Voluntourism and Galapagos Islands Conservation Practices: The Need for Caution

Voluntourism and Galapagos Islands Conservation Practices: The Need for Caution

tortoise galapagos islands

Aired on January 4, 2020

Join us for thought-provoking conversations that examine voluntourism and the impact that conservation practices and tourism have on the Galapagos Islands.

First, voluntourism aka volunteer travel projects are helpful to communities in need.  But, intercultural educator Lena Papadopoulos says that some projects cause more harm to the communities they are meant to serve and it behooves us to recognize these hidden dangers and properly vet the organizations overseeing these projects.

Then, Galápagos researcher Dr. Elizabeth Hennessy, has written On the Backs of Tortoises: Darwin, the Galápagos, and the Fate of an Evolutionary Eden  to help guide future conservation efforts by understanding how the history of the islands and current conservation efforts are entangled and challenging.  Dr. Hennessy says that In a world where evolution is shaped by global history, we need a vision for conservation based on reckoning with the past, rather than trying to erase it.

Articles written by Lena



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Ian:                                             Intercultural educator, Lena Papadopoulos, says that while voluntourism is intended for good, her volunteer travel experience opened her eyes to the danger of neocolonialism.

Lena P.:                                    It does, I think, serves to strip local experts of their agency and autonomy, in favor of what one part of the world deems to be quote unquote better.

Ian:                                             Galapagos researcher Dr. Elizabeth Hennessy says the actual work of conservation is morally complicated, involving both deep affinity for wildlife, but also violent practices of eradication and at times, draconian policies regulating human livelihoods.

Elizabeth H.:                         Not everyone in the islands can benefit from tourism and particularly in the past, fishers have been kind of excluded from this alliance between conservation and tourism.

Ian:                                             Join us for thought provoking conversations that examine voluntourism and the impact that conservation practices and tourism have on the Galapagos Islands on World Footprints with Ian-

Tonya:                                       And Tonya Fitzpatrick.

Tonya:                                       For the most part, voluntourism, also known as volunteer travel, is helpful to communities in need. But intercultural educator, Lena Papadopoulos, says that some projects cause more harm to the communities they are meant to serve and it behooves us to recognize these hidden dangers and properly vet the organizations overseeing these projects.

Tonya:                                       Lena, you’ve seen volunteer travel, otherwise known as voluntourism, very differently than many people and that it may be more harmful than helpful. What event in your life actually shifted your thinking about voluntourism?

Lena P.:                                    It was when I went to volunteer abroad after graduating from university. I went to Tanzania to volunteer as an English teacher and I quickly realized that my presence there was problematic in a lot of ways in that… Well one, I really wasn’t qualified to teach English. Yes, I’m a native speaker, but I had studied sociology and psychology. I didn’t know how to teach English. There were a lot of power issues at play with myself being given a lot more authority and credence than local qualified teachers just because of where I was from and what I looked like. And I started to realize that there were a lot of problems with my role and the ripple effect that it created.

Lena P.:                                    I actually went after that experience to get my master’s in cultural anthropology with a certificate in international development studies. This really gave context to my experience and helped me see how this phenomena of voluntourism, and in a lot of ways the way international development is done is really perpetuating a system of neocolonialism. It really altered my view on how helpful that kind of activity is, I guess.

Tonya:                                       Mm-hmm (affirmative) What do you mean by neocolonialism?

Lena P.:                                    It is the way that colonialism continues to be perpetuated in new forms, right? In the past, it was kind of evident, like it’s one part of the world dominating and controlling and ruling over another part. But now that continues to be done in more, I think, subversive ways, and I think this is one of the ways that it continues to be done. How the quote unquote West exercises it’s authority over the rest of the world and imposes it’s ways of doing and thinking and acting.

Ian:                                             We asked Lena to clarify whether she thinks that some volunteer experiences may actually negatively impact the cultural heritage of a community.

Lena P.:                                    It comes along with this idea that we know what’s best and we can help you do what’s best and you should conform to these ways of doing things in order to have effective, efficient systems. But really it is an imposition and it doesn’t take local needs or wants or knowledge or expertise into account. It does, I think, serves to strip local experts of their agency and autonomy in favor of what one part of the world deems to be quote unquote better than another part.

Tonya:                                       And how did that play out with your teaching English? Because I think a lot of other cultures really spend a lot of time learning English because English is pretty much the predominant language in the world. You have to have a grasp of English and other strong languages, like Spanish, in order to really compete in our global economy. So how did that play out with the work that you were doing in Tanzania?

Lena P.:                                    I mean, I don’t think there’s any issue with someone from the West going to teach English, but I do think that we need to be careful about doing things we’re not necessarily qualified to do at the expense of those who are. So yes, English is my native language, and in that sense there is something that I have to offer. But, at the same time, there were already local people there who were fluent English speakers who had been educated in how to teach a language, and who also had skills and knowledge to do so. Just because I was there, I was granted more authority than them. I think that’s problematic because there’s no reason for that.

Ian:                                             Lena says that is an example of what she calls the white savior complex. We asked her to explain this in more detail.

Lena P.:                                    100 plus years ago, we had the concept of the white man’s burden, which was this idea that the quote unquote developing world had this duty or responsibility to manage and rule the rest of the world. This is what I mean by neocolonialism. Now, that takes on a new form. It’s looks a little different, and it has a different name, but it’s basically the same thing.

Lena P.:                                    The white savior complex does this idea that the West needs to help or save the rest of the world. It is most commonly perpetuated by white people, but it’s important to recognize that it’s more of an attitude or a mentality. People of color can also perpetuate the white savior complex and it’s just this idea that one part of the world is responsible for saving another part of the world and a lot of us have internalized that narrative based on what is said around poverty or just the ways that we talk about the quote unquote developing world has created this notion that they need to be saved.

Tonya:                                       Now, obviously, this trip had a very strong impact on you. What have you done since then?

Lena P.:                                    So because I work in intercultural education, I’ve most often worked with student groups. I’ve had a lot of student groups who are planning to do volunteer abroad experiences come to me and ask me to help them go about that in more effective and responsible ways. I’ve run a lot of workshops or retreats to help them do so. To help them mitigate the harm that can often result from these kinds of experiences. So, it does play a pretty big role in my work, now.

Tonya:                                       Mm-hmm (affirmative). As an intercultural educator, what are some of the processes that you take your students through, and how is that used as a catalyst to self awareness?

Lena P.:                                    We begin first by really examining the motives of wanting to partake an experience like this because a lot of times it honestly is very self-serving. It’s seeking some kind of attention or admiration to be seen as doing something, quote unquote good for other people.

Lena P.:                                    And so we really look deeply at their motives and the intention behind it. Then, I really help them figure out how they can vet an organization that causes minimal harm. Doing their due diligence and researching and asking the right questions. Regarding the self awareness piece, I think that intercultural learning is a catalyst for self awareness because it brings our own experiences and perspectives and worldviews and biases to light when we can compare our own reality with the reality of someone else because our reality is constructed culturally. We all operate from these different frameworks of knowledge and understanding around sort of what is right and wrong and what is truth and what isn’t. This sort of exposure to cultural difference allows us to become more aware of how we ourselves have been shaped by culture, our own culture, and how that impacts the way that we interact with others.

Tonya:                                       There’s probably a lot of people listening who want to have a meaningful travel experience and they have looked at, or maybe even participated in, volunteer travel excursions and passed, but for those who are considering it, what advice do you have for them as to the proper way to vet an organization that offers volunteer travel excursions?

Lena P.:                                    Yes, so I can give you a set of bullet points of what to look for. One is whether or not the organization has a positive and measurable impact. How are they defining and measuring their success? Is that supported in both numbers and qualitative data from the people that they’ve impacted? What kind of difference or change have they made? Secondly is who is setting the organization’s goals and making their decisions? Is that driven by local community members or is it driven by outsiders who don’t necessarily have the full historical-cultural context to understand what people actually need? I think it’s really important that we don’t make decisions about people without people. Another is to look at how transparent an organization is with their finances. Where does their money come from? Where does it go? Who are their donors? How much say does a donor have in how money is spent. Because again, if they have a lot, that’s maybe taking away the autonomy of the local community.

Lena P.:                                    Another thing to look for is whether or not the organization’s work is rooted in sustainability or dependency. Are they actually enacting some kind of change that focuses on the root cause of a problem or are they only addressing the symptoms? Are they building systems that are sustainable and can go on without them or are they creating a relationship of dependency on the work that they do? Our volunteers taking jobs away from local people, are they offering some kind of unique skill or specialized skill that a local person might not have had the access to be educated in that particular skill? Or are they just doing something that someone from that place could be doing instead?

Lena P.:                                    A big one I think is how are children being affected? It tends to be really alluring and enticing to do volunteer work with kids because they’re so cute and sweet and a lot of us like children. At the same time, children are really vulnerable and it puts them in a vulnerable position to be changed between groups of people who are coming in and out. It really affects their socio-emotional development and their attachment. It can create attachment issues for them.

Lena P.:                                    And then finally, is the organization compromising integrity for volunteers? Are they just letting anybody come in and do work for them without sort of the same screening or background checks that would be required say if that volunteer was to do that same kind of work in their home country. Is it just kind of a place where volunteers can experiment and it’s like a playground for them? Or is it a place where they are really qualified to do what they’re doing and they’re really contributing something of value rather than just having an experience that ultimately is self-serving.

Ian:                                             We asked Lena about resources and actions potential volunteers can take in researching volunteer travel organizations.

Lena P.:                                    I know of an organization called Learning Service. They provide a lot of resources to help would-be volunteers go through the vetting process and what they should look out for. But I think it’s important that a volunteer speaks to the organization that they want to be a part of and not just go online and sign up and pay some money and go there. Arrange a phone call and ask these questions and learn the answers and if you know you’re not satisfied with the answers, it’s probably a no-go.

Ian:                                             We have links to articles that Lena has written on this show page at WorldFootprints.com

Ian:                                             You’re listening to the award-winning World Footprints podcast with Ian and Tonya Fitzpatrick. World footprints connects you to the world one story at a time. We invite you to travel deeper by visiting our website WorldFootprints.com. Make sure you sign up for our newsletter and receive a special gift.

Tonya:                                       Galapagos researcher Dr. Elizabeth Hennessy has written a new book called On the Backs of Tortoises: Darwin, the Galapagos, and the Fate of an Evolutionary Eden. Her book helps guide future conservation efforts by understanding how the history of the islands and current conservation efforts are entangled and challenging.

Tonya:                                       What inspired you to begin research on your new book, On the Backs of Tortoises, 11 years ago?

Elizabeth H.:                         That is a good question. I was really fortunate to be able to have the opportunity to go to the Galapagos right when I was starting graduate school, back in 2007. People also live in the Galapagos and there were calls for paying more attention to them and the role that people have in conservation and that was really the beginning point for me. After a couple summers of doing research and interviews with people who live in the islands and those people are everyone from scientists and people that work for the national park, to people that work in tourism, to people that work in support industries like restaurants and hotels, to farmers and fishers. I got really interested in the tortoises as a cultural symbol because everybody that I talked to in the Galapagos had some kind of opinion about them, but they had really different understandings of the tortoises and what the Galapagos were all now.

Ian:                                             Other than the common misperception that there were no inhabitants on the Galapagos islands, what are some other misperceptions?

Elizabeth H.:                         That’s the main one that people are really surprised when I talk about Galapagos here, that people live there. They tend to look kind of forlorn when I say that, but I don’t see it as a problem. I think that we get this idea about pristine nature from nature documentaries and from some of the rhetoric of conservation. It’s not what biologists actually think, but it’s kind of the rhetoric that’s used to get us to donate and to look for funds for conservation. So, people, that’s all they hear until you actually go to Galapagos and you can see that there are three towns in the islands, where about 30,000 people live. That is the big misperception that most people have about the Galapagos.

Elizabeth H.:                         The other one is the “Darwin discovered evolution there.” He had a eureka moment, like when the apple fell on Newton’s head. It didn’t really happen that way. The islands were very important to Darwin, but he didn’t realize their significance until he was back from the Beagle voyage and looking through his notes on the specimens he collected for several years after he’d left. That was the first time he really, kind of, the idea started to click together and that is because he had had one of the keepers at the British Museum of Natural History look at all the birds specimens that he’d brought back from the Galapagos, and particular finches we hear a lot about today, and mockingbirds, as well. Darwin hadn’t labeled them by island. He had just kind of put them in bags together.

Elizabeth H.:                         When he gave them all to Gould, who was the scientist at the museum, Gould was able to look at all the different animals and say, “Yeah, I think that these are all new species. They’re not just different looking varietals of one species.” Then, Darwin started thinking they were probably different from each island, but he didn’t have the data to actually prove that.

Tonya:                                       Your book is entitled On the Backs of Tortoises. Why are we actually standing on the backs of tortoises?

Elizabeth H.:                         I made it more figuratively in the book and that it gets to the idea that Galapagos are evolutionary Eden, which I mentioned in the title, and I think it does have a lot to do with Darwin. It has a lot to do with the fact that the tortoises look like prehistoric animals. They can get to be 200 years old. They’re quite large. They have this really wrinkly skin and worn carapaces because they’re constantly running into things and so they look ancient, right? They’re only 200 years old, but they really look like they could be much, much older and indeed they are.

Elizabeth H.:                         Scientists call them living fossils, which is a species that was around in the time of dinosaurs, but has managed to survive until now. They’ve done that in Galapagos, and the only other place that the tortoises exist in the world today are in the Aldabra islands, off the Indian Ocean.

Tonya:                                       Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Elizabeth H.:                         They used to exist on every continent except for Australia and Antarctica, but died off about 13 to 15,000 years ago. They’re living fossils in that way. It kind of takes us back to this idea that the Galapagos is part of the site of an evolutionary origin story,

Ian:                                             Talk about your research that uncovered the extinction of three of 15 species that originally populated the Island.

Elizabeth H.:                         The first species that we know went extinct was from an island called Floreana, which is one of the first islands that was colonized in the Galapagos in 1832. It’s an island that Darwin visited in 1835 and saw a settlement of about 300 people living there and the sailors. Darwin was one of thousands of sailors in the Pacific and this was the age of whaling. So the sailors and colonists, too, all relied on the tortoises as a really important source of food. That is why these species met their demise. The Floreana tortoises are thought to have gone extinct in about the 1850s. There’s not an exact record of it. Other species in the following decades, too, also because of colonization and because of sailors eating them.

Tonya:                                       You mentioned a little bit earlier about the residents on the Galapagos and their divided opinions they have with respect to the giant tortoise.

Elizabeth H.:                         Sure. I mean, obviously we understand the tortoises to be charismatic, conservation icons, endangered species, and so they have a particular residence for tourists who go to visit and who want to see the tortoises as part of their trip to Galapagos. For scientists, they are an excellent example of evolutionary processes in the archipelago. For most local residents that I talked to, they also see them as symbols of their homelands. The Galapagos, that word actually means tortoise. It’s an old Spanish word for tortoise. The animals are really wrapped up with the identity of the islands. For most residents that is a good thing because they understand that tourism is the lifeblood of the local economy. But not everyone in the islands can benefit from tourism and particularly in the past, fishers have been excluded from this alliance between conservation and tourism. They have used the tortoises as symbols of protest and they’ve taken them hostage, which probably sounds a lot more dramatic than it actually was.

Elizabeth H.:                         By doing that, they would block the road that is the access to the national park headquarters and the Darwin Research Station headquarters where the main breeding center is. They did that to try and draw attention to what they saw were really unfair conservationist rules that limited their livelihoods. Galapagos is not a poor society. It’s a pretty middle-class in Ecuador and it’s a good place to live and raise your kids, so people want to live out there. But the wages in Galapagos are just nothing like they are in the United States. The cruises are really expensive, minimum of usually about $2,500 for four or five days and right on up. That’s prohibitively expensive for most Ecuadorians to be able to do it.

Tonya:                                       Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Elizabeth H.:                         I think my proposal would be that there is a subsidy program in which these tour operators, as part of the cost of operating in the Galapagos, have a program that they can take local residents for drastically reduced price or for free, so they can see the nature that conservationists really want them to protect.

Tonya:                                       For the first time visitor to the Galapagos, and admittedly, this is on our bucket list – we have not traveled yet- what would you advise a traveler to do so that they are not only respecting the environment and the local treasures, but also helping and supporting the local economy?

Elizabeth H.:                         Yeah, I appreciate you asking the question. It’s an important one. I would say first to potential visitors that Galapagos really is a really incredible destination. It is worth the trip and I think it’s worth the money to go if you’re fortunate enough to have it. You really can do things like snorkel with sea lions and get up close to these giant tortoises, and that’s one of the really unique things about going to see nature in the Galapagos.

Elizabeth H.:                         I also think it’s really important to, as you say, spend money in the local economy and not just take a cruise with a company that is headquartered out of New York, for example, but to try and find some local tour operators and to be sure that you spend a little bit of time in the towns. That is how most of the money actually stays in the archipelago. You know, going out to dinner. You can take day tours on smaller boats if you want to stay in a hotel on land, and that’s becoming an increasingly popular thing to do as well. I think tourists need to do a little bit of research about who they book their travel with.

Ian:                                             A link to On the Backs of Tortoises can be found on this show page at WorldFootprints.com

Tonya:                                       Both Lena and Elizabeth made some very valid points about the need to re-examine the impact that volunteer travel, and tourism as a whole, has on local communities. Something Elizabeth said to me really stuck out. She said that in a world where evolution is shaped by global history, we need a vision for conservation based on reckoning with the past rather than trying to erase it. I think that’s very powerful.

Ian:                                             So many of the challenges that come up with voluntourism come from the fact that we have people coming from the outside trying to do something in a community. Sometimes they aren’t necessarily on the same page with people in the community who may have a different vision or a different belief system, and sometimes those things come into conflict.

Tonya:                                       Lena, one thing she mentioned is that sometimes communities and these volunteer travel agencies do not tap into the local resources. I think that was her biggest beef with one of the projects that she participated in, that people in the community who have the same skillset as she did, were not utilized and provided for.

Tonya:                                       We’d like to leave you with a thought by Agnes Repplier, “The impulse to travel is one of the hopeful symptoms of life.” We are honored that you have let us into your house and we hope that you’ll invite your family and your friends to join us on these journeys.

Tonya:                                       We’re Tonya and Ian Fitzpatrick, and we thank you for allowing us to connect you with the world, one story at a time, on World Footprints.

Speaker 5:                              This World Footprints podcast with Ian and Tonya Fitzpatrick is a production of World Footprints, LLC, Silver Spring, Maryland. The multi award-winning podcast is available on WorldFootprints.com and on audio platforms worldwide, including iHeart radio, Public Radio Exchange, iTunes and Stitcher. Connect with the world, one story at a time with World Footprints. Visit worldfootprints.com to enjoy more podcasts and explore hundreds of articles from international travel writers, and be sure to subscribe to the newsletter. World Footprints as a trademark of World Footprints, LLC, which retains all lights to the World Footprints portfolio, including WorldFootprints.com and this podcast.


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