June 05, 2020

World Environment Day: Wildlife and People in the Struggle for Survival and Sustainability

As people throughout the world have been forced to stay home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are many lessons we’ve learned (and are still learning). One of them is that the destiny of people and nature go hand in hand, and we simply can’t ignore that fact. The celebration of the 2020 World Environment Day is a good moment to stop and reflect on some key aspects of the relationship between people and wildlife that have been highlighted by this global crisis.

Bat shaming

During the first weeks since news of the coronavirus emerged, several reports pointed to bats being the origin of this novel contagious disease. Led by misinformation and fear, many people throughout the world attacked bats to avoid the spread of COVID-19. However, as more research was conducted, scientists and conservation leaders warned that this link was not 100% proven and launched communication campaigns to remove the stigma on bats and highlight their important environmental benefits including pollination, seed dispersal, and pest and disease-vector control. Although COVID-19 has indeed been identified as a zoonotic disease - a human disease of animal origin - its exact animal source is yet not clear.

Nevertheless, zoonoses have been an increasing problem for many years. According to the UN Environment Programme, 75% of all emerging infectious diseases are transferred to people from wildlife. They include Ebola, avian influenza (or bird flu), H1N1 flu virus (or swine flu), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), Rift Valley fever, sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), West Nile virus, and the Zika virus. Evidence shows that the emergence and re-emergence of zoonotic diseases are closely interlinked with the health of ecosystems, and their spread increases with the intensification of human activities surrounding and encroaching into natural habitats, enabling pathogens in wildlife reservoirs to spill over to livestock and humans.

Reclaiming lost habitat?

When the lockdown and isolation began across different countries, we were impressed to see how wildlife quickly appeared in cities and other places where they would previously not dare to go, because they had been occupied by humans. Dolphins in Turkey, boars in Israel, and pumas in Chile are examples of animals touring largely empty city streets, fascinating -and sometimes scaring- urban dwellers.

Explanations given by experts vary. Some claim that these species are once again roaming what used to be part of their original habitat, while others attribute this behavior to dire conditions in their natural environment, such as the megadrought in Chile, which would drive them to leave their comfort zone in search for food and water.

Wildlife abandoned by tourists

While some wildlife species have seized the opportunity to explore new horizons, others are not so lucky. Many zoos and other wildlife attractions across the globe have been hardly hit by the drop of tourism as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve written before about the risks of feeding wildlife and other impacts of wildlife tourism, including buying souvenirs made from endangered species and observing whales and dolphins. However, the crisis in the tourism industry caused by the spread of this new coronavirus brings this issue into the spotlight once again.

From the monkeys at the Prang Sam Yod temple in Thailand to Neumünster Zoo in Germany, animals in captivity are starving as a result of lower revenues from tourism, which affects the capacity of the facilities to provide food for them, and, in some cases such as the temple in Thailand, less tourists to bring snacks to feed them. In Chile, zoos are working together with authorities and reaching out to the community for help through the advanced sale of tickets for when the facilities are able to open once again.

The drop in tourism has also affected protected areas in many countries, where it has resulted in less stress to local wildlife, but at the same time has reduced the number of potential witnesses or casual guardians against criminal acts. With parks closed and law enforcement personnel diverted to other duties related to COVID-19, poachers have taken advantage of reduced human presence to increase their activities.

What can we do?

This is a huge question. In fact, during this worldwide health, economic, and environmental crisis there are many things society as a whole needs to reflect on if we want to be successful in the common struggle of humans and wildlife for survival and sustainability.

How can we avoid the outbreak of new zoonotic diseases? How can we halt and mitigate habitat fragmentation to allow healthy wildlife populations to flourish? How can we reduce poaching to save species from extinction? What will be the role of wildlife tourism when travel resumes? What should be the role of zoos and wildlife attractions? Should they still exist, or should they be eliminated, following the lead of countries such as Costa Rica? 

Nature is making a clear statement! As countries start to plan ways to build back once the COVID-19 pandemic is under control, getting nature at the heart of all decision making  must be our top priority. We need to act now to make the world a better place for people and for nature!

January 13, 2019

Damage to Ancient Giant of Tarapacá Geoglyph: Who’s Accountable?

© Hernán Torres

By Marcela Torres

It is the most imposing geoglyph in our country and last week it suffered irreparable damage. It is the Giant of Tarapacá (Gigante de Tarapacá), located on Unitas hill, approximately 100 kilometers away from Iquique, in the Atacama Desert, in the Tarapacá Region in northern Chile. The figure, which measures 119 meters, is the largest in Chile and was presumably created by ancient indigenous cultures inhabiting the area more than 1,000 years ago.

What is most sad is that the damage was caused on Saturday, January 6 by three irresponsible tourists who drove a 4x4 vehicle on the figure’s feet and head, not heeding the signs that indicate the limit for proximity to the geoglyph and the prohibitions to damage it. Three people with Belgian passports were involved – one Chilean woman who obtained Belgian citizenship, one Chilean man born in Belgium, and one native Belgian woman – and they visited the area with the help of a Chilean.

Photograph obtained from Twitter.

Other tourists visiting the place, outraged because of the lack of respect and culture, reported the incident on social media and the authorities acted quickly, taking the three Belgian citizens into custody at the Santiago airport as they were preparing to board their plane back to their country. After their arrest in Santiago, the tourists will be sent to Pozo Almonte, in northern Chile, to face charges for the crime of damaging a national monument, and they risk a sentence that could range from short prison, from its minimum (between 61 and 301 days) to maximum degree (between 302 and 540 days), to the payment of a fine that could go up to approximately USD $ 14,230).

Lack of protection and education

The news turned my stomach. The first thing I asked myself was: Who would do something like this and why? I hold special affection for this place, which I’ve visited several times, and which has a special symbolism for the Atacama Region. In fact, in January 2010 I was proud to be given the opportunity of leading a tourism exercise of the Pressure-State-Response model on this site as part of a Sustainable Tourism workshop organized by Universidad Arturo Prat for tour operators of the region.

The exercise was very fruitful and allowed participants to analyze the pressures (threats) faced by this cultural heritage, the state (condition) it was in, and the evidence of society’s response (actions) in the area. Although the geoglyph itself was not damaged, there was a lot of trash around it (we picked up several bags full of paper, plastic bottles, and other waste), there was no infrastructure for visitors, and there were few signs.

© Hernán Torres
Marcela Torres leading a sustainable tourism exercise at the Giant of Tarapacá.

Even though the Giant has been exposed for centuries and has suffered previous damage on other occasions, none has been as serious as this. The worst part is that it is hard to understand what these people were trying to accomplish. The geoglyph was created to be admired from a distance. The truth is it cannot be seen well up close. Therefore, the only explanation is that this criminal act was exclusively meant to cause damage.

Who’s in charge of protection?

Because of its location, the direct responsibility for the protection of this important site lies in the Municipality of Huara, with a population of approximately 3,000 people. True, but we all know that in Chile all municipalities don’t have the same financial resources and, in my opinion, leaving the protection of such an important ancient heritage at the hands of a municipality shows a lack of vision.

While it’s true that the Giant of Tarapacá is a significant attraction, tourism leaves very little for the small locality of Huara, since most visitors go on day trips from Iquique, either on their own or through a tourism operator. Hence, tourism incomes mostly remain in the regional capital.

What we need to understand as a society is that any damage to our cultural and natural heritage is a damage to all Chileans. I want the people who are guilty for this to receive prison time, even if it’s short, to serve as an example and a deterrent to anyone thinking of damaging the heritage of all Chileans.

I would also like to see more actions and funds invested from the central government level on this monument, whose protection cannot be left solely at the hands of a municipality that does not have the necessary resources. It seems to me a great initiative for the ministries of Cultures and National Assets to send archaeologists to assess the damage and the possibility of repairing it, although experts indicate this is very difficult because the vehicle tracks are too deep. Anyway, I believe there is a need to evaluate how the protection of our heritage can be financed and supervised with national funds.

Unfortunately, as a result of the actions of these irresponsible tourists, future generations will never be able to see the Giant of Tarapacá in all its splendor. I hope this doesn’t happen again and that we protect our heritage the way it deserves.

October 07, 2018

70 years of IUCN - #NatureForAll

By Marcela Torres

Since 2017, I have been a proud member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Commission on Education and Communication (CEC). The organization is celebrating the 70th anniversary of its creation on October 5, 1948 in Fontainebleu, France by governments and civil society organizations with a shared goal to protect nature.

Also created in 1948, the CEC was IUCN’s first Commission. Its more than 1,100 voluntary members contribute their expertise in education, social communication and behavior change communication to create a culture of conservation. The Commission drives change for the co-creation of sustainable solutions through leading communication, learning and knowledge management in IUCN and the wider conservation community.

Among its many contributions, the CEC is supporting IUCN’s global #NatureForAll movement, which was formally launched at the 2016 International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress in Hawaii and is driven by a growing coalition of partners who represent a variety of sectors.

#NatureForAll aims to build support and action for nature conservation among people from all walks of life by raising awareness and facilitating experiences and connections with the natural world. Want to learn more about the movement? Check out this great video for inspiration!

Happy anniversary IUCN and CEC!

Living #NatureForAll

June 04, 2018

World Environment Day: Beat Plastic Pollution!

By Marcela Torres

Ending plastic pollution is the aim of the activities of two important international days celebrated this week: World Environment Day, tomorrow June 5, and World Oceans Day, on June 8.

“#BeatPlasticPollution” is a call to action for all of us to come together to combat one of the great environmental challenges of our time. The theme invites us all to consider how we can make changes in our everyday lives to reduce the heavy burden of plastic pollution on our natural places, our wildlife – and our own health. While plastic has many valuable uses, we have become over reliant on single-use or disposable plastic – with severe environmental consequences.

Although I’ve written before about plastic pollution and consumption patterns in the tourism industry, the problem persists, and it is necessary to insist on its importance.

What is being done?

Many countries, particularly those with long coasts, are taking actions to reduce plastic pollution. For example, on May 30 Chile passed a law banning single-use plastic bags in the entire national territory. The ban will enter into force in one year’s time for major retailers and in two years’ time for smaller businesses.  

On this occasion, the United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment) is calling to action in four key areas:

  • Reducing Single-Use Plastics: 50% of the of consumer plastics are designed to be used only once, providing a momentary convenience before being discarded. Eliminating single-use plastics, both from design chains to our consumer habits is a critical first step to beat plastic pollution.
  • Improving Waste Management: Nearly one third of the plastics we use escape our collection systems. Once in the environment, plastics don’t go away, they simply get smaller and smaller, last a century or more and increasingly find their way into our food chain. Waste management and recycling schemes are essential to a new plastics economy.
  • Phasing Out Microplastics: Recent studies show that over 90% of bottled water and even 83% of tap water contain microplastic particles. No one is sure what that means for human health, but trace amounts are turning up in our blood, stomachs, and lungs with increasing regularity. Humans add to the problem with micro-beads from beauty products and other non-recoverable materials. 
  • Promoting Research into Alternatives: Alternative solutions to oil-based plastics are limited and difficult to scale. This doesn’t need to be the case. Further research is needed to make sustainable plastic alternatives both economically viable and widely available.

This World Environment Day is a culmination of years of effort by Member States aimed at focusing the world’s attention and galvanizing action around plastic pollution. UN Environment and its Member States have been developing innovative science and forging new consensus on the complex relationships between plastics, society and the environment.

May 22, 2018

International Day for Biodiversity: 25 years conserving global biodiversity

By Marcela Torres

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) entered into force 25 years ago, in December 1993. While we celebrate the International Day for Biodiversity today, it seems appropriate to highlight global achievements and pending tasks in such an important topic for sustainable development as well as the contributions tourism can make.

The achievements have been significant. As mentioned in the message by the Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General, Dr. Cristiana Paşca Palmer: “Biodiversity and its ecosystem services are at the heart of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. The Paris Climate Agreement includes biodiversity. The World Economic Forum recognizes biodiversity loss as a critical risk. The Food and Agriculture Organization has organized focal work on Biodiversity. Paris has declared itself the capital of biodiversity, and all the way around the world, countries, local governments and civil society are stepping up their actions to safeguard biodiversity.”

However, the challenges are also great and biodiversity continues to decline in every region of the world at alarming rates. So much so that at least 17 species have become extinct during the 21st century, including the Pinta Island Tortoise in Ecuador, the Eastern Cougar in the Americas, the Formosan Clouded Leopard in Taiwan, and the Baiji Dolphin, in China, among many others.

How can tourism help conserve biodiversity?

Sustainable tourism can contribute to biodiversity conservation in several ways. As I have mentioned before in this blog, tourism can have both positive and negative environmental impacts.

Many types of tourism rely directly on ecosystem services and biodiversity (ecotourism, agri-tourism, wellness tourism, adventure tourism, etc.) to provide tourists with experiences of cultural and environmental authenticity, contact with local communities and education about flora, fauna, ecosystems and their conservation. On the other hand, too many tourists can also have a negative, degrading effect on biodiversity and ecosystems. Hence, careful planning and management are required to avoid negative impacts on biodiversity.

In that context, the European Union Business and Biodiversity Platform has identified the following seven best practices for tourism businesses:

  1. Identify the impacts and dependencies of your business on biodiversity and ecosystem services (BES).
  2. Assess the business risks and opportunities associated with these impacts and dependencies to educate employees, owners, suppliers and customers.
  3. Develop BES information systems, set SMART targets, measure and value performance, and report results. This is a key step for building trust among external stakeholders, while creating peer pressure within the industry.
  4. Take action to avoid, minimize and mitigate BES risks, including in-kind compensation (‘offsets’) where feasible. BES targets may build on the concepts of ‘No Net Loss’, ‘Ecological Neutrality’ or ‘Net Positive Impact’ and include support for biodiversity offsets where appropriate.
  5. Grasp emerging BES business opportunities, such as cost-efficiencies, new products and new markets. Business can support the growth of green markets and can help design efficient enabling conditions for biodiversity and ecosystem service markets, which may lead to the diversification of tourism product and complements the efforts to fight seasonality of the tourism offer.
  6. Integrate business strategy and actions on BES within wider corporate social responsibility initiatives.
  7. Engage with business peers and stakeholders in government, NGOs and civil society to improve BES guidance and policy. Businesses can bring significant capacity to conservation efforts and have a key role to play in halting biodiversity loss.

Likewise, the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) have developed guidelines on how to plan tourism development within the frameworks of: the ecosystem approach; Akwé: Kon voluntary guidelines for the conduct of cultural, environmental and social impact assessments regarding developments proposed to take place on, or which are likely to impact on, sacred sites and on lands and waters traditionally occupied or used by indigenous and local communities; and the voluntary guidelines for incorporating biodiversity-related issues into environmental impact assessment legislation and/or process, and the draft guidelines for incorporating biodiversity-related issues into strategic environmental assessment.

Let’s celebrate this International Day of Biodiversity by reflecting on how we can further tourism’s contribution to global biodiversity conservation!

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.