Saturday, September 30, 2006

Evolution 2.0

It may seem at times that there is no good news coming from the Galapagos Islands. The issues facing this remote archipelago making up Ecuador’s smallest province read like an eco-nightmare; it seems like practically everything that happens here is a threat to the delicate balance of nature. Want to have a pet dog? It is likely illegal. Do you like raspberries? They are destroying great swaths of the islands. Do you think fishermen are humble, romantic heroes of the sea? In this part of the world they are a ferocious political force, and at the center of a bunch of controversies.

And the assaults on the environment are continuous. Here are the most recent headlines:

Summer 2006: reports received that one of the worlds rarest birds are now extinct on Fernandina Island, where they were first discovered a little over a decade ago. The estimated 100 remaining Mangrove Finches cling to existence on Isabela Island.

August 18, 2006: Ecuador’s largest newspaper “Hoy” announced that authorities had discovered not only invasive fresh water Tilapia on San Cristobal Island, but also a green iguana (believed to be from Central America) and astonishingly, a monkey! These animals do not exist naturally in the Galapagos and are believed to have escaped from tourist boats in the islands.

Sept. 21, 2006: emergency clean up of bunker oil on the shore of Santa Cruz Island. The spill is of unknown origin, but required the efforts of dozens of people to contain the spill and wash off iguanas, birds, and other animals.

Undated: The Charles Darwin Research station reports that “Alien Predators” are competing for the precious Galapagos tortoise habitat. According to the Darwin website, invasive donkeys and cattle trample and collapse nests, destroying the balance of soil humidity necessary for the successful incubation of tortoise eggs, pigs and dogs tear the nests apart and eat the eggs, black rats prey on the hatchlings as they emerge from the nest, and non-native fire ants are capable of killing the hatchlings and destroying the eggs as well. Oh, and don’t forget the goats and fire ants: they out-compete the tortoise for food and destroy the terrain, causing erosion.

This isn’t one or two species at risk, but an entire swath of animals on the brink of extinction.

Since 1997, the country has had seven presidents. The German based political watchdog group Transparency International ranks the Ecuadorian government among the most corrupt in the world.

In 2004, the current president Alfredo Palacio took office after violent and deadly demonstrations on the streets of Quito and Guyaquil demanding the resignation of the previous president, Lucio Gutierrez.
As of this writing, Ecuador's leftist candidate Rafael Correa has widened his lead over his rivals in the October 15 presidential election. Correa has gained 26 percentage points while center-left candidate Leon Roldos, Correa's closest rival, dropped one point to 18 percent.

The real political news is that one of the country's banana barons, and scion of Ecuador’s leading political family, Alvaro Noboa, trails in third place with 11 percent of support.

In just the last four years, there have been 12 directors of the Galapagos National Park (GNP). Back in 1996, Eliecer Cruz was named head of the Park. He was born in the islands and was widely seen as a rare director who really wanted to stand up to the powerful fisherman’s lobby and tourism industries. After prevailing in a number of dramatic confrontations with not only the fishermen, but also one old style judge in Puerto Ayora, even he was replaced.

In late 2004, leadership of the Darwin Foundation negotiated with the Ecuadorian government on the need for ‘solid, cohesive leadership’ within the Park Service organization. By the end of September, then President Gutierrez removed park director Edwin Nuala – Cruz’ successor, a professional biologist and dedicated defender of the park - and replaced him with pro-fishing, pro-development and anti-conservation lobbyist Fausto Cepeda. Cepeda was replaced by Victor Carrion, after tumultuous negotiations with the Minister of the Environment. The current park director is biologist Raquel Molina, who is seen as generally supportive of nature-friendly policies, but with the turn-over in this position, it’s unclear what she can really do. La plus ça change…

This instability (and corruption) can’t help but influence the Galapagos, which encompass 3,100 square miles of protected lands and about 51,000 square miles of protected waters. By most counts, the current population of about 20,000 people was half that number just 10 years ago.

There are at least a dozen endangered species of mammals and fish here. Over the past 10 years, fishermen have nearly depleted the populations of sea cucumber and shark: they earn huge sums on Asian markets.
Those two main economic interests, fishing and tourism, each have a representative in the nation's congress. Each blames the other for the ecological damage. "The problem isn't the fisherman," said Rogelio Guaycha, congressman from the province who also heads a local fishing cooperative. "What's killing the Galapagos is the tourism." Not surprisingly, tourist industry leaders say the same thing about the fishing industry, which is practically untouchable politically.
The future of the islands, which have been certified a World Heritage site by the United Nations, is by no means secure. It is against this background that a nascent news industry has been trying to find a foothold But how much power can the media in a sparsely populated province spread over 20 islands and thousands of square miles of ocean really have?

This was the overarching question facing network TV producer Cecilia Alvear as she coordinated the efforts of a handful of foundations and a spunky journalist group in the Galapagos. On August 25 and 26, Alvear and her two colleagues, NBC network correspondent George Lewis and me - I’m a journalism professor at Cal State LA and a radio reporter/talk show host - presented an intensive workshop designed to improve skills and increase contacts between journalists and public information officers working in the islands.

Enrique Ramos, editor of the ‘Colono’ newspaper published in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island (and an officer at the Charles Darwin Foundation center), helped organize but was unable to attend the workshop because he was under a deadline to get the paper out, said that workshops like this are vital to raise public interest and gain international attention to the island’s problems.

Alvear herself was born in the second largest Galapagos city of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, and is the former president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) here in the U.S. Her commitment to the islands goes back many years, providing computers, books and other curricular materials to the local grammar school on San Cristobal island named after her father, Alejandro Alvear, former military governor of the island.

She incorporated a private foundation to raise funds and pursue other support for the two issues that most concern her there: education and journalism.

She set up the foundation in Ecuador and is in the process of establishing a non-profit in the u.s. to raise funds and pursue other support. For now Alvear provides the funds to bring the three instructors to galapagos for this pilot journalism training program. She had the moral backing of the NAHJ (Alvear, Lewis and I are all NAHJ members and the NAHJ "Manual de Estilo' was one of the critical texts used in the workshop). In addition, the Austin Forum of the Knight Foundation for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin also provided support.

The ‘Colegio de Periodistas de Galápagos’ (CPG) is the local sponsor of the workshop. It was founded in 2002 by 15 people working as journalists or in related professions, to reinforce professional standards and improve their skills. The group was first led by El Colono’s Ramos, until the leadership passed recently to Carlos Macias, free-lance journalist and press liaison for the Instituto Nacional de Galapagos (INGALA).

“Colegio” in this context is not an academic institution, but is a term referring a professional association. Larousse Dictionary notes “…the first meaning is of course an institution devoted to secondary education, i.e. high school; but it is also ‘a professional organization devoted to establishing rules for the proper conduct of the professionals who belong to it and to defend the professional interests of its members. So when we talk about the “Colegio de Prioodistas de Galapagos”, that is what we mean.

INGALA's Macias has worked diligently to raise the level of public respect for their profession, to more clearly understand their legal obligations, and to look for candidates to fill the few journalism related jobs in the area. The spanish environmental organization "ARAUCARIA" contributed the funds necessary to bring the workshop participants from Santa Cruz and Isabela islands to San Cristobal and provide them with room and board while attending the workshop. INGALA provided a conference room.

Under Macias, the CPG hopes to mount up to a half dozen of these workshops per year for the nascent journalism community in various parts of the islands.
Gina Andrade, owner of Radio Encantada (also a long time talk show host on the station) which is heard on San cristobal and Santa Cruz islands attended the two day workshop. She said that she had watched the islands change over the past twenty years she has been on the air. She felt it was important that people outside the islands be made aware of what islanders were facing, and felt the local journalists in the Galapagos could play an important role in getting the message out.
The intensive training sessions were held at the offices of INGALA, just outside Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island. Students were put through their paces discussing a range of issues affecting them:

Credibility: without a deep and solid tradition of challenging, balanced reporting, the student journalists began to equate balanced coverage with their own credibility. It also helped them put public information officers in the proper perspective. They are not adversaries, of course, but they do come to news stories with an agenda that may be quite different than that of the journalist. The attendees learned that they can benefit each other and at the same time keep their journalistic ethics intact.

What Makes a Good Story: because there are so many critical stories breaking around these journalists, and because of their obligations covering other stories, sometimes the ‘world-class’ stories breaking around them are overlooked. The workshop set out to encourage them to look right outside their own doors for important, significant emerging stories.

New Technologies: while journalists in the Galapagos certainly have access to technology to help them report, their available equipment is often outdated and obsolete. The workshop gave them the opportunity to try their hands at equipment that is in use today in the U.S.; equipment which is not particularly expensive to purchase or maintain.

Self-Sufficiency: An age-old problem here has been that 'it's not really news untiil it's picked up on the mainland.' In other words, it takes the certification of the nation's big news organizations to bring important Galapagos stories to the attention of the public. It is hoped that by pooling their efforts and developing new and novel channels of communication, local journalists will have a greater say in getting their stories on the 'national radar.'

Collaboration: considerable time was spent brain-storming ways in which the journalists could help each other, and how their allies and colleagues in the U.S. could provide vital support for their efforts. This has already lead to the formation of an email list serve, making it possible for everyone on the list, both in the Galapagos and in the U.S. to share stories, leads, events, and news that is important to the effort of improving journalism in the Galapagos.

"Lonsome George", the bachelor Galapagos Turtle on Santa Cruz island has a century headstart on the 'Colegio' and although he is still thriving, he hasn't seemed very interested in passing his genes on. The journalists of the Colegio hope they will be more successful at growing their profession in these brilliant, enigmatic islands. If their skills grow as fast as technology, evolution may finally be on their side.

Sunday, September 03, 2006


Many years ago, in Virginia City, I befriended some young monks who were a part of a small Yoga community. ( The swami, whose name was Subramuniya, had led these acolytes into the mountains of Nevada, to meditate, to reflect, and to run a graphics and print shop that served the rest of growing empire. One of the young brothers in particular took a liking to me – I was all of 14 or so at the time. His name was Chris, and he explained why he had left his family in the east, had given up his Christian upbringing to take up with Subramuniya. He told me that among other things, since the guru had contemplation centers in Hawaii, California and other places, he could move his students around as part of their formation. Chris related Subramuniya’s concept of never letting one of his monks get too settled in one place. Travel, change of environment, a new bed to lay down on at night, was possibly the single most growth-invoking assignment Subramuniya could give his students. As Chris related it, travel was what caused you to dig down into the deepest part of your soul, to find your own natural resourcefulness, and to address the world as an equal, and from an entirely new perspective.

That conversation stuck with me deeply over the years. I’ve come to believe that travel unlocks the brain, shakes out old habits, and really defines who you are.

This trip to Ecuador with my friend Cecilia and her significant other George, came out of the blue.

Cecilia was born in the Galapagos Islands, daughter of the military governor of the islands and his young bride.

Cecilia went through a lifetime of experiences, surviving days at sea on a passenger ship in which the engine died, a coup in 1941, and scraping by as a student in Los Angeles in the late 60s. But she has managed to return not only to Ecuador, but to the Galapagos as often as she can, and has continued to try to help the islands by supplying computers, educational supplies, musical instruments – whatever she could to improve the lives of the people who live on the remote chunks of volcanic rock, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The local slang name for folks living on San Cristobal Island (there are slang names for those living on the other islands as well) is 'Carapachudo', derived from the word 'carapace', describing the world famous tortoises.

When a mutual friend who was to accompany Cecilia and George was forced to bow out at the last minute, and my schedule was clear and open to join her, I jumped at the opportunity to not only travel a bit, but also to see those legendary islands that started a revolution in thinking 150 years ago.

The trip down from LA was brutal. Leaving home at 3:30 in the morning, only to survive two very long lines at LAX (this is less than two weeks after the much-publicized arrest of suspected terrorists in England) and dragging nearly 100 pounds of clothes and equipment, by the time we reached Miami to change planes, the tiredness was washing over us like the South Florida surf. The flight from Miami to Quito is really fairly short, and for that I was grateful.

Passport and customs were a breeze, and from what I could see at night, Quito appears to be a genial, friendly sprawl of a city.

We transferred to the home of Cecilia’s brother Eduardo in San Rafael, north of Quito. The place is beautiful and welcoming. More later; my eyes are drooping.

Travel Companions

Aug. 30, 2006

The travel writer Pico Iyer once wrote that “Taking planes seems as natural to me as picking up the phone or going to school…”. It is in some ways easier to get to some of the far corners of the planet than ever before, but the fact remains, the movement of our physical self from one place to the other, a long way from the starting point, is a big effort. “Beam me up, Scottie…” seems so much easier, but it misses a lot of the journey as well.

But like the comment of Swami Subramuniya so many years ago, travel reveals who we really are.

We can’t rely on our station in life, our reputation, our network of friends – in any but a broad superficial way – to help us on that journey. We really have to dig down deep to discover our inner strengths and our own considerable resources.

The little rituals of how you lay out your toiletries in the bathroom, how you arrange your clothes and laundry, where you put your shoes become very important. For some, the chaos of just throw it anywhere works swell. For others (for me!), there’s a kind of reassurance in putting those little rituals in place when we have so little control of so much of the rest of our external environment.

I also learned many years ago, on my first international trip with Father Paul Meinecke, the pastor at St. Mary’s in the Mountains in Virginia City, that you can really take the measure of a friend’s character by traveling with them. Somehow, the crankiness or peevishness we might tolerate in a home setting becomes intolerable on the road; and on the road, we have ways of escaping, easily.

Since the journey is so tiring to begin with – the strange sense of exertion, even though you are mostly sitting still being transported physically and psychically – we have very little tolerance for petty concerns or spoiled behavior. The demand that your toast be ‘just so’ in a restaurant at home, or that your seat isn’t as close to the window as you’d like just seem pathetic and insensitive.

On the positive side, traveling with a companion who is comfortable with the rigors of living at hours when everyone else is asleep, where your dirty hair, sweaty neck and sleep-deprived eyes are on display for the whole world to see, has a strange bonding effect. You are living in the interstices of life; not quite in country “A”, but not exactly in country “B” either. You’ve been through the trials of deprivation and lack of sleep; you must have connections that are more than casual, you are pilgrims and refugees, after all, temporarily at least, without a familiar bed in which to escape.

Because both George and Cecilia have traveled so widely, their road experiences were much, much broader than mine. Also, since we were traveling to Ecuador, the land of Cecilia’s birth, childhood, and family, they were moving through channels they had passed many times before. This was a sort of trip home for Cecilia.

They are lovely traveling companions. Not only are they solicitous of my comfort and circumstances, they are nearly heroic in their good spirits and cheer. Our rhythms quickly fall into a comfortable pattern: they seemed to tire when I tired. They were hungry when I am hungry, and thirsty when I need to drink something. George, who has covered so many historic happenings in his professional capacity with NBC, has quips, anecdotes and tales of adventure to keep anyone engaged.

Also, at our age – not naïve kids any more – we seem to have a good sense of boundaries too. There are times when we need to be apart and independent, and other times when the meal enjoyed in a local restaurant serves as a review of the days activities and a preview of the day ahead. These meals, which serve as the sort of guide posts for the day, become a really lovely part of the trip; not just for the adventure of eating in a foreign country and culture, but also for sharing our life stories.

I’ve traveled with lots of people over the years; with friends and lovers, family members and professional colleagues, each with its own flavor and rhythm. Some were triumphal returns to home or work, some to fulfill obligations, and some for sheer pleasure. Most, however, were simple jaunts to another city. The handful of those long, international journeys spent with good companions have been few, and I can’t imagine any more pleasant and charming than George and Cecilia.

There is typically a moment at the end of the journey when something crosses your mind to share, and you turn automatically to that friend, and of course, they aren’t there. You are back in your own environment, and that time passed with the travel companion is fading quickly into memories.

Pico Iyer:
Paul Theroux:
Ibn Battuta:

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Setting out and Evolution

It's been a curios, slow summer - that feels like it is almost gone. And, well, this adventure hit me out of the blue. I take off from my little deck on Mt. Washington (that's my view in the photo) for the Galapagos Islands with a friend who was born and grew up there.

I'm going to 1.) try to keep up with these adventures here on this blog, 2.) refrain as much as possible from 'first person singular', and 3.) try to post lots of other media as I figure out how to do that.

So, first step, some sleep, since I have to be up for a 3:30 am shuttle for LAX. I'll write more on the way.

You write back!