After a career spanning 20 years with MNC’s across the globe, this Italian biologist has looked to combine her scientific background and passion for the environment with a love for travel.
Meet Gabriella Silvestri, founder of Travel4thoughts, as she shares her journey to sustainable travel and an aim to promote an alternative travelling behaviour embracing responsibility and respect for the country visited and the locals. In an inspiring story, she shares how she took it upon herself to rid a small island in the Indian Ocean of plastic straws.
Journey & interest in sustainability
I am an Italian biologist with a PhD in malaria. Since I was young, I always felt the urge of giving a sense to my presence in this world. Hence, the choice of this deadly disease in Africa for the discovery of a vaccine. At the time, I didn’t know which direction to take on my career and future. But, I eventually ended up working across big corporates including P&G, Novartis and GSK for nearly 20 years. My work allowed me to travel extensively. In fact I lived in four different countries and visited several thanks to my job. This was the start of my love affair with travel and eventually sustainability…
When traveling for business, I was paying attention to the hotels for my stay and preferred those with a strong environmental policy. Additionally, I was trying to offset my carbon footprint with my activities to compensate the emission caused by my flight, and stay. When traveling for holiday, I was looking for family owned businesses so that my money could benefit the local people rather than global tour operators offering travel packages and tourist services. By doing so, I began to add even more value to my experience that was becoming rich with special encounters, and awareness.
Along this journey I realized I could combine my scientific background and passion for the environment with my love for traveling. And so I left my job and focused on sharing my story with others via my blog. I joined varied initiatives promoted by UNWTO during last year, that also happened to be the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. Moreover I became very familiar with the targets set by UN in the 2030 Agenda consisting of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The tourism sector is a vital contributor to job and wealth creation, environmental protection, cultural preservation and poverty alleviation. Nevertheless it can also cause a negative impact on greenhouse gas emissions, economy, local communities and cultural assets.
What I normally do is look for ways to minimize the negative impact of my travel. This research not only has gifted me with memorable experiences, but has made me fully aware of the enormous payback. Its then that the name of my blog came to life, as a result of the inspiration from my trips.
The blog aims simply at raising awareness and provide personal examples on how much travel is a life-changing experience to those that understand its value. I love writing about my experiences because it is a more concrete way to convey a message. I am happy about what I achieved with it although the road ahead to bring awareness on plastic pollution is yet long.
A favourite travel destination
My favorite travel destination is a small island in the Indian Ocean called Rodrigues island. It is a small gem stretching over a surface area of 108 square km on the north-east of Mauritius. It is a mountainous island with valleys plunging to the lagoon. The result is you have the joy of basking in one of the numerous deserted inlets while gazing at white-tailed tropical birds gliding through the air to and from their nests in surrounding cliffs.
Most of the 20 coral islands nestled in the lagoon are renowned birds sanctuaries. I have been there three times since last February. I believe that the real journey is the one that we truly embrace and take shape in the making.
A life-changing trip
Well, I have fallen in love with Rodrigues Island, its people and its authenticity. I was immersed fully in the local life and I have paid attention to my surroundings through a different lens, by discovering challenges that the island faces.
The government policy is extremely focused on the conservation and preservation of its territory; the Commissioner for the environment is striking to make this island an ecological haven. In 2015 he banned the plastic bags and this year all the takeaway containers will be banned too.
I had realized that the island was suffering from a significant problem linked to plastic straws. My healthy addiction to fresh coconut water made me also seeing the lack of awareness related to the misuse of the straws given at the market with each coconut. Plastic straws are non-essential part of our life, and yet they cause so much damage to the environment. A small plastic straw takes up to 200 years to degrade, but will never be fully off the Earth, as plastics are not biodegradable. Over 1 million seabirds die each year from ingesting plastic. This being said, straws enter our food cycle when fish ingests the micro plastics.
I did some research before approaching the Commissioner to highlight this problem and proposing a solution to it. 112,000 straws are dumped in Rodrigues per year only in relation to the coconuts consumption. During my second trip, I performed a feasibility assessment to validate my proposal of replacing the single-use plastic straws with an organic, biodegradable and reusable alternative made out of local bamboo.
Once proved that the bamboo plant growing spontaneously in the island is suitable for the production of straws, I discussed the initiative with the government which bought into the idea without any reservation. The ban of plastic straw was then committed publicly during the International Environmental Day on the 5th of June. The Commissioner invited me to present the product I had made in occasion of a week exhibition during which I was involved in talking to school’s kids about the damage of plastic on the environment.
I have a detailed project plan and timelines that lead me to initiate a crowd funding campaign for the budget required to set up a bamboo plant by end of September 2018. I am attempting to raise 240,000 CHF in the next two months.
My intention was never to start a business there but rather support the community in this task through training and project management till they would achieve an efficient production line. Based on this, I have partnered with a local NGO to work on the development of the initiative. The NGO is a rehabilitation and production centre that is set up as a Non Profit and registered in Mauritius. People with disabilities are given training and employment with full remuneration and all the conditions of work laid down by Government regulations. These include wage, sick and local leaves as well as end of year bonus, fares and medical expenses paid. Currently there are only 18 persons with disabilities, full time employed on a time reduced working week due to lesser funding. Some are hearing impaired, others are visually impaired or have physical or mental disabilities. A small contribution from those of you sensitive to this topic will make a huge impact on the life of the community and those disables.
Ultimately, the organic natural bamboo solution to plastic straws represents an excellent way to take some pressure off our oceans given that only this tiny island contributes drastically to its pollution.
I’d appreciate all help in us achieving this goal towards a better future. Alternately, please share the campaign in your network to help us increasing the visibility.
Link to funding the campaign: Oceanfriendly straw
Hashtag campaign #biostraw4planet
Tips for those keen to explore Sustainable Travel
It’s simple to be more planet friendly through small actions. The benefit is not only to the environment but to us: respecting our world and all that makes us different and unique will enhance our travel experience. Whether our travel take us to a tropical beach, a bustling city or a little village, we will gain more from our travel experience and earn the respect of the host communities. What makes a destination unique spans from its history, architecture, communication codes, religion, dress to its music and cuisine.
It is exciting to learn about local customs, traditions and social conditions with some homework before embarking into the adventure. So why not do so?
What about learning some words in the local language to better connect with locals?
Lets be travelers, not tourists by safeguarding the natural resources and reducing the energy and water consumption whenever possible.
Lets buy local handmade crafts and products and hire local guides to discover the place.
Lets look up for hotels and/or auberges with environmental policies and community projects in place.
Certainly lets always reducing the single-use plastic wherever and whenever possible, as part of our daily habits.
A destination which has influenced you like no other
One of my first life changing experience dates back in 2009 when I went for a month volunteering in Benin.
It was my first trip to Africa translating in a very intense and emotional journey. I spent time with orphans and I visited hospitals from the south to the north of the country. It is impossible to explain, impossible to describe what my eyes have seen during that month. Babies, kids, sick people everywhere left to themselves in inhuman conditions…
It was then when I started to take consciousness about the extent of appreciation and gratitude for what it is taken for granted everyday. WATER and COLD WATER from the fridge becomes such a precious thing that I will never forget its importance even now. I would recommend a similar experience to all travelers in order to learn the ability to make things in prospective.
One place closer home you feel is a must see for people to explore and experience
Being Italian, I could not stop naming places from my country that are worthy visited. If I have to stick to one, it must be Pompei. Never do I feel so immersed in my history and culture as when I am there. It is a mesmerizing experience that inspires deep reflection on who we are and where we come from.