“Land ahoy! Land ahoy!” is surely what the fellow in the crow’s nest on Christopher Columbus’ ship cried out, in 1492, upon first sighting the Americas. At that time, the forests, rivers, and mountains welcomed the sailors with all their splendor and abundance. If they were to come back today, they would see that over time the landscape has been significantly altered—by humans.
Although I can’t travel to unknown lands as the first explorers did, I have discovered, over the last fifteen years, certain cultures that are still attuned to the Earth. For these cultures, respect for the environment is not a trend, but a prerequisite for their way of life.
I remember when, during a humanitarian mission in Nicaragua, villagers explained how Lake Nicaragua was formed. I was amazed to learn that when sharks are completely removed from the sea, their natural habitat, they will adapt to the freshwater of the lake. Humans, on the other hand, sometimes engage in power struggles with nature. We divert rivers and build housing on arable land. We adapt the environment to our needs, without always taking into account the impact we might have on other species. Life needs an environment. Without a place to grow, we die.
After trekking a part of the Andes Cordillera and meeting with the locals, I realized the extent to which respect for the Earth is a part of our history. Pachamama (Mother Earth) is a goddess revered by the indigenous
peoples of South America. Ecuador adopted a constitutional amendment to protect Pachamama. Their philosophy is based on “well-being” and invites us to live in harmony with nature, which excludes any relation of domination.
Ecuador goes even further. It has refused to pursue major oil development, as it is trying to avoid the emission of millions of tons of CO2 and the destruction of biodiversity that is unique in the world. In exchange, it has proposed that developed countries contribute to a sustainable development policy through the sale of carbon credits. Ecuador is bold and visionary in its approach. Given the consequences of the recent oil spill catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, let’s hope more countries adopt effective accountability mechanisms.
Balancing Ecology and Economy
Whether in the sand on the beach of Lima, Peru, near sea level, or in the snow at the Everest base camp in Nepal, at 5,350 meters, the presence of humans leaves an imprint on the earth and causes environmental impacts.
Upon my arrival in Peru in 2003, I was surprised at the many shantytowns surrounding the capital. The sanitary conditions in these areas were minimal, and the environment was stripped of life. They were nothing but hills covered with makeshift shelters and heaps of trash. What a striking contrast to see the wealth of modern skyscrapers alongside the poverty on the outskirts! The only commonality is the negative impact on the environment. And yet this country is filled with incredible biodiversity, especially in the Amazon forest, and it boasts a number of major attractions including the Cordillera Blanca mountains, deserts, and the ruins of Machu Picchu.
Peru’s challenge is to balance sustainable development and the creation of infrastructures for an increasing flow of global tourists and, in doing so, to stimulate its economy.
On the Route to the World’s Roof
I also observed this problem in 2007, when I arrived at the foot of Everest, the world’s tallest mountain. It takes five days of hiking from Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, to reach this mythical place. The higher the altitude, the slower one moves forward. This helps one become centered. Surrounded by the magnificent landscapes, which are enhanced by Buddhist temples, the route invites reflection. We relearn to walk, to consciously tread the soil, to become rooted. Since we are accustomed to our hectic lifestyles, we become out of touch with our connection to this essential element, the Earth.
As one climbs this mountain, dwellings become more and more spread out and the natural resources required for life become rarer. Because the area around Everest is a park, cutting down trees is prohibited. To heat their homes, the Nepalese demonstrate their ingenuity by harvesting yak excrement—an eco-friendly fuel alternative that makes it possible to preserve slow-growing plant life.
The most technical part of climbing Everest starts at 5,400 meters in altitude. After this point, one might think there would be fewer signs of human activity. Unfortunately this is not the case! Since the first successful ascent in 1953, many commercial expeditions have taken place. So many that, on this famous trail to the summit, there are now more than 50 tons of trash of all kinds. Much of it is oxygen tanks, gas cylinders, tents, and other metal and plastic items, not to mention the bodies of those who lost their lives on the mountain and were abandoned along the way by companions unable to carry them down.
The Nepalese government withholds $4,000 from climbing permit fees, which is returned to teams who bring back their trash. Unfortunately, this amount is small compared to the $75,000 in funding one can obtain for this type of adventure, and a large amount of trash remains on site. The Nepalese sometimes undertake cleaning expeditions, but few of them are willing to risk their lives to clean a mountain whose environment continues to deteriorate.
Obviously, no matter where humans go on Earth, they leave their footprint. Given that nothing can change mankind’s desire to explore, let’s promote collective awareness of our way of life and tell ourselves that it is not too late to limit our environmental footprint. In any event, if it turns out we have waited too long to change our behaviors, the planet will not be the first to perish, but rather the human race.