My dream is to reconnect Galapagos children to nature through education and conservation

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My dream is to reconnect Galapagos children to nature through education and conservation

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Written by Valeria Tamayo-Cañadas
Originally published at National Geographic, May 11, 2017

My dream is to reconnect Galapagos children to nature through education and conservation

I have been living in the Galapagos paradise for some years; this incredible place and its young community have changed my relationship with nature deeply. I say young, because the first settlers arrived here less than 200 years ago (1). The original settlers built a social system that allowed them to survive in this hostile, isolated environment. Nevertheless, the rapid growth of population and tourism of recent decades has accelerated the lifestyle in the islands and has turned the relationship the inhabitants had with nature into a rush for immediate benefit.

Fifty years ago, the Galapagos Islands were declared the first protected area in Ecuadorian territory. But even half a century later, most of the conservation challenges the islands’ ecosystems face continue to be caused by human activities, both local and from afar.

The Galapagos population is a diverse kaleidoscope of people who share the love for their islands. However, many of them do not connect that relationship to daily activities that would be best for the Galapagos, such as consuming local products, reducing and recycling garbage, and respecting wildlife and locally unique plants. Furthermore, even although they are islanders, some people in the community have no relationship to the sea at all; some teenagers do not know how to swim, and do not understand the meaning of living surrounded by two “protected areas”, The Galapagos National Park and the Galapagos Marine Reserve.

Last month I took a group of teenagers to Tortuga Bay, a beautiful beach very close Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island. While walking there I asked Francisco, a 13-year-old Galapagueno, when was the last time he was there. The answer shocked me: I think I came here once, I don’t remember, it was years ago.

Why would a young islander not visit one of the few beaches to which the community has access, and furthermore, one of the most spectacular beaches in the world that visitors come from other parts of the world to see and enjoy? (All but 3 percent of the land on the Galapagos islands is protected, so few places are open for residents to visit to relax at will). Is it technology and/or globalization that has further up-ended the traditional way of life for almost 30,000 islanders, effectively cutting themselves off from their natural heritage?’ More than 200,000 visitors come here every year to appreciate the natural wonders, but it is surprising that not all Galapagueno children, teenagers and adults treasure their amazing surroundings.

Many education theorists conclude that the best way to learn something is by doing it. After being involved in education in the Galapagos for more than seven years, I can say: I agree completely. I am part of the Ecology Project International-Galapagos, the only NGO that works in experiential education in the Galapagos, with amazing results in increasing knowledge, improving attitudes and encouraging positive actions of students and teachers in the islands for the last 10 years.

EPI-Galapagos has worked with the Galapagos National Park to take more than 1,200 teenagers into the field, on camping trips to learn about the Galapagos tortoises, introduced species eradication, marine ecology, mangroves, marine debris, and other conservation challenges for both the Galapagos and the planet. After participating in the program they can join the Mola Mola Eco Club, so they may stay involved in conservation activities and feel like they are in effect park rangers and stewards of their own environment.

Local Galapagos students identify seeds from tortoise dung
Local students identifying seeds from Galapagos tortoises´ dung at an EPI experiential education workshop, 2015.

Our team is also now collaborating with the Casa de la Cultura (The Culture House); this is the first time that a curriculum of art and conservation is being implemented and evaluated in the Galapagos. The art teachers are trained first in the Galapagos ecology, then we design a curriculum that merges arts and conservation.

We are all very excited about the results! After evaluating the pilot in Santa Cruz Island, we will have a new improved version to be implemented in San Cristobal, Isabela and Floreana islands for the next two years.

We plan to take education to another level to contribute to a Galapagueno culture that is characterized by the awareness of local conservation challenges, enjoyment of nature, and taking action to protect it on a daily basis.

Valeria Tamayo-Cañadas has been an environmental communicator and educator, and social participation promoter, in the Galapagos Islands for more than seven years. A former teacher and head of the Environmental Education department at the Galapagos National Park and Marine Reserve,  she now works as an educator at Ecology Project International. Her job is to overcome challenges to create private and public partnerships with the goal of supporting “Galapagueño” culture through education strategies. Her dream is that everyone will become more aware of the ecosystems, their conservation challenges, and the importance of taking action, in the Galapagos and the world.