coast. The other waste, especially the plastic ones, are washed, crushed and stowed away, to be brought to the land for proper disposal upon our arrival. And yet, we still pollute. It is impossible not to. Our disinfectants and detergents, albeit being marketed as “green & ecological”, pollute; and our engine hours, albeit insignificant compared to other faster vehicles, are however a consumption of hydrocarbons. What we are trying to do is to pollute as little as possible, to move towards zero, but all of us are carriers of pollution. These reflections began to occupy my thoughts during these first months of sailing, when I noticed great contradictions even in places where the environment looks uncontaminated or, as they say, are a corner of paradise.

Valerio in Tortuga Bay
Valerio in Tortuga Bay

The San Blas islands have been preserved over the centuries by the indigenous Guna Ayala who live there according to their ancient customs by living in wooden huts. We certainly owe it to them if today we can see them as atolls with white sand and turquoise water. But behind many of these huts I also saw mountains of garbage that the natives abandon to the sea. Just as I saw a real dump of cans and plastic near the coast on the island where the Guna congress is held. They do not seem to have yet developed an ecological sensitivity, but instead it seems that they have been invaded by the cans of coca cola or Balboa beer which they make extensive use, both for them and for sale to tourists who become accomplices, albeit unaware, of this system. An artist friend from Panama told me that the Guna are finally becoming aware of environmental changes since some islands have disappeared below sea level due to rising ocean levels. They too are running for cover and understanding that our planet is responding to our pollution.

The museum of the Guna Nation
The museum of the Guna Nation

Once we arrived in the Galapagos the contradictions got even bigger. These are islands that take your breath away, full of the wonders of unspoiled nature, the animals that live in a unique ecosystem in the world, the almost lunar landscapes of volcanic areas, the white sandy beaches and the underwater world that teems with a rich and varied marine fauna. All the islands were declared a “Natural World Heritage” site by Unesco in 1979. From that moment on, there have been many investments by the United Nations, research centres, international universities and the government of Ecuador who make these islands a place of conservation of animal species marked by environmental sustainability and ecology. But this is also a place of strong contradictions, that those like us, who have lived here for more than ten days, can see happening right in front of our eyes.

Entrance to Floreana
Entrance to Floreana

The Galapagos present themselves immediately with an ecological face. Those arriving by plane from the continent land on the islet of Batra at the Galapagos Ecological Airport, so called because it boasts that it is the first “ecological and sustainable airport in the world”. For those who arrive on a sailing boat like us, customs procedures are quite complex. The boat must be, prior to arrival, subjected to specific sterilising fumigation internally in order to avoid introducing non-native insect species into this delicate ecosystem. Even the hull must be cleaned to remove any marine life that may have attached to the boat during sailing. In addition, you must arrive on the islands prepared to pass an inspection by local authorities which consists of a series of checks on safety equipment, but above all, on measures to avoid contamination or pollution. As soon as we anchored in the bay of Porto Baquerizo Moreno on the island of San Cristobal, we hoisted a yellow flag to await the entry procedures. In the late afternoon a boat approached composed of eight representatives of the various local authorities: a doctor (with coats and mask), a policeman, a government representative, one from the port, one from the park, one from the institution of tourism, etc.

Milanto's crew with the entrance inspectors to the Galapagos
Milanto’s crew with the entrance inspectors to the Galapagos

The inspection lasted about an hour before we were approved to enter. We then received the entry stamp on the passports and, hoisting the Ecuadorian courtesy flag, we were able to go ashore, but not with our tender. Not allowed. Only local water taxis can be used for the price of one dollar a ride. There is no point to explain that all these practices have a cost, and the conclusion that we come to is that this tax serves more to pay the large commission fee, than for the real protection of the environment. But it is also true that, after all this preparation, we go ashore with a greater attention to environmental protection.

We spent the first days in San Cristobal, then we moved to Santa Cruz, reaching the bottom of the large bay of Puerto Ayora from where we reached the islands of Isabela and Floreana with local ferries for daily visits. I will never forget the beach of Tortuga Bay which at low tide becomes a table of white sand that seems infinite, where the iguanas stand motionless to contemplate the horizon. Or the caves dug by the ancient pirates in the hinterland of Floreana, the giant turtles, the sea lions and the birds with the strangest shapes. Those who come here try to find the spirit that animated Darwin’s conceptions on the origin of the species, concepts that in truth, the well-known scholar developed in his own studio after returning from the mythical journey aboard the brigantine, Beagle. I found tourists of all types and from all over the world, including anthropologists, geologists, but also simple people interested in nature. “I came here to see the animals,” says one. And it makes me think that from this point of view the Galapagos looks like a big zoo.

However, the ecological question is fundamental and is repeated in the signs along the roads and on specific explanatory panels. In Santa Cruz there is a centre for the information of renewable energy and yet it is difficult to find a garbage bin in the streets. Here you learn to keep your garbage. And where do you throw it? For us boats at anchor every morning a green motorboat comes to collect the coloured bags of the various recycling. And where do they end up? I asked myself. All together. And do the sewers of homes and the many shops that have sprung up on the island’s waterfront have a filtering and purification system? No, says a taxi driver, a sewage treatment system is not yet ready, for now every home has a cesspool. The contradictions are many and sometimes seem really incomprehensible when we are told that it is not possible to use even your paddle kayak to get ashore, but only by the numerous and polluting paid water taxis. Just as there is no bike sharing system, but only the possibility of renting bicycles from tourist agencies at considerable costs. In short, the feeling you have is that it is a place of two weights and two measures: on the one hand are the projects conducted by the large institutions aimed at achieving full environmental sustainability by 2050, on the other, the needs of the local population who seem to be more interested in earning a living from mass tourism – attracted by the ecological brand – without taking into account the consequent pollution. It will therefore not be easy for the local government to find a compromise between opening itself up to the tourism market, that is becoming ever more pressing, along with balancing the environmental protection of this ecosystem so fragile and unique in the world. I believe there are no easy solutions. It certainly seems to me a good start to begin talking about it, even critically, instead of reinforcing the stereotype of the Galapagos as pristine islands. On the contrary, trying to gain a deeper understanding through observation and inquiry, perhaps setting a good example, and always remembering that we are temporary guests, wherever we happen to arrive, and that it is our duty to leave these places a little better than how we found them.

The labyrinth carved out of the rock on the island of Floreana
The labyrinth carved out of the rock on the island of Floreana
The main street of Santa Cruz
The main street of Santa Cruz
The garbage ship
The garbage boat
The church of San Francesco (protector of animals) with the statue of the saint and the wolf
The church of San Francesco (protector of animals) with the statue of the saint with a wolf
Market vendor
Market vendor
A beach in Santa Cruz