“We’ve all been given a gift, the gift of life. What we do with our lives is our gift back.”
-Edo, Sacred Economics
Being in the Galapagos was such a gift.
I remember reading a list in the newspaper when I was 14- something like “Top 10 Places to Visit Around the World”, and the Galapagos was on it with descriptions of black rocks and blue-footed boobies and I remember thinking how can I lead a life that takes me to places like that? The Galapagos Islands are a sacred mecca of biodiversity that most people will never have the privilege to see and I feel uncomfortable that I went without having to make any particular effort: I just chose a college and a study abroad program and voilà! my dreams came true. I feel immense gratitude for this. More importantly I feel a sense of obligation. I have an obligation to respond to this gift wisely and with intention in the way I conduct my life.
The sense of obligation is interesting to me because currently I’ve been reading about gift economies in my Economic Anthropology class. There is a concept called hau from the New Zealand Maori that tries to explain the sense of obligation to reciprocate when given a gift. From Wilk and Cligget’s book Economies and Cultures:
Hau is a term for the force of the identity of the owner of an object, which is attached to the object. Thus, upon giving the object away, part of the owner’s hau goes with it. And this is why receiving the gift always carries an obligation to reciprocate, because the hau wants to return to its original owner, though now it may be attached to another’s object.
In class, we’ve been talking about when things are separated from their origin, their story, the people who made it, there is some kind of erasure of the hau that represents the giver and we don’t feel compelled to respond in kind. We become alienated from the things around us. This alienation stops us from being compelled to reciprocate. These authors also said, “When you buy a pack of noodles from the supermarket, the transaction is over after you pay your money and walk out. Giving or receiving a gift is always an invitation to continue the relationship.”
In thinking about my own sense of obligation in response to the gift of the Galapagos, I think of what Edo said: life is a gift and our lives are our gift back. The hau of life is infused in ecosystems and everything we receive from them, which causes us to feel compelled to return the hau of life to itself in the form of our lives. But something is stopping that cycle from completing itself. There are “Takers” who don’t give back. We have disconnected ourselves from the story of our places. We have separated ourselves from the origins of our stuff and the stories of the people who made them. When the hau is erased it’s like destroying a culture and the ecosystem that made it.
I was just reading about how endangered indigenous languages are often a user’s guide to ecosystems. In Samoa, “…Polynesian herbal doctors had an extensive nomenclature for endemic diseases and a separate one for those introduced by Europeans. Their sophistication is not unique. The taxonomies of endangered languages often distinguish hundreds more types of flora and fauna than are known to Western science.” English can’t allow us to understand those ecosystems. By losing those languages, we are losing precious knowledge of Place.
In the Galapagos, I felt an immense gratitude for each landscape we encountered, a signal to me that I felt the hau intact. I was able to connect with the story of the place, learning about the people and the history. I was able to connect with the sense of place physically by being immersed in the environment. I think these things lead to the feeling that everything you experience is a gift derived from Place, and leads to the feeling of not wanting to extract, but wanting to give back.
How do we reconnect people with the story of a place? How do we reconnect people with origins? What could that look like? If we’re able to achieve this reconnection, people might automatically feel a sense of obligation and an invitation to continue the relationship with the environment instead of just taking without reciprocating.
The function of tourism is interesting because it exposes people to Places, but in that exposure there is often extraction from environment and erasure of culture. Tourism’s goal needs to be an educational one, to help define the environment and the culture as more precious than the sum of their parts, so locals and foreigners alike will see the value in keeping both intact.
From working with Raxa Collective, I got to see how tourism could support conservation and be economically useful. I am grateful to have been exposed to this philosophy of business because I’ve thought back to it a lot as I ask myself these questions while I’m here.