El Hierro, a little known island in Spain. Known for its remoteness, formed from the remains of almost five hundred volcanoes, dot the north western part of the Canary Islands, with majestic volcanic rocks dropping off into the Atlantic Ocean, waves dancing against these impressive formations. El Hierro graces Europe as a beacon of sustainable development. Sabinosa, a spot on the island where one can see dried lava of years past, is said to mark the “end” of Europe to the mountain tops where the horizontal rain in El Goroe replenishes and waters the fields, where locals bring their animals to feed to the lush pine trees of El Pinars, with floors of pine leaves, to the natural pools of water amongst volcanic rocks, makes El Heirro unique for a diverse landscape on a small island. It’s rural-ness and timeless beauty appealing.
But not all is as it seems for this little island. Sustainability is but a term used to describe the preservation of the rural life, culture, agricultural and herding practices. It is just a term to describe the untouched paradise that is El Hierro. With a windmill and hydropower to provide electricity to the island, combined with little to a decreasing population and less access to development opportunities, El Hierro has managed to retain its natural, cultural and social elements that make it a sustainable island.
Talking to a local, who is very passionate about maintaining the sustainability of the island but at the same having development initiatives in place to ensure the economic viability of the population, and also ensuring that young people have access to the opportunities that will not force them to leave the island, one gets a realistic view about the island. For a foreigner visiting the island, it would seem all is well in paradise. But the sad truth is, despite being sustainable; there are no ´set´ sustainable practices in place. Awareness is almost non-existent as well. A job is just a job, even if it contributes in some part to maintaining the island. There are beautiful hike routes on the island. But the company organizing these hiking excursions for tourists is not a local to the island. But while there is lot of potential initiatives in this area, priorities are pointed elsewhere. But it’s understandable, because of its remoteness; priorities lie in different directions when it comes to development on the island.
We were in El Hierro for a weekend to celebrate International Youth Day. It was not surprising to note that there are not many NGOs working on the island. Red Cross, off course, is quite popular, so it was not surprising to see them there. But other than these ´big´ NGOs, there are not many local NGOs or youth association. Most of the young people have left the island to pursue studies on the two main islands and or gone to find work. There is only one bus operating on the island and two traffic lights (one at each end of a one way tunnel). We were there to promote Erasmus+ Programme, European Voluntary Service and STARS project. And it is interesting to note youngsters on the island do not really know about these opportunities.
There are a lot of opportunities for youths in Europe, but sadly, not all of them have access to this information. No matter where you are in the world, being remote will be problem. Take for instance, my country. With almost 1000 islands, some of these islands are far more remote than El Hierro. Trickles of information pass through authorities from the national government to the provincial government, but along the way, it gets lost in the chain. 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas. But young people had to leave their villages to go the Capital to get an education, or a job. However, even in the capital, there is still lack of awareness about opportunities, let alone general understanding of issues that affect their livelihood but played out in a bigger picture.
El Hierro and most of the rural areas in my country share the same dilemma with regards to the problems they face because of their remoteness; less access to education, health facilities, information, employment (including training) opportunities and also lack of understanding of the issues such as sustainability and climate change that has more impact on their little and natural islands. While, those terms have been thrown around, people are still unaware of what these concepts entail.
Being in El Hierro, got me reflecting on my pre-conceived notions about sustainability. Sustainability is not just about having an untouched paradise. It is also about our day to day practices, recycling and helping to clean the environment to ensure that it remains healthy. It does not mean that we haven’t cut down our trees, so we are still sustainable. The things we do in our environment keeps us sustainable. Any island can be sustainable. The people living on it can contribute by adopting sustainable practices. And that is the key. Sustainability lies with the people and not with the environment. If we talk about sustainability and still throw rubbish on the streets, we are unsustainable.
The point is, as beautiful as El Hierro is, being located in Europe does not make it immune to the problems associated with being remote. Sustainability is questionable. And so is the sustainability in my home, though it has all these lush natural forests with so many unique species of flora and fauna, the question remains; are we doing the best we can to be sustainable? Are we helping to keep our environment by adopting best practices in our day to day living? While, it does in part play a role in keeping the environment, culture and traditions safe from disappearing or being destroyed completely, but it does have an impact on the livelihood of the people living on the island, and the same goes for my islands. Sustainability should be a lifetime goal and achieved through our daily routine.