Puri Canals, a brilliant and fierce warrior of the lands and seas, PhD in Biological Sciences, President of the Mediterranean Marine Protected Areas Network (MedPAN). She qualified as a diver at a time when girls would rarely do it. She was mesmerized by a Spanish ocean documentary in black ans white at the age of 6 and finally got to meet the filmmaker on her 92nd birthday to thank him for impacting her life forever. ‘Look what a mess you made, huh?” he told her. She sure did.
“Respecting this regulatory space, the Earth’s equilibrium, is the only thing that will give it continuity,” she says. Also an advisor to the Advisory Council for Sustainable Development of the Government of Catalonia (CADS), holds a PhD in Biological Sciences – a degree she earned by traveling 200 km round trip by train every day-. A brilliant mind with many achievements, who, after landing at the Earth Summit 92 in Rio, never saw things the same way again.
One of the most inspiring and moving speakers at the I Global Summit Science, Nature and Health, this incredible conservation pioneer was also vice-president of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and in 2020 was awarded the Creu de Sant Jordi prize.
The beginning of everything, Mental Health
“The lack of mental health that we have in our societies is the main cause of the loss of health of the planet: this mental problem of perception of dissociation, of separation, is the point that initiates all our aggressive behavior towards other species and towards the planet. Feeling disconnected, feeling separated is already a first clear condition of illness.
“We are educating for competitive competitiveness, to exclude the other, to be better, to be the first, sometimes to eliminate him completely, to destroy him. Competitive thinking is the basis of wars and that people don’t dare to say. We have all been told ‘be the first of the class, the best’, and for what?
“To isolate yourself and be alone there, first, so what? We have to start saying it because there are many young people who do not have it naturally but acquire it because otherwise they are told that they are going to be failures. We have to eliminate these kinds of messages that deeply damage our mental health and condition the way we are going to relate to each other for the rest of our lives.
“That inability to see the whole and take snapshots makes us interpret things that are not. What makes an ecosystem stable are all its cooperative ties, and that is what nature teaches us. It invites us to be there, and we do not: instead of being there cooperating, we are there to crush, to destroy, to dominate. The challenge is very complex because the structure that needs to be changed is very deep. Look at nature: it’s not all about lions hunting gazelles”.
A common fate, One luck
“I think I come already connected to nature. I have an almost baby-like memory of being at home listening to a nightingale. It impacts me thinking how young I was and that particular singing. I lived in Tarragona, in a working class neighborhood. At the end of the street the neighborhood ended and the countryside began.
“Little by little this biodiversity in the neighborhood has been disappearing, which is not a national park, but is the one with which more millions of people in the world coexist, which is the urban one. In most of the city, the soil, which is the source of life, is completely covered with asphalt and cement, and this means that there are fewer plants”.
“Many times because of our limiting thinking in little boxes, it seems to us that what we do is just that and the rest has nothing to do with it. But in reality there is only one fate, just as there is only one life on the planet, and that is the life of the organisms that live here”.
“I remember a nature documentary that touched me when I was 6 years old. That was ’68, in black and white, and seeing the fish underwater, seeing people with the fish suddenly diving, the concept of being with the animals underwater, it was a very new thing. That struck me. I remember looking and saying ‘when I grow up I’ll go there with the fish‘ and well, that’s what I’m doing now.”
“In 2016 I discovered who had made it and I went to thank him. I had always thought it was a report by Jacques Cousteau, which I have always found impressive, and one fine day I found him. It was Eduardo Admetlla, the first diver in Spain.
“We went to his house and he told me that he was the one of the tropical sea bottom programs, the first broadcast that was made in Spain. I told him ‘I came to thank you because you have marked my life’. And he told me ‘look what you’ve done“.
The career on the train and the Zoom look
“I decided to study Biological Sciences, although it was a challenge because in my city there are none. Nor did I have the resources to live in Barcelona, which is a hundred kilometers away. But I had a little family bargain which was that my father worked in the RenFe, in the railroads, and as family we had free travel. I did my whole career on the train, going back and forth and working.
“I would go to the university, come back and give gymnastics classes to children to pay for my studies. People said, no, you can’t do a career like that, but I said ‘well, if my father works eight hours in a railroad, he can come and go home and he’s alive and happy, I don’t think it’s going to be any harder to study at the university.
“I’ve always liked zooming in, both in photography and in life. Seeing things from different distances and seeing how there are patterns that repeat, no matter what scale you look at. And that’s what I think the magic of life is like.”
“I still teach Physiology at the School of Medicine but I work more in the field of Planetary and Social Ecology, but it is the same thing: the only thing that changes are the names of the pieces, but the relationships that are established are relationships that seek the same thing: homeostasis, that is, the balance for life to be maintained.
“Wherever you look: in a cell, a person, an animal or in an ecosystem and in the planet. What is really interesting is the awareness that this is where the essential space is located if we want to maintain the quality of this planet in order to continue living here.
“It is the respect for that regulatory space, that balance, that is the only thing that in the end determines the continuity or not. In fact, we have much more scientific knowledge of a thousand fractions of the whole cosmos today than we had 10, 50 years ago, but the planet is worse off, so it’s not just about scientific knowledge or understanding the mechanism: it’s about respecting the mechanism, which is what we lack”.
Out of the box
“I’ve always been struck by this way we function, in little boxes. Everyone lives in their own micro world and no one connects with the one next to them, and they don’t realize that they are acting in a much larger space.
“It’s when you connect your knowledge with the knowledge of others that you can apply or create things together that none of us could have done on our own. So we also have these galactic experts, because they do understand the global, but they’re not able to land that thing they’re discussing anywhere on the planet, and I think that’s horrible for decision making. Especially that they end up creating political frameworks that are binding for everybody”.
“Beware of hyper-analytical thinking because it’s ignoring the flows of information and connection. And that’s a problem.
“There are mainstream debates that are ignoring the most important things that should be being addressed to solve the climate change problem, which is to maintain the ecosystems of the planet and in particular the ocean, which is the great climate regulator.
“There is one thing that nobody is saying and that is that all carbon is the basis of life, and we are basically carbon and water, and that’s called photosynthesis. It is as old as life on the planet and it is that photosynthesis that transformed the planet to make it suitable for all the variety of life forms you know today.
“The more carbon there is in living structures the less carbon there is going to be in the atmosphere. That’s a super simple math. The big contribution to climate change is not just fossil fuels: it’s life. The destruction of ecosystems and the loss of biomass. And this is particularly relevant: because we are eliminating and reducing populations of species of all taxonomic groups in all corners of the planet.
One Health, One Ocean
“Health is not only the absence of disease, it is a state of life that makes it a life of fullness, of quality, of connection, of expansion, of depth, and this is not measurable in terms of the number of viruses, it is not measurable in terms of fever, no. It is something much deeper.
“I am interested in how to advance in the diffusion of this space of respect, of awareness, because without this awareness, respect cannot be put by law. Laws help to curb impacts, but if we don’t achieve that understanding that we are part of a whole that has to maintain that balance in an optimal state, in the end all we do is delay the misfortune, but we keep going towards the same destiny”.
“I learned to swim when I was quite grown up, because my mother was terrified of the water. In the end I started to cry and we went to swimming lessons with my brothers. At the age of 19 I took diving training, at a time when girls didn’t usually sign up for these courses. I took advantage of one organized by the city council that was very cheap. Out of 25 students, there were three of us girls.
“One of the things I was observing is that coastal and marine spaces were not even within the ecological movement given a priority place. The great neglected. Coastal ecosystems were left aside. This space is more forgotten and more fragile, because it occupies very little surface and is the one that suffers more aggression. Where we have more pressure in our society today is precisely in the coastal areas”.
“I became very interested in the French model of coastal space protection, the Conservatoire du littoral, which is a public agency dedicated to buying coastal land to protect it, and they have been doing this for more than forty years.
“The Ocean is the great neglected. This compartmentalized thinking is the great misfortune of the world and that has a lot to do with encouraging analysis. We place too much value on it and that’s fine but we must not forget that when you analyze you compartmentalize, and so you also cut connections.”
For a new functioning of the economic sector
“That’s what people still don’t understand. Nobody is telling the citizen that if you want to eliminate CO2, what you have to do is help life, and less experiments. It already exists on the planet: it’s called photosynthesis. Stop with the nonsense and patents.
“You hear a lot of clichés and commonplaces. In the end, it’s all about respect for life. If you put the economic sector as part of the solution, with its way of working which is the origin of the problem, they are destroying the solution.
“I’m supporting companies that innovate systems, totally happy to support the private sector but with a totally different business perspective.”
“It’s about getting everybody on the same page. You have to change the approach by saying that 100 percent of the ocean is entitled to protection. If you want to do an activity, show that it is not destructive. I am not the one who has to prove to you that the Ocean has value, because the value is intrinsic. Neither you nor I nor anyone else would be on the planet without the Ocean.
“So how can you work to solve this? By connecting with others. I am doing this in the Mediterranean Network, connecting other networks that exist in other seas of the world, and my goal now is to create a global network of networks, a space for global connection between networks of managers of marine protected areas that allows those exchanges in technical and scientific aspects for management and above all to generate awareness that we have only one ocean. There are not five oceans as we have been taught”.
Ph: MedPan.org, Europarc, Fet a Tarragona, Fundación Biodiversidad, Earth Negotiations Bulletin IISD.