The Call for Connection to Nature in the Galápagos

by Noémi d’Ozouville (2017 Fellow)

In the Galápagos Archipelago, the local population lives on four inhabited island, and the majority of visitors’ sites are distributed across uninhabited islands. High costs and remote accessibility greatly limit local children’s experience of the magic and wonders of the Galápagos Protected Areas, terrestrial and marine. Recognized as one of the world’s best-known natural laboratories for evolution, the Galápagos Protected Areas offer an opportunity to look at this living laboratory also through the lenses of conservation, education, tourism, and mobility during the COVID-19 crisis.

During the 2017 Kinship Conservation Fellowship, I planted a seedling of an idea for what would become the Galápagos Infinito program. In 2020, while working within the Galápagos Government Council and after years of nurturing the seedling alongside engaged and visionary friends and colleagues, Roberto Pepolas and Valeria Tamayo (2018 Naveducando Pilot Project), Emiliano Rodriguez Nuesch (Pacifico Risk Communication Agency) and Norman Wray (Minister-President of the Galápagos Government Council 2019-2021), we planned to launch the program seeking to connect Galápagos children to their home.

Things took a different turn. COVID-19 hit a community which is 80% dependent on tourism hard. There were no commercial flights in or out of the islands for three months. A main component of the program hinged on agreements with commercial boat operators to transform their vessels into learning labs for three to five days a year. No tourism in Galápagos meant no boats on the water and no chance for the program to launch. The kids stayed home without access to school grounds, the beach, forest or farm, and no connection with nature or their homeland.

Our nascent and novel public-private-community program flipped the switch and took a plunge into the digital. We weathered out the pandemic storm by engaging with the teachers. Then connecting students from all four inhabited islands in the same zoom room and linking them to chefs, naturalist guides, boat captains, scientists, and more to virtually share experiences and build up their appetite for future in-person adventures. We reached children, alleviated isolation, supported teachers with inspiring content, and strengthened community and identity. We also built capacity for the growth of the program through rapid testing of actions (prototyping) and progressive increase in complexity of interventions. 

We found one person still active in the field despite the pandemic and with a unique perspective on the Galápagos Islands who could share his wisdom with the children from his office: Astronaut Victor Glover in the International Space Station (ISS). Few words can describe how we all felt—connected, inspired—sharing the answers he provided to the students as he looked down on the vital beauty of Earth from space. For 16 minutes, the time the ISS flew over the line-of-sight radio contact point, time came to a halt, thrilling the students.

Non-formal environmental education initiatives in Galápagos started in the 1990s. They provided vital opportunities for children and students to experience hands-on and up close the unique aspects of the islands and threats to the ecosystems. Many Galápagos professionals, now in their mid-thirties, manifest great appreciation for those offerings. However, the exponential growth of tourism, population, and conservation challenges in the first two decades of the 21st century diluted the continuity, reach, and impact of some of these initiatives and overshadowed the needs of the community.

COVID-19 challenged us and the world. In Galápagos, it provided time for looking inward and pushed the community to acknowledge the requisite for greater intersectoral articulation and cross-community integration. This window of opportunity was used to tackle sustained and long-term efforts for education and local connection. As a result of participatory public policy efforts during the pandemic: Reactivation Plan, 2030 Regional Plan, and Contextualized Curriculum for Galápagos, we gained new ground in the visibility of the local community and access to natural spaces for well-being, identity, and placed-based learning, bridging formal and non-formal education. We achieved much of this work through virtual meetings and online platforms, which allowed new voices to participate.

From the new school year of May 2021, in person activities slowly resumed. In line with our interest in supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion, we started engaging with students from the rural schools of Santa Cruz island, the indigenous school, the bilingual school, and the special education school. Over the course of six months, 75 students experienced navigating the marine reserve, and being in the uninhabited islands of the National Park, above and below the water.

From near-home observations of nature to inter-island exchanges, sailing activities on the sea to on-board learning labs to reach the outposts of the archipelago teeming with wildlife, the Galápagos Infinito program continues to grow in order to sustain the staggering breadth of meaningful and transformational experiences available for students. Through storytelling, the children enthusiastically share their experiences with friends, family, and teachers, resulting in elevated community appropriation of the program and sense of connection to the unique nature and generosity of the Islands.

Out on the water with the children, saltwater in your hair, seeking shade under the sails, the fulfillment pours in when watching faces come alive when a penguin pokes its head out of the water or a frigate bird flies overhead with its red inflated throat pouch. That I can put my years of experience to the service of the children and the islands in such a way is a gift. A path is revealed for us all to journey towards a greater knowledge of self, home, and protection of the planet.

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As I write these words, I am appreciative of the lessons from the Kinship Fellowship (2017), which I was able to bring into this work, from Mulago’s mission statements to Saul Weisberg’s sharing about the importance of storytelling, Rare’s approach to inspiring and engaging community, John Mason’s social entrepreneurship experiences, adaptive leadership, negotiations, and the importance of a sound financial model to achieve long-term outcomes and goals.

I also wish to pay homage to Roberto Pepolas Lecaro, our friend and co-founder of the Naveducando Foundation, who passed away in 2021. And thank our major partners in 2020-2021: BID, UNESCO, NASA, #NavidadEnElMar.