People and Protected Areas

September 6, 2012

Years ago, I was gifted with a book entitled The Myth of Wild Africa by then-Director of the Charles Darwin Research Station, Graham Watkins. Now that I think of it, it may well have been a loan and Graham is still wondering where his book went!  But ownership aside, a central premise in the book by Jonathan Adams and Thomas McShane is that the African landscape, so treasured by conservationists, evolved with a human presence, and the notion that people are not an intrinsic part of the various natural systems is a dangerous illusion.

This tension between people and landscapes is keenly felt in Galapagos, but does not have the millennia of conflict that describes the dynamic in the African continent. Galapagos human history is peppered with stories of visits by pirates and buccaneers, the lure of untapped whaling grounds that brought the fleets from the Atlantic and by the 1830s, people were already living permanently on the islands. Though the footprint these earlier visitors left behind, especially introduced species, is still being addressed, it is only in recent decades that the islands have seen an explosive growth of investment and population. These impacts prompted significant efforts by the Ecuadorian government in the 1990’s to provide a legal platform that could balance the needs of people — investors, residents, and visitors — and the natural beauty for which Galapagos is renowned.

The presence of people and industry in Galapagos is a subject of many of the comments from our supporters’ mail-in surveys. Our supporters and visitors feel strongly about this issue and offer a number of views as to how Galapagos Conservancy, and conservation organizations in general, might guide or impact the pattern of migration, settlement, and development in Galapagos. Ginni Keith of Lopez Island, WA writes, “As soon as you have success in moving a significant number of the invasive species, Homo Sapiens, back where they belong, I will be proud to become an important contributor.” She is joined by Alan Rammer of Montesano, WA who says, “If human population on the islands continues to grow along with too many tourists, what makes the islands special will be lost forever. Must tackle these items first and foremost.”  The Davidson Family of San Antonio, TX is unequivocal: “It is obvious that population increase cannot continue if Galapagos is not to be destroyed. The Conservancy is not addressing this issue. This is THE central issue in the long term.”

Locals fish off a pier in Galapagos, and native birds perch on power lines overhead.

The good news is that, contrary to the last comment, much is being done to address these issues. Galapagos has long been considered an isolated, well protected archipelago, the image portrayed by countless documentaries, photos, and articles about the unique creatures found there. At the same time, the archipelago has been a province of Ecuador for more than 170 years where people have a right to live, work, and thrive. Since the 1960’s this unique landscape of plants and animals has become a highly sought-after international tourism destination — the engine driving much of the investment and development in recent decades. Ecuador has enacted legislation; the Special Law for Galapagos, now in its second iteration, limits migration and defines resource use in the islands. Population management and sustainable tourism are important components of the Special Law. This legislation is in explicit recognition of the special global status of Galapagos, as well as Ecuador’s commitment to protecting and restoring one of the first sites to be inscribed on the World Heritage Sites roster.  

How quickly this is moving is a matter for some interpretation. Some would argue that it isn’t moving fast enough. The reality is that to create successful, effective and implementable regulations, laws or even guidelines takes time, studies, debate, and analysis. It is impressive that the original Special Law took less than four years to install a unique framework for protecting Galapagos that required changing Ecuador’s constitution. Within the original Special Law, regulations sought to provide better lives and livelihoods for local people through land based tourism that now accounts for nearly 45% of tourism to the islands. The local population, however, expanded at an unprecedented rate while the Special Law was being debated. The economic, natural, and political turmoil on mainland Ecuador saw many people seeking refuge in Galapagos, as its economy was buoyed by tourists’ dollars and a demand for labor.

Tourists disembark a plane at Baltra Airport on their way to various Galapagos adventures.

The revision of the Special Law underway now is seeking to address this unexpected boom and the consequent impacts of new business models and resource use without a parallel investment in ensuring that local people have the skills to be part of this growth industry. The fledgling quarantine system created under the original Special Law struggles to keep at bay the potential for new introductions of dangerous species. Invasive introduced species compete with and often replace native species and are the single greatest threat to maintaining the islands’ ecological integrity.

To find solutions to the human footprint, GC initiated support of the social science research efforts at the Charles Darwin Foundation several years ago in an effort to illuminate some of the underlying assumptions about land use, migration patterns, and economic and social impacts.  Why were people moving to the islands? What kept them there? What factors enhance or impede their standard of living? How do social mores from continental cultures impact the nascent, evolving “island” culture? All of these efforts will point to solutions that can mitigate impact on the ecosystems and landscapes in Galapagos. We invite you to learn more about the ground-breaking work being carried out in “Understanding the Human Footprint,”  a GC-supported project led by CDF’s social science expert, Dr. Daniel Orellana.

Today's schoolchildren are the future leaders and decision-makers of Galapagos.

Ensuring a positive future for Galapagos is not just in the hands of the local community. Many of the decisions about strategy and policy are made by people based on the mainland. Just as it is all over the world, the decision makers of the future are the children of today.  Alice Morrow of Corvallis, OR suggests, “I think it is important for Ecuadorians to know about the Galapagos so they will be committed to preserving them. There should be a tax on tourists that is used to fund visits to the islands by school children, where the children can learn about delicate ecosystems.”

I’m sure Alice will be pleased to know that, as well as awareness campaigns across the nation, for many years the Ecuadorian Government has provided special tour and fee exemptions so that schools from the mainland can bring their classes to experience Galapagos. A common sight in the towns is a group of visiting school children, identifiable by their bright matching caps and tote bags. The reality is that most of the local children will never have the wildlife experience that is often life-changing for such visitors.

Schoolchildren take an educational boat ride around Floreana Island.

GC and our partners are very much involved in helping the local stakeholder and decision makers of the future become informed and pro-active stewards of their home. Whether through visits, long-distance learning, or hands-on projects, we do know that education is at the heart of social reform. The government of Ecuador has placed great value (and invested heavily) in science and technology learning. Galapagos Conservancy has been the catalyst for a collaboration among a broad network of partners in the United States and Ecuador on an initiative that will help develop best practices within the local school system, as well as develop formative extracurricular activities such as citizen science, leadership and entrepreneurship development, and environmental awareness-building that will reinforce what is learned in the classroom. Our donors have supported a number of educational initiatives on the islands including experiential learning and after-school initiatives.

The formation of a community of people that is comprised of committed stewards of their home is a long journey with incremental steps. We have good reason to hope that, in the near future, an educated, engaged public will ensure the future of these extraordinary islands.

For Galapagos,

Johannah Barry
Galapagos Conservancy President

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