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Turning Trash into Treasure: Revolutionary Art in the Galapagos Islands

Photo Courtesy of David Adam Kess
Marine iguana swimming at the island of Santa Cruz.

Located 600 miles off the western coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands has long been revered for its larger-than-life eclectic and mythological presence. The beauty of its 20 plus islands have captured the hearts of many travelers. Charles Darwin’s writings from the region are widely believed to be the origin of his evolution theory. Many public figures, including the family of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, continue to escape to its idyllic beaches or advocate for the for the preservation of its rare resources. The Islands are an endless fairy tale of ultra-turquoise waters and exotic wildlife.

But you don’t have to be infatuated by the regional flora, pink iguanas, and gigantic tortoises to have a good time here or to promote a meaningful cause. Artisans are crafting their own unique love affairs with the Galapagos Islands, using the kindred attraction as their muse while they transform mounds of recycled materials into a multi-cultural phenomenon.

Turning trash into works of art started three years ago, when travel company Lindblad Expeditions partnered with Paper to Pearls, a grassroots operation supporting the livelihood of underserved women. The collaboration aimed to decrease the amount of garbage found on the island while helping artisans find cost-effective ways to make a living from the increasing tourism on the Islands.

The late Sarah Akot, a Ugandan paper beadmaker made possible by the Lindblad National Geographic Artisan Fund, worked with a number of women in the close knit communities on Santa Cruz and Isabela islands to turn bead making from recycled paper into lucrative businesses. As the wives of fishermen, many of the women expressed an interest in helping support their families financially, and soon adopted their mentor’s entrepreneurial stance, mastering the inter-related experiences of art, conservation and commerce.

Even after Akot’s untimely death in 2013, her memory still lives on, and the spirit of bead making has been upheld by islanders who keep the recycling project afloat. The idea of turning deserted materials into works of art has generated thousands of dollars in tourism sales, as 60% of stores in Santa Cruz and Isabela feature recycled handcrafts.

This initiative has since expanded into other parts of the Islands. Beadmakers can be found cultivating their craft in dozens of shops on Puerto Ayora and San Cristobal, among other places. From arranging monochromatic paper bead designs on bracelets to putting the finishing touches on multi-colored toothpicks that align necklaces, artisans in the Galapagos Islands continue to find different ways of adding creative expression to their work and personalizing each project.

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