The world is facing many challenges at the moment, not the least of which is the climate emergency and the preservation of the world’s biodiversity. We know that climate change threatens what we have assumed would be eternal. We also know that our economic and political systems make it harder to protect the world’s wilderness.
I travelled recently to one of my favourite places in the world, the Galápagos Islands, and was delighted to see that it remains a unique wilderness with good people working to protect it. That is no mean feat when that place is part of complex thriving developing economy based substantially on petroleum and agricultural products and the time between visits is 23 years.
23 years of social and economic progress have transformed parts of Ecuador and Peru to the naked eye. Peru’s city of Cusco is unrecognisable from the air, and the Ecuadorian capital Quito now stretches to around 65 kilometres. I recall the old city centre and coming in on the bus through a brief suburbia. And yet, the Galápagos remains essentially wilderness. There have been changes. There are now three airports, the towns are larger, and I had more money.
The Galápagos is recognised as one of the most vulnerable places to climate change in the world. It is also one of the most biodiverse places in the world. The islands are uniquely placed at the intersection of three ocean currents, warm and cold. It is the only place in the world you will see penguins and tropical coral reefs. Any change to ocean currents, such as El Nino events, threaten mass extinctions. The frequency of El Nino events is predicted to increase as an outcome of climate change.
I was able to travel in a 16-berth ship with every luxury this time. Last time our boat was far more rudimentary, and the cost a quarter of the price per person. This time I travelled with my partner and three children and with family friends. Last time I travelled with backpackers. We had less gear, no wetsuits and we watched every penny. And yet the photos look the same. The islands we visited continue to have thriving colonies of sea lions and iguanas. The birds are populous, amazing and incredibly inventive in their survival. The penguin colony was far greater than I recall it.
In between visits at least one severe El Nino devastated colonies of blue foot boobies, penguins and sea lions, not to mention less documented effects on smaller plant and animal species. And yet populations have recovered. Climate change may be an imminent threat, but as yet, the Galápagos is full of life.
There are of course other obvious threats. Tourists expose the islands to alien species of plants and animals, intentionally and unintentionally. There are foreign wasps now, reducing caterpillar and butterfly numbers and indirectly effecting the pollination of plants. Goats and blackberries are real ecological challenges. Pet ownership is an issue. The numbers of tourists have increased exponentially from 40,000 in 1990 to 275,000 in 2018. The resources of the Galápagos are stretched to meet population needs for food and shelter. The boats pollute the environment. While boat numbers have been regulated, the numbers of introduced species have continued to expand.
And yet when I compare the changes in the Galápagos to the changes I saw in the cities, I have both awe and appreciation for what the Ecuadorians have done in striving to protect the Galápagos. On my second last day in Quito, the fuel riots broke out. There were burning tires and rows of protestors and riot police to navigate to get to our hotel near the Plaza. On my return to Melbourne, I meditated for climate change with Extinction Rebellion. The challenges the world faces as it must move from a carbon-based economy to a sustainable future were sharply highlighted.
But now more than ever we must see where we are succeeding, where we are doing good, where our efforts have contributed to the saving of special spaces, biodiversity and the opportunity for young minds to be immersed in the pageantry of life, the social history of humanity and the science of the world in unique places like the Galápagos. I am proud of what humanity and Ecuador have achieved despite the challenges. Ecuador had the first constitution to recognise the rights of nature and has had many years prioritising the conservation of their natural heritage. I think we can do better here in Australia, and in the rest of the world. But first, we must stop and appreciate the commitment to protection others have shown and the value for our children.
Dr Sophie Adams (MBBS, MA (Bioethics), PhD, FRANZCP) is an Australian psychiatrist working in youth mental health who is a member of Homeward Bound as previous participant, faculty member and Stream Leader.