Have you ever spoken to a surfer about why they surf? They will tell you that once you get into it there is no turning back. As someone who has never donned a wetsuit or waxed a board, I never really appreciated the significance of a surfer's relationship with the ocean and how this can influence their broader view of the world. Then I met the team at EcoSwell in Peru.
Perhaps unlike any other, surfing is a pastime that is inherently individual. Surfers speak in almost spiritual terms about the freedom of being alone with the ocean, away from the distractions and problems which accompany daily life.
Surfing connects me with myself (as a kind of meditation) and connects me with nature. It puts things into perspective. After each session you feel renewed, and when you've had a good session you feel that you can take on the world. - Michael, EcoSwell
It is also an activity which is uniquely tied to the natural world. Some of the world's most pressing issues acutely affect surfing communities, including population growth and climate change. Surfers are realising that their very personal relationship with the ocean is intricately related to the ecosystems, communities and industries of their chosen coastline.
EcoSwell was formed in 2013 by a group of surfers in Lobitos, Peru. Coming from a range of backgrounds and professions, they were bound by their love of the ocean and driven to make a difference to the local area and its environment. Some of the team live and work within the town itself, and others form the global family who are connected and support remotely.
EcoSwell's aim is to guide the Lobitos community on a sustainable path to generate positive impacts for its local population and environment. They have spent time and identified key challenges and opportunities facing its impending development that must be addressed imminently. This ranges from improving conservation of coastal ecosystems, to supporting vulnerable populations to mitigate and adapt to severe climate change effects.
In the case of places like Lobitos, tourism brings new people and money into the local economy. A recent surge in surf tourism has spiked interest in the area, which brings both investment and employment opportunities. This sounds positive, but can easily result in environmental damage in the absence of sustainable practices. The unplanned waste dumping and release of untreated sewage in places like nearby Mancora is sadly a testament to this fact.
Other towns along the Peruvian coast (such as Mancora) have grown rapidly with tourism, but not necessarily sustainably.
EcoSwell go beyond just looking at the technical and financial factors involved to also consider solutions which are based in the area's unique culture. The delicate ecosystem balance extends beyond plants and animals to various groups including the local population, local fisherman, various levels of government and ever-increasing commercial interests. The solutions have to consider both the natural environment and the culture of those who inhabit it.
One of the team's first tasks was a study of the wellbeing of the people in the area. This study identified opportunities to support the community in a number of ways. These ranged from providing the first biodigester to treat wastewater and education on water conservation, to installing solar panels for energy, to teaching local fisherman about tide charts which help support their livelihood. These are projects which build self-esteem, self-worth and empowerment - a few traits surfing has built for the EcoSwell team.
Installation of solar panels.
Sometimes the simplest of projects can have the biggest ripples and waves out to the community around them. A key EcoSwell initiative is the 'Green Lobitos' project, which provides families in the community with trees for which they are responsible. Locals regularly lament that Lobitos used to be greener, and that they were happier when it was. The planting of trees not only returns greenery to the area, but also engenders pride amongst the locals who are responsible for maintaining them. EcoSwell have now planted nearly 150 trees. Already these are providing some shade from the scorching summer sun, allowing families to spend more time outside and thus helping more than just the aesthetic of the area.
In the run up to 2016 Lobitos suffered 3 or 4 months of drought. Water supply came from trucks which brought in drinking water. Families then filled a limited supply of a storage tanks. Even through this period, families watered the plants - they were able to be resourceful in where their water came from. The project taught families about grey water sources (meaning those which had already once been used, such as water from washing dishes) that would previously have been thrown out on pavement was used to water these plants. A small change in behaviour made a big difference: everything else in the region had dried out, but these communities were green.
EcoSwell team with local residents ready to plant new trees for this year, with a tree planted just last year thriving in the background.
It is incredible what a small change in personal perspective can lead to. Each of the personal experiences and self-reflection of the EcoSwell team through surfing, nature and the ocean lead them to a cause. They combine passion with genuine concern for the development and wellbeing of Peru's vulnerable populations in the face of the upcoming challenges due to climate change and the global economy. Through their work, they aim to apply some of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals and the COP21 Climate Change Agreement calls to action.
Surfing connects me with nature and with myself. It gives you balance in your life. - Jorge Luis, EcoSwell
Click here for an animated video story of Lobitos.