Monday, July 28, 2014

Curiosity Killed the Coral? [Part 4 of 5]

View from the research station boat docks.

I don’t think I would be so interested in environmental studies today if I had not spent much time outdoors as a kid, whether hiking, birdwatching, or kayaking. I think that especially because I study and admire nature, I am torn over the pros and cons of ecotourism.

Late in October, my study abroad group went to Panama’s coast along the Caribbean Sea to spend a week at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s research station on the island of Bocas del Toro. Each day was an opportunity for exploratory snorkeling around the mangroves and coral reefs. Between the warm water and astounding biodiversity, who could resist such a paradise? Actually, a drive through the main part of Bocas town during the evening displayed streets lit with vibrant colors and lined with restaurants and bars that blasted contemporary music, buzzing with tourists of all ages. Now that we had become accustomed to seeing the “real Panama” by experiencing how different Panamanian communities lived and worked, this environment felt foreign and artificial to us. I didn’t see “culture,” I saw a money scheme.

Vacation homes among the mangroves...
How much would that view cost?!
My favorite discovery lay hidden just under the surface:
mini aquariums among the mangrove roots!
One evening, we watched a documentary about the conflict in recent years between island residents and developers. Again, we saw the triumph of bigger financial interests (mainly the tourism industry) and their quest to acquire property. We empathized with the mixed feelings of the island’s locals toward the rising influx of foreign visitors. They did allow the local economy to boom, but we young environmentalists could not help worry over the pressures this put on the surrounding ecosystems. More people means restaurants demanding more seafood to feed them and more trash being generated. Whether on privately-owned or public tour vessels, boat motors release greenhouse gases and can harm wildlife. I’ve even heard of “reef walkers”: water shoes that allow divers to step over coral formations while protecting their feet from the rough surfaces. Well, facilitating nature exploration sounds nice, until you realize that no one should be standing on fragile coral habitat in the first place.

This was my most personal conflict in Panama yet; while I wished more people to learn from experiencing the natural wonders of the tropics, this environment has already suffered much anthropogenic abuse. However, if we only engage with nature through images from books and TV shows, we build limited connections with the natural world. The power of the outdoors to enliven the mind is unparalleled; nature inherently speaks to all our senses: leaves rustling in a cool breeze carrying an array of forest aromas, waves crashing onto a beach while molding your feet into the wet sand in their ebb. Only by truly experiencing nature can it have meaning within us, value that feeds our curiosity, beckons us to explore more, and teaches us respect for the Earth. Does “sharing nature” mean allowing ecotourism for all to explore or limiting it to preserve ecosystems for all future life? Unfortunately, whether due to distance and/or financial limitations, excursions to “get back to nature” have become greatly reserved to those of socioeconomic privilege...and in
demanding comfortable accommodations and the latest outdoor gear, we ironically create another great feast for consumerism. Regardless, I think this highlights the importance of and increasing need to bring nature closer to our own homes. Whether that means greening community spaces or making your backyard more wildlife-friendly, we can easily use environmental stewardship to reap the physical and mental benefits of engaging with nature--far more feasibly than seeking white sand beaches a plane ride away.

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