April 22, 2018

Earth Day 2018: End Plastic Pollution, Save Easter Island

Recycling campaign in Easter Island.
(c) Dirección Sociocultural de Chile


By Marcela Torres

Tons of plastic are carried by marine currents to coastal destinations, such as Easter Island. This is compounded by the garbage generated by tourists and residents within the island. Hence, this paradise in the Pacific is in trouble and we must help find a solution.

“End plastic pollution” is the theme for Earth Day 2018. Celebrated each year on April 22 since 1970, Earth Day marks the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement. This year, the aim is to provide the information and inspiration needed to fundamentally change human attitude and behavior about plastics.

Oceans of Plastic

A study conducted by researchers from three universities in the United States and published by the Journal Science estimated that “275 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million MT entering the ocean. Population size and the quality of waste management systems largely determine which countries contribute the greatest mass of uncaptured waste available to become plastic marine debris.”

Among the top 20 countries generating the greatest amount of ocean-bound trash, China is ranked first and the United States 20th. The rest of the list includes 11 other Asian countries, Turkey, five African countries, and Brazil.

(c) University of Georgia

Plastics are non-biodegradable and just break down into ever smaller pieces as a result of their exposure to sunlight. Known as microplastics, these pieces measure less than five millimeters and are approximately the size of a sesame seed. Because of their size, they are easily ingested by fish and other marine wildlife and quickly enter the food chain, affecting humans as well.

The Easter Island Garbage Issue

Located in the South Pacific Garbage Patch, more than 3,500 kilometers from Santiago, Chile, Easter Island suffers not only from its own trash generation but also from plastic debris that is washed ashore by the ocean currents. To learn more about the situation, the non-governmental organization Race for Water Foundation conducted studies in the Ovahe and Anakena beaches in 2015.

Attracted by the island’s huge Moai statues, over 80,000 tourists visit each year this paradise with a size of only 163.6 square kilometers and a resident population of approximately 6,000 people. This influx of visitors also takes a toll on the island’s capacity to manage waste.

Local authorities estimate that, by 2025, Easter Island will import 32 metric tons of cardboard, 18 of plastic, 12 of aluminum cans and nine of glass. However, without a recycling plant of its own, only one-fifth of its garbage is sent to the continent for recycling. The rest is taken to the already overloaded landfill.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the islanders have already made great strides towards promoting sustainable tourism. Local youth are also actively engaged in cleaning beaches and ridding them of plastics as much as they can and a music school was built with reused elements such as aluminum cans, glass bottles and tires. But there’s still much to be done.


Rapa Nui School of Music and Arts
(c) Imagina Isla de Pascua

How can we help? Refuse and reduce the use of plastic. If this is not possible, then we can do our best to recycle and/or remove plastic waste from locations where it will cause most damage. Tackling this pollution issue is on us! Learn more, look for ways to help, ask authorities to act. Happy Earth Day!

June 11, 2017

Is there Sustainable Consumption and Production in Tourism?

 © UNWTO - International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development

by Marcela Torres

Do you ever wonder where the food you eat at a hotel comes from? How much water and energy the hotel consumes? Do you consider sustainability when choosing a hotel or tour operator? Or when you buy things for your trip?

These are questions worth pondering upon in a week in which the world celebrated Environment Day on June 5 and held the Ocean Conference in New York, in addition to the fact that 2017 has been declared by the United Nations as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. And questions like these are being discussed in the massive open online course (MOOC) on “Sustainable Consumption and Production”, organized by the UNDP through its NBSAP Forum, which Im facilitating in its Spanish version.

What is the role of consumers in promoting sustainability in tourism or any other industry? Well, the main role is to exercise their power on the demand side of the economy. More and more, efforts are being made by international organizations and advocacy groups to promote green consumption and many countries and companies have already incorporated principles such as the polluter pays into their legislations or business strategies.

Nevertheless, there is still a myth that individual consumers are the most responsible for sustainable consumption and that by providing them with information about the social and environmental consequences, sustainable consumption can be achieved through the market. However, research by the United Nations 10YFP Sustainable Lifestyles and Education Programme has shown that there are some mental blocks:

ideologies (I should be free to buy what I want or Technology will solve environmental problems)
social norms (Ill look strange if I do it or why should I do it if they dont?)
lock in to unsustainable capital (well I already have the car…”)
mistrust or denial (Those eco-labels are just a marketing ploy!)
perceived risks of sustainable consumption (what if the photovoltaic cells dont work reliably? or wont my colleagues think Im poor if I take the train?)
feeling that individual actions wont make a difference (Im just one in 7 billion)
emotional manipulation through marketing and advertising (Youll be happier with these products.)

Dont get me wrong. Consumers can and should make a difference, either individually or collectively. But being informed is not enough for them to take action. Sometimes they dont have options. How many recycling facilities are close to their homes or (in the case of tourism) in their hotels? What is the cost of choosing a sustainable option over another one that is unsustainable?

I have previously discussed this in a paper published in 2013 by the Journal of Ecotourism. One of the biggest hurdles that must be overcome by the responsible tourism movement is that this type of tourism is usually more expensive than traditional tourism. If you scour the internet for marketing data, youll find many statistics indicating responsible tourism is a growing global trend and that todays consumers expect travel companies to build sustainability into their product offer. You will also find many surveys reporting high percentages of people who declare they will prefer a sustainable travel company over an unsustainable one. But how true is this really?

Theres a catch I cant say that people necessarily lie during a survey, but their answers may often be influenced by what they consider to be polite or politically correct responses. Honestly, would you ever say (given the global evidence of pollution) that you dont care about pollution or that you like to pollute? Probably not.

On the other hand, they may actually want to choose sustainability but are unable to. The truth is, in general, people dont mean to pollute or choose unsustainable options. But sometimes they dont have alternatives, because there are no sustainability initiatives where they live or stay, because they have strong mental blocks, or because they simply cant afford them.

The good news is that, more and more, the responsible tourism philosophy is permeating many of the traditional tourism companies. While traditional mass tourism perhaps will never disappear, I do think that all companies will, in the end, include at least some measures to contribute toward sustainability and that tourists (as consumers) have an important role to play in this process.

April 29, 2017

Let’s Go See Whales! But Let’s Be Careful



by Marcela Torres

I recently watched a beautiful and moving Argentinean-Spanish film called “El faro de las orcas (The Lighthouse of the Whales), set in the coast of a small Patagonian village. Although it focuses on the story of a boy with autism, it also raises important concerns about encouraging tourists to get close to killer whales. Free killer whales don’t attack humans, experts say. However, others would argue that you can never be too careful.

Because of that, as I have mentioned before, several countries and organizations, including the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), have issued guidelines for observing whales and dolphins, to prevent harming both marine mammals and humans. In Chile, the Government passed the regulation for marine wildlife observation, in 2011, and later published two best-practices manuals, one of them with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Argentina has regulated this activity as well.

Australia is certainly one of the leaders in the promotion of responsible tourism, particularly in marine habitats. In 2009, I had an unforgettable whale-watching experience on a ferry that took us from Sydney to the feeding site of a group of humpback whales.

It was a clear, sunny day and I can still feel the cold wind and the ocean water sprinkling all over me as the waves moved the ferry up and down. I was on the deck with other tourists who, like myself, were excited and yelled each time they spotted a tail, a fin or a head, triggering a frenzy to get a photo or video of these animals. The ferry crew kept us in line, however, with their staff on deck as well as with constant instructions and explanations provided through loudspeakers.

Educating and raising awareness is key for ensuring responsible tourism. For example, while we sailed towards the whales, we saw a short educational video about these animals and the rules for observing them. Many guidelines and regulations also demand companies to contribute to conserving and monitoring marine mammals, reporting any sightings to the corresponding authorities.

Besides keeping these guidelines in mind, there are two things you can do to ensure a safe and pleasant experience: Look for information about the species and their habitats before you encounter them; and check that you are traveling with a certified tour operator that is respectful of these animals and the regulations for approaching them.

Whales are amazing creatures! They have been around for more than 30 million years and fascinate people all over the world. But many of them are endangered and we must act responsibly when embarking on a whale-watching adventure.

February 22, 2017

Hernán Torres (1946-2017): A Great Nature Lover



by Marcela Torres

It was January 2000 and my dad and I were sitting on top of a rocky promontory in Torres del Paine National Park, in southern Chile, withstanding the strong cold Patagonian winds that pierced through our parkas, gloves and hats. But we were on a mission: To photograph the elusive Andean Condor.

We were fortunate enough to stay at a park ranger post, where the staff gave us tips on the best spots to find the Condor. Since this is a scavenger bird, they suggested we take with us some really stinky cat food that would surely do the trick of attracting it to us.

Following their instructions, we trekked for hours through the tall grasslands of the “pampa” to reach one of the hills they had recommended. It was a rocky mount, completely barren, but after climbing it we discovered it provided a great lookout point. There we sat, with our stock of smelly cat food, and waited, and waited, and waited…

As we waited, I remembered how we came to be there on the first place. In 1982, the BBC produced one of my dad’s favorite documentaries, “The Flight of the Condor”. Mind you, he got a copy and played it over and over again. Being just a girl, I was more into cartoons and Michael Jackson videos, but I ended up liking this incredible film about a bird that is a national symbol in most Andean countries, including Chile, where we lived.

In fact, it wasn’t the first time I had enjoyed a national park with him. My dad had been Regional Director for CONAF, the agency in charge of Chilean protected areas, in Arica between 1974 and 1985. As a child, I traveled with him many times to Lauca National Park, in the high Andes, during his field visits. He taught me about the Vicuña, the Flamingos, the Vizcacha, and the Condor.

It was so much fun that I never paid attention to the cold and loved accompanying him while he photographed nature, which was his passion. When I turned nine, he gave me my first camera, a Polaroid that I still have, and taught me how use it. I was so happy that I took pictures of everything!!

Thanks to him, my family and I enjoyed living in Ann Arbor, Michigan; San José, Costa Rica; New Haven, Connecticut; and Arlington, Virginia. This gave us some unforgettable experiences, such as camping around the Great Lakes and visiting all of the beautiful national parks in these areas.

Torres del Paine had always been on my wish list. So, when he offered to take me in 2000, I said yes immediately! And there we were, waiting for the condor…

A couple of hours had gone by and we had almost lost all hope when suddenly, out of nowhere, a huge bird appeared flying straight towards us. It was a Condor! We quickly ditched our gloves and grabbed our cameras, getting ready to take great shots of this amazing animal. But in only a few seconds it was right on top of us!

As it came, and we realized how low it was flying, we instinctively leaned back until we lay flat on the rock.  It was such an awesome sight, having this massive bird glide only a meter above us, that we completely froze. We could see all the details of its belly and the long wings. When we snapped out of our awe, we realized we had not taken any pictures! So, we quickly rolled over on our bellies and started shooting with our cameras to try to catch at least a glimpse of the Condor. It was too late! We were only able to capture a tiny speck that was quickly flying away from us towards higher altitudes.

We stayed there a while, letting the experience sink in. It had been so amazing! Finally, we grabbed our cameras and the stinky cat food and walked back to the park ranger post. At night, while we sat with the rangers around a fire sharing a “mate” (muh-teh) –a typical Patagonia herbal tea-, they laughed at our adventure.

Our common love for nature led us to co-author two editions of the Guide to Chile’s National Parks (1999and 2004), in Spanish, and to work together in the development of the firstsustainable visitor center in a protected area in Chile, in Los FlamencosNational Reserve, between 2005 and 2006. That experience made me decide to study my Master in Ecotourism at James Cook University, in Cairns, Australia, in 2009.

My dad always supported my endeavors and often contributed with photographs for my blog. He was a member of several professional associations and chaired for many years the IUCN South American Camelid Specialist Group, promoting the conservation of the vicuña until the end of his life. I will continue contributing as well, honoring his memory.

He passed away on Saturday, February 18, 2017. It is still so recent that it’s hard to believe… I still feel him close… He will be with me forever… And my love and gratitude for all that he taught me will remain…


HERNÁN TORRES BIO

Hernán held a Master of Environmental Studies from Yale University and a Bachelor of Science in Natural Resources from The University of Michigan, both in the United States. He was Regional Director for CONAF (1974-1981 and 1984-1985); team leader for protected areas management plans at the CATIE, in Costa Rica (1986-1988); Protected Areas Specialist of The Nature Conservancy’s Caribbean Region Department (1995-1998); and an accomplished international consultant in protected area planning and management, sustainable development, ecosystem services and biodiversity, working with multilateral agencies, such as the UNDP, UNEP, World Bank and RAMSAR, and actively participating in IUCN initiatives until the end.

September 18, 2016

Let’s Help Protect the Vicuña!

© Hernán Torres


by Marcela Torres

A ray of hope shone from Hawaii to South America last week when the General Assembly of the World Conservation Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) approved Motion 103: Vicuña (Vicugna vicugna) conservation and the illegal trade in its fibre. The aim is to achieve that the Conference of the Parties (CoP17) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which will be held in South Africa between September 24 and October 5, demands its members to strengthen controls to half the poaching and illegal trade in its fibre.

The Vicuña: A Successful Conservation Case

The Vicuña is one of the four South American camelids that inhabit the High Andes of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru. During the 1970s, the species was on the brink of extinction due to excessive hunting for its fibre, considered the finest one in the world, on top of those obtained from cashmere goats and alpacas.

Thanks to the efforts made by conservation organizations and the governments of the countries within its area of distribution, which in 1979 signed the Convention for The Conservation and Management of the Vicuña, all trade in live animals, their fiber and other products of the species was banned. As a consequence, its populations successfully recovered.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Peru requested authorization to trade fiber obtained by indigenous communities from animals that are sheared live and then released, using an ancient Inka technique called “chaku”. Thus, the sustainable management of the species began, together with the export of its fiber to countries such as Italy, Scotland and Japan, an example that was later on followed by Bolivia, Argentina and Chile.

Poaching Reappears After Four Decades

Obtaining vicuña fiber is difficult. Each adult sheared adult vicuña produces barely 200 grams of fiber, every two or three years. Because of that, in addition to being the finest fiber it is also the most expensive, with prices ranging between USD $300 and $500 per kilogram.

Companies focused on luxury clothing in countries like Italy, England, Germany and the United States buy vicuña fiber to manufacture articles such as coats and men’s suits, which are sold at approximately USD $20,000 and USD $40,000, respectively. However, over the past years, it is suspected that China has entered the market, although in an illegal manner, promoting a black market for vicuña fiber that would allegedly be paying up to USD $1,000 per kilogram and being supplied through poaching of the species, particularly by criminal groups operating in Bolivia.

Approximately 5,000 vicuñas have shown up dead and skinned over the past five years. But the killings have increased significantly since 2014 to date, endangering once more the survival of the species and threatening the livelihood of High-Andean communities that carry out a sustainable management of the vicuña with great efforts.

How can these killings be stopped?

Fortunately, civil society and the scientific community have raised their voices over the past year to call attention to this issue and request worldwide help to solve it, from petitions through Internet sites -such as www.thepetitionsite.com and www.care2.com- to a statement made by the IUCN’s South American Camelid Specialist Group (GECS by its acronym in Spanish).

What is needed most is to stop the illegal sale of vicuña products. On the one hand, as consumers we are responsible for making sure that what we buy is duly certified. In addition, we must report any informal sale offer we encounter, since it will most likely be part of a black market that promotes killing protected wildlife.

At an international level, it is crucial that the CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP17) accepts Motion 103 of the IUCN’s World Conservation Congress and commits to, among other things, ensure that the Parties to the CITES that have vicuña fiber and products derived from it identify, mark and register them appropriately, to guarantee their traceability to their origin, adopting and applying the relevant legislation with extensive controls, in order to prevent the illegal trade in these items and that States within the species’ area of distribution, importing countries as well as consumers increase their collaboration.


Let’s hope that the CITES will hear the global outcry to save the Vicuña!

March 30, 2014

Welcome to Tourism-People-Nature!


At the Piedra de la Iglesia (Church Rock), Constitución, Maule Region, Chile.

by Marcela Torres

Welcome! This blog is a continuation of the one I published between 2011 and 2013 as part of the contribution to the dissemination of World Responsible Tourism Day by the tour operations company, Southern Cone Journeys, which my sister Paula and I created to receive tourists in Chile.

Unfortunately, we were forced to close the company because our expectations were not met regarding the supposedly growing ecotourism and responsible tourism markets in North America and Europe. Of course, the recent economic crises did not help either.

Nevertheless, those two years in business gave us the opportunity to meet fantastic like-minded people, who strive to improve tourism in order to leave the world a better place for future generations.

In that spirit, I have decided to migrate the entries from our previous blog to this new address and to continue with the effort of promoting responsibility in the tourism industry towards the people and the environment of the destinations it relies upon.


I invite you to follow me in this new phase! 

March 29, 2014

World Tourism Day 2013: Conserving Water



by Marcela Torres

On September 27 we celebrate the 2013 World Tourism Day (WTD) under the theme “Tourism and Water: Protecting our Common Future”, which the World Tourism Organization (WTO) has chosen to underscore tourism´s responsibility and commitment in ensuring a sustainable water future.

Water availability and quality play a key role in the quality of life of humans. And tourism also depends on this resource in many ways, be it for consumption of visitors or as part of the attractions offered to travelers.

Although tourism has a minor share in world water consumption, compared to other industries such as agriculture and mining, it nevertheless contributes to the problem. For example, the hotel sector requires water for cooking, laundering, human consumption (drinks, showers, etc.), filling pools and irrigating gardens or golf courses, among other uses.

According to the WTO, since more than one thousand million people travel each year worldwide, tourism can be an important channel for raising awareness and changing behaviors, helping reduce issues of availability and quality of water resources and offering effective solutions aimed at achieving greater sustainability for water in the future.

Some related outstanding initiatives have already been set up by the tourism sector. For example, the British non-governmental organization Tourism Concern has a campaign on water equity in tourism, which promotes principles among governments, industry and society at large. The Just a Drop foundation relies on donations from tourism companies to fund clean water projects throughout the world.

People who have not yet taken any water-saving measures may start by taking baby steps. It is not necessary to do everything at once.

Here are some good tips:
  • Reduce unnecessary water consumption in cleaning and cooking
  • Check pipes and fittings to avoid leaks which cause loss of water
  • Use water-saving technology
  • Use recycled water from showers, washing machines and toilets or rain water to irrigate gardens
  • Invite your hosts to contribute to reducing water consumption through information materials

Happy World Tourism Day!

This entry was originally posted by the author on September 26, 2012.