The Galapagos Islands is a beautiful archipelago with relatively few inhabitants. Being able to witness the environment in its natural form without as much human impact was a privilege. In areas with a significant population, the natural world is protected in a way that would be unheard of in the United States. Most tourists stay in mainland cities and take day trips on boats to the islands where they hike and snorkel; some live on boats that travel to various spots for the duration of their stay. People are only allowed in uninhabited areas when accompanied by naturalist guides. Boats that travel the waters are registered and constantly monitored. Visitors receive information from educated and experienced guides who protect the Galapagos Islands from invasive species and littering. They ensure that food is not being brought onto the island except for those with exceptional needs. By keeping the human impact off the area, the natural beauty is preserved, and though it may be a harsh beauty at times, it is one that engages people with the world around them in a way that is incredibly unique.
This level of reverence creates an engrained appreciation in people for the natural world; the wildlife in cities is treated with more care and respect than most wildlife anywhere I’ve seen in the world. The beaches are teeming with sea lions and people are genuinely concerned about protecting them. If people were to see this level of reverence is natural areas of the United States on a regular basis, that behavior would also become engrained.
Over Spring Break, I had the opportunity to travel to White Sands, New Mexico to conduct research for my Earth Surface Processes class. While the national monument was also immensely beautiful and the parks service was passionate and great at their jobs of education and keeping the park clean, there was a definite difference between the Galapagos Islands and White Sands. In the latter, people could not camp or litter and they always had to be accompanied by a guide to watch that they did not do so. While that might be unreasonable to expect for all national parks, the Galapagos naturalists were much more focused on making sure that the area was not left worse than it was found. Though the national parks service keeps the area as clean as possible, there was quite a bit of litter and people’s belongings from camping trips. If this message of respect was emphasized in American national parks and even local areas, people would able to see the real beauty and value in nature.
In the Galapagos Islands, there are policies that require boat companies to take only locals out to the islands for a set number of days at no cost. With all the politics surrounding eco-tourism, it is nice to see Ecuador taking steps that most other nations are not. By protecting and preserving their national treasures in this way, while simultaneously encouraging its citizens to explore their home, a generation of engaged environmentalists are being born. Not all nations have the resources or political will to do this with their local parks, but taking steps in this direction would have an immense impact.
Until you see the beauty in nature, people cannot fully appreciate what it is they need to be fighting for. After spending the past winter break in the Galapagos Islands with a Penn Global Seminar, I gained a new appreciation for how much can be learned about the value of the natural world and the environment just by spending time in the outdoors. With dedicated naturalists and a drive to keep the area pristine, you could see the plants and animals that also call our Earth home. Spending time disconnected from the industrialized world shows how complicated and beautiful the natural world is. There are so many communities of plants and animals fighting to live and trying to overcome the barriers that humans put up for them. There is love, altruism, friendship and so much life in these creatures and seeing that first-hand, so untainted by human intervention inspires a drive to stop it from being destroyed. Seeing nature in its true form provides a unique experience that allows one to appreciate the environment.
Tabeen Hossain is a senior in the College of Arts and sub-matriculating into the Masters of Environmental Studies program at the University of Pennsylvania.