Guardians of the Galápagos

Ok, I’m going to try to give some context for where I was, and then do some different-themed posts rather than trying to do the last 18 days in chronological order. Here goes…
The Jatun Sacha foundation volunteer station/reserve is roughly 1/3 of the way across San Cristóbal, the easternmost of the islands and one of the oldest of these relatively-young islands (range less than 1 million to 6 million years). The islands have many microclimates: for every ~200 metres of elevation above sea level here you get a different microclimate with different plants and species, compared to on the mainland changes occurring more like every 1000m of elevation. The different ages of volcanic soil yield different species too. The reserve is not part of the national park but works with them to try to remove invasive introduced species and instead encourage endemic plants. It’s a monumental and very long-term task! Darwin first arrived on the islands just 3 years after these invasive plants were first introduced, which seems a cruelly short miss in the history of the islands – if he (and Wallace) had established their theories a few years earlier, numerous species would be thriving much more now!
The foundation has been in existence since 1989 in Ecuador and is non-profit and non-governmental. Cesar, the guy who organises the whole group of volunteers admirably well (with a smile on his face!) has been here for 12 years. Cold showers for 12 years!! We’re a few hundred metres above sea level, and it makes all the difference in terms of cooler temperatures. We’re here in the ‘dry’ (wet) season! By which I mean there are no heavy downpours, but frequent mist and fine rain, which is prevalent on all the islands – don’t let the sunny postcard pictures or reported 25C temperatures fool you! That weather sometimes shows its fiercely strong face, but is often replaced after 20 mins or so, at the drop of a hat, with chilliness and cold wind!

The work involves a lot of progress in the main conservation projects, but also the existence of 20-30 volunteers at a time creates work in itself! The accommodation, kitchen, ‘bathrooms’, etc have all been built over time by volunteers in order to support the future attendance of volunteers. We work roughly 8am – 12noon with a long break, then have 2 hours for lunch (rice, lentils or beans, chicken or fish) then work for a couple more hours in the afternoon, depending on what needs doing.
This is ‘the old house’ where I slept, and there’s also a concrete ‘new house’.

My jobs here included:

Aforementioned clearing of vegetation so the giant tortoises can dig into the soil to nest at Galapaguera.

Endemic coffee seed collecting: the tree looks totally different from the commercial coffee, and is a dying species, so we collect the tiny red berries, dig in and get the tiny beans from them, dry them out on paper towels, take them to the nursery to get them growing, and eventually plant them with the idea that hopefully the species will thrive again AND the birds will eat and spread these berries instead of the blackberries! Nice and therapeutic but messy work with berry juice all over my fingers!

Hole digging: to collect the soapy washing-up water and have the ground filter it in just one place, instead of the soap going over the ground.

Sink cleaning: this was of my own accord as they were a bit unhygienic before. Thank you so much Marcela though for cracking on with cleaning the showers! Much harder job!

Breakfast duty: preparing fresh fruit juice for everyone starting an hour before they arrive at 7, squeezing a LOT of oranges or lemons or passion fruit! Generally getting the dining area ready and clean, and drying and tidying up afterwards. A girl who works there, Sandra, does all the cooking thank goodness!

Planting cocoa: in a field where the mora (= bramble/blackberry) had been hacked down and burned a month ago but is already growing back with a vengeance! The idea is that all the cocoa plants will grow quicker and starve the mora of light, slowing its growth to help eradicate it. The cocoa is not a native plant but is easy to keep under control and will provide significant income to the local economy.

Regular coffee seed collecting: a group of us did this in the rain, though again it’s very therapeutic just searching for deep-red berries amongst the green trees, and then messy work to get the beans squeezed out! Two equal-size beans per berry are good for planting for new coffee plants, anything else the beans just go to be roasted for coffee. This commercial coffee plant gives the same benefits as the cocoa to the community.

Clearing an area of plants with a machete: I found the lighter machetes easier to use as they weren’t too heavy in my hand to hold straight and not accidentally smack the branch with the flat side of the blade! (Waste of energy!) Susi showed me how to chop the small trees and I cleared loads of them, before Hernan told me he would go round with a chainsaw instead the next day. Oh! Felt very satisfying to chop trees that shouldn’t be there though! Allows Jatun Sacha to plant what they want on that land instead, e.g. Endemic species.

Chopping mora: what machetes were made for in Jatun Sacha! Chopping one way and then the next, left and right, and then looking back to see how much you’ve cleared is very satisfying! Plus you get a delicious snack from the lady whose husband manages the land!
From this: 20130804-224712.jpg
To this! All me and my machete, took about two hours! 20130804-224631.jpg

Sorting out the boot store: with a frequent influx of new volunteers and turnover of previous ones, the boot store gets in a mess. Andre did a beautiful job here!

Clearing an area in preparation for a new building on top of the hill, to potentially bring wi-fi to Jatun Sacha! Before: 20130804-224805.jpg
After: 20130804-224826.jpg

Stretching: well, this one was just for me but I was trying to encourage others too. My shoulders have sat in front of a computer for 12 years, they need some pre- and post-work TLC with all this machete wielding! It really has been very hard work, but enjoyable and satisfying as long as I had some energy that day! Sometimes I had worked up such a sweat that the cold shower was actually refreshing!

Other people also did fruit picking, as there was an abundance of lemons, oranges, passion fruit, mandarins, bananas on the reserve. The lemons are all bobbly!

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Posted in Ecuador, Galápagos, Volunteering

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