What’s Happening in the Galapagos: The Good, The Bad and The Mora

It came. It finally came. The day we’d been looking forward to for months. The day I’ve dreamt about since I was a little girl. It was the day we were going to the Galápagos Islands.

Originally named the Islands of the Tortoises, this geologically young chain of islands is best known for its plethora of iconic endemic fauna. From the giant tortoise to the blue-footed booby and swimming marine iguana, the Galápagos Islands are home to some of the most remarkable life on earth.

It was a perfect day for flying. In three short hours we watched the world below us move from the ice-capped Andean peaks we’d climbed just days before to the low ocean-lapping coastlines of the volcanic islands we were about to discover.
The mission of the Jatun Sacha Foundation focuses on nature conservation and sustainable development across Ecuador. In the Galapagos, on San Cristobal island, their primary objectives are to remove invasive species and help locals implement clean agricultural practices. Upon arrival – after our airplane cabin was sprayed with pesticides and dogs had sniffed our bags for soil and seeds – a taxi, disguised as a white pickup truck, drove us away from the sunny coast and into the lush, humid highlands of the Jatun Sacha research station. Our two-week volunteer placement was finally about to begin. 

It was “first things first” when we arrived at the Station: Here are your rubber boots, bug nets and work gloves. Your three new best friends for the next 14 days. We soon learned why. No more than twenty minutes after arriving we were completely saturated from the humid dampness and slathering on bug-repellent faster than you could say “neurotoxicity.”
As we were shown around the property it became apparent that life at Jatun Sacha was going to be rustic (which is synonymous for awesome). The housing was basic and made from native bamboo and cement, showers were cold and are fed from the streams, and electricity was only used for 2 hours per day. There was no Internet, no TV, no music; only one phone and one gas stove. Every structure and piece of furniture was hand made by native materials with the exception of a much-loved ping-pong table. So free time was spent napping in the hammocks, reading, collecting oranges or playing cards – tranquillo to say the least. We were immediately relieved to be off the tourist path and in the wilderness for some back-to-basic living and working. 

For two weeks (actually a week and a half due to the Christmas holiday) we worked to remove the threats that had been introduced by local people. With sharpened machetes we hacked down mora plants (aka wild blackberry), a gnarly vine-of-a-plant which has taken over every inch of forest above 100 meters. Mora was introduced by a farmer from the mainland about 25 years ago and it’s been spreading like wildfire ever since, stunting every endemic plant species in its path. Slashing our way through the thorns we wore thick layers of toxic DEET and face nets to protect us from the swarms of blood thirsty mosquitos introduced to the island less than 30 years ago by a resident named Carmela when she was importing some bananas. (The pesky insects are now referred to as Carmelitas, in her honor). 
On days when we weren’t engaged in mora-combat, we were picking and peeling coffee beans. Coffee, just like the banana, pineapple, papaya, tomato, and other crop plants found on the islands, is not a native specie, but serves as a source of livelihood for local farmers. Picking coffee is a tedious task and one that every coffee drinker should experience. It is a task that involves patience, stamina and the willpower to endure face-fulls of spider webs and slug juice covered fingers. After picking several bushels of the red pods, we would then peel and sort each raw bean/seed by hand, separating the fertile, plantable seeds from the non-fertile seeds that would be used to make coffee. The good in this work was that we were helping to support local coffee farmers compete in the market by producing a steady supply of organic product. Until recently, locals would have received $1 for a kilo of chemically fertilized coffee (that’s about five hours of picking, peeling and sorting). Now, thanks to fair-trade agreements and the support of Jatun Sacha, locals are able to supply and sell an organic product for $10-15 per kilo. At first, we were having a hard time feeling good about this project. Was this purely an economic benefit? Were we being used as free labor? The “bad” in this project was that we were supporting the removal of endemic plant species to make room for an introduced crop. Not the typical definition of conservation – but that’s begs another question: Where do you draw the lining between preserving the wild environment and preserving human livelihood? In the Galapagos the line is drawn hard at 3%. Three percent of the islands can be developed, while 97% must remain pristine. Ok, so a man’s gotta eat (and drink coffee) like a turtle needs to lay its eggs. Fair is fair, I suppose. The “good” was that coffee plants help reduce the mora. By blocking out the sun they prevent the growth of the smothering vine, making the non-endemic yet non-invasive plant the lesser of the two evils. Alright, I relent!
And lastly, when we weren’t battling mora, picking coffee beans, hiking through mud, swatting mosquitos, eating Rosa’s (our resident chef) homestyle cooking, reading in the hammocks or playing volleyball, we were planting trees. By collecting fallen seeds from native trees and starters from the greenhouse we were able to cover hectares of mora-free land with soon-to-be endemic and native trees. 
More than a dozen other volunteers from around the world worked by our sides during those two weeks at Jatun Sacha. Our group was led by a sweet and goofy religious local named Eduardo, who doesn’t believe in evolution (despite the whole birthplace of Darwinism thing) but admires how nature adapts to its surrounding. **pause for effect** The amount of clearing, digging and planting we were able to complete in such a short time was impressive. It was undoubtably a good way to rid myself of any tourist-guilt. Living “off the grid” while spending much of my time, effort and money helping to conserve one of the most fragile natural environments on the planet was an experience I would recommend to anyone. In fact, I would encourage it.
A couple of years ago there was a rumor going around that Ecuador was planning to close the Galápagos Islands to tourists permanently. Consequently, I was made to believe that the island’s biggest threat were tourists. This is what originally got me thinking about becoming a volunteer. However, the rumor turned out to be…wait for it…just a rumor. The Galápagos Islands are not closing to tourists, ever. They couldn’t. The local population relies on it. (Am I the only person in the world who didn’t realize there was a local population on the Galápagos??).

The good news is that the tourism industry is surprisingly well controlled and seemingly unnoticed by the natural world. The bad news is that the problem appears to lie within the local population, which is continuing to grow and encroach the natural environment despite governmental efforts to control it (might have something to do with them all being Catholic…just saying). The other bad news about tourism is that it’s concentrated off the islands, on the boats, so most of the money doesn’t go to the local people who work to protect it. The Internet leads tourists to believe that the only way to visit the islands is by a luxury cruise which costs upwards of $200/day, but the other good news is that’s not true either! It is completely possible to see all the islands and do all the tours for $85/day if you stay on the islands. Tip: Unless you only want to scuba dive, have money to blow or are unable to endure the 2-hour high-speed ferry rides from hell, do the later or a mix of both.

Overall, our time at Jatun Sacha was far too brief, but it did reinforce one thing: I love being a volunteer. I love being a volunteer because it means giving a little in order to get a lot. By supporting small communities, local projects and taking the time to get to know the locals, I always come out stronger, wiser and more inspired than when I went in.