Volunteering in the Galapagos doesn’t have to be with the wildlife.
The Galàpagos Islands, an archipelago of 14 islands 1000km off the coast of Ecuador, is home to dozens of weird and wonderful creatures whose amiability has made them world famous.
The largest and most brightly colored species since being introduced to the archipelago in the 18th century has grown to a population of 20,000 on four of the islands. Homo Sapiens make considerably more noise than any other Galàpagos mammal. A quarter of these live on San Cristòbal, the capital of the province and home to the Foundation Nueva Era Galàpagos (FNEG).
Eight years old and staffed principally by foreign volunteers, the foundation aims to empower the islanders and raise conservation awareness by providing virtually free English and environmental education classes. I would be teaching English and helping out with the “E-Club” (environmental club).
The Galàpagos experience doesn´t wait until you have settled in. On the second day I found myself standing on a white sand beach surrounded by black lava rocks and sparkling blue ocean. High above, frigate birds circled like enormous bats, blue-footed boobies flaunted their dazzling diving skills and pelicans used their huge bills to swoop and catch unsuspecting fish. The volcanic landscape and the huge pre-historic looking birds reminded me of a cross between Star-Trek and Jurassic Park. I was not alone though: apart from the sea lions basking in the sun by my feet, I had a herd of 25 children to entertain for the morning. I set my feeble Spanish and negligible experience with children to work litter-picking, snorkeling, surfing and game playing, all of which used up about one tenth of the children’s energy.
I noticed some stragglers from the group harassing a crab with a stick. Now, this was no ordinary crab – the Sally Lightfoot’s vibrant coloured shell is found nowhere else on earth. Whilst defending the creature from its juvenile persecuters, I turned to find their companions frightening a baby sea lion by the water’s edge. Taking in the litter strewn over the rocks, I began to understand why the E-Club’s work was so necessary.
For William Puga, the founder and director of the FNEG, education is the key to conservation, and is equally as important as the scientific research undertaken here. “The population of this island is here to stay,” he explains, “This is their home, and therefore it is essential that they themselves become a part of the process of conservation”.
To this end, the “E Club” regularly takes over the town’s main plaza, filling it with various stands, posters and children eager to paint everything in sight. On “World Environment Day” children learned how to re-cycle paper into art, showed off their posters about the Island’s flora and fauna, and helped transform the square into a life-sized environmental board game.
One volunteer enthused, “ The most satisfying thing is seeing kids passing on their appreciation of the issues to their parents. I have seen children telling their parents why they shouldn´t drop litter!”
The development of this community isn´t only about environmental awareness though. “We need to give these kids a voice and choices in their future careers,” says William. Although currently 60% of the islanders generate their income from fishing, tourism is clearly the future. An overwhelming majority of my 11-14 year old class answered the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with “Tour Guide”.
A tour guide can earn up to four times the average Ecuadorian salary but it also means speaking a good level of English. This could explain why most of the town turned up on enrollment day for English courses. Mothers, fathers, aunts and cousins arrived in their droves and began shouting over the crowds: “My Juan Carlos was enrolled last year!” and “Can my Gabriela do the test now?” Pandemonium ruled as the only three current volunteers struggled to test 200 people. How we did it without a photocopier, paper, a phone line and even electricity or water at times remains a mystery to me.
During the first week of term the noise coming from each of the 3 FNEG classrooms was perhaps not what every teacher aspires too. Not surprisingly, “challenge” was a word readily banded about in relation to teaching Ecuadorian children who apparently do not profit from the same disciplinary norms at school as we do in Europe. I had to adapt fast to keep my sanity, since simple cultural divergences also complicated matters. An English class activity which may pose no problems anywhere else could end in a chaotic mess here. For example, having students exchange addresses earned me a sea of blank faces, until it dawned on me that there are no addresses on this island! A family name will suffice. Postmen do not exist; if you are expecting something you simply go to the post office, where, if you are lucky, the sultry looking attendent may hand it over.
However, these initial challenges led to a rewarding experience. I can never forget the childrens` wide eyed surprise the day we first taught them to skip, or the sight of my adult class singing away to “Penny Lane”, not to mention creeping home along the dark beach pathway each night and almost treading on sea lions.
Shouts of “teacher teacher” followed me well beyond the classroom. This is a community where no one is a stranger, and where life is certainly different to the average town. The bark of the sea lion is as ubiquitous as the sound of the waves. Colonies of these smelly, though magnificent beasts laze around on the town promenade, occasionally shuffling down to the water and treating the tourists to a spectacular aquatic display. The birds fish, the shop owners sit around on the street chatting, and the government workers wander unhurriedly from office to office. Island life ticks by oblivious to the rest of the world – a nuclear war could have started, but on San Cristòbal the most important thing is when the next supply boat will be arriving, particularly the one with the beer on it!
FNEG is the only organisation of its kind in the Galàpagos archipelago, and although the need for environmental eduaction is slowly being recognised, the focus is still strongly on pure scientific research and conservation. Being part of something which really is having an impact on the community and the conservation process of the island whilst working alongside some of the most incredible wildlife on the planet was a fantastic experience and one which I would totally recommend to anyone.
The most important lesson I learned though, was that the communities the Galàpagos Islands must be able to participate in their own solution to preserving one of the most unique places this planet has left.
FACT BOX – volunteering for the New Era Galapagos Foundation
Website : www.neweragalapagos.org
Minimum time for volunteering is 3 months.