Why is a Japanese Car Company Promoting Environmental Education in the Galapagos, Anyways?


Photo by Pete Oxford

Every year, Toyota sends a crop of hand-picked teachers to the Galapagos on an environmental study tour. It's a costly program, it doesn't get much press, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the auto industry.

If it were purely PR, some other flashier "green" initiative could surely be devised for half the cost of sending 30 teachers on an educational expedition to the Galapagos. Yet if it were pure philanthropy, I wouldn't be along for the ride to report. So what's the deal? Why is Toyota focusing on the Galapagos in the first place?

The answer begins with an oil spill, involves an old American World War 2 era fuel station, and ends up with 30 teachers on an intensive study of the Galapagos Islands.
To better understand Toyota's involvement in the Galapagos, I sat down with Rhonda Glasscock, the Corporate Contributions Manager for Toyota USA. She oversees the Teacher Program in the Galapagos.

Toyota in Galapagos
In 2001, there was a massive oil spill off the coast of the Galapagos when the tanker Jessica ruptured after hitting a rock. As part of the relief effort, the World Wildlife Fund asked Toyota for a few electric vehicles, Glasscock says. And while the vehicles never changed hands, a channel for dialogue was opened between the auto giant, the WWF, and the Ecuadorian government.

Toyota then went into the Galapagos to assess its fuel and energy situation, and found that the main fueling facility was a train wreck—an old pump system left in place from an American naval base built during World War II. According to Glasscock, Toyota sent in some top engineers to join the WWF in creating a more sustainable energy blueprint, which was eventually officially endorsed by the Ecuadorian president. A new ISO approved fueling station was designed by Toyota and built with the help of WWF. It's now largely considered the most sophisticated fueling station in Latin America. A few years later, Toyota worked with WWF to create an advanced recycling center for Galapagos' biggest island, Santa Cruz. Oh, and add to that a renewable energy education program for teachers across Galapagos, and the very program I'm covering, the International Teacher Program.

Okay, you get it—Toyota is an environmentally-conscious friend to the Galapagos. Big time. But the question remains: why?

Can A Corporation Green Without PR?
Glasscock says that there was no PR program in place for any of the aforementioned programs—and I'm inclined to agree with her. Remember hearing about Toyota's revolutionary fueling station in Baltra? The recycling center that recycles 30 percent of an entire island's waste? Me neither.

So what then? Was the point to establish an auto-selling presence in the Galapagos, which has both a total population of around 30,000 people and a one-in, one-out policy on cars on the island? Not exactly the most promising market.

Then could it be that a monolithic company that sells SUVs be—gasp—genuinely interested in pro bono environmental stewardship? Very possibly.

The jury's still out on the overarching principles behind it all, but after touring some of these facilities, I can say that it's indisputable that Toyota is doing some very good, progressive work on the Galapagos. The Teacher's Program that I'm covering, for example, while far from flawless, has proved to be an engrossing, rigorous, and affecting educational journey—far, far from the 'glorified vacation' some of its detractors believe it to be. And of course the company would like some PR. But, a) this Teacher's Program ain't gracing any New York Times headlines anytime soon, and b) if the program the PR surrounds is solid green, then by all means, promote away, I say.

There are of course many more complexities to the issue, many of which I'll address in upcoming posts. Would I rather Toyota stop making SUVs altogether? Of course. But would I rather have an SUV making company promote sound environmental stewardship in other realms regardless? Indeed.

30 of the top teachers in the US are making a trek from the Florida Everglades to the Galapagos Islands in order to engage a series of global conservation issues in the Toyota International Teacher Program. I'm traveling alongside the educators to report on what we discover about the threats and wonders on modern day Galapagos.

Tags: Conservation | Ecuador | Galapagos | Tourism

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