Galapagos: People or Eco-System and Do We Have to Choose?
Simon Romero of the New York Times writes about the Galapagos Islands’ problem of overpopulation and increased immigration, a trend that is affecting the islands’ eco-system and contributing to the decision to place the islands on the United Nations’ list of endangered heritage sites in 2007.
Increased tourism over the past two decades has also led to the growing Galapagos population. Ecuador experienced major economic crisis and many mainlanders found they could make a much better living on the islands, working on development and other projects.
However, with people come trash, pollution, buildings, and non-native animals. There have been limits set on the tourism industry so that human beings will have less impact on the islands. However, some of these limits have not produced the desired effects and some are just not enough.
We looked into the Galpagos Conservancy, an organization dedicated to, well, you can figure it out.
Here’s what their 2006-2007 Galapagos Report’s main conclusions are regarding tourism:
- Over the past 15 years, the economic impact of Galapagos tourism has grown at an annual rate of 14% to an estimated $420 million per year, with about $60 million of this amount (15%) entering the Galapagos economy. Tourism now represents an estimated 65% of the archipelago’s economy.
- Through larger ships, more time at sea, and increased land based activities, tourism continues to grow, despite a freeze on the number of cruise ships. Over the past 15 years, the number of beds on boats has increased by 72%, the number of hotels by 97%, the capacity of hotels by 90% and the number of boat days on the water by 45%.
- The environmental impact of the rise in the number of residents and visitors in Galapagos is significant. Since 1990, the number of registered introduced species has grown from just over 100 to over 1,300. 52% of the endemic and native terrestrial species in Galapagos are considered vulnerable, in danger or in serious danger. 60% of the archipelago’s 180 endemic plan species are categorized as under threat.
- Since 2001, the number of commercial flights to Galapagos has doubled, with a 59% increase in the number of passengers and a 94% increase in cargo. The increase in air traffic and the opening of new commercial routes and direct flights to Isabela has significantly increased the risks of the introduction of non-native species.
- Over the past eight years, the number of vehicles in Galapagos has more than doubled to 378. Over the past five years, consumption of diesel and gasoline has increased by 30% and 45%, respectively.
The Galapagos Conservancy recommends that in trying to figure out how to make sure the eco-system is kept as pristine as possible while still providing room for tourism and the local population, the following social issues must be taken into account:
- The complex governance structure, including the mandates, authority and interaction of national, regional and local institutions
- The socio-economic and cultural impact of current and alternative tourism models
- The regulatory framework for tourism, including concession systems, visitor fees and regulations which influence the number of tourists
- The impacts of current and proposed secondary and related economic activities on legal and illegal migration, local income and benefits, demands on public services, and the environment.
- The economic and social costs associated with government subsidies in the archipelago
- The role of “Galapagos identity” in sustainability and means of building a culture of conservation
- Opportunities for implementing the broad educational reform mandated in the Galapagos Special Law
- The capacity of civil society to complement the work of public institutions
Another interesting read is Bruce Epler’s “Tourism, the Economy, Population Growth, and Conservation in Galapagos.”
Epler writes how in 1995, the islands’ government representative sponsored a bill that would limit immigration and give local residents more independence and control in managing the National Park and Marine Reserve. The Ecuadorian President vetoed the bill because outside groups deemed the local residents unfit to control the islands and their future. Because of some abuse of the land, perhaps this was justified. Perhaps not. But, in fact, this is the way to approach the conservation (as well as the development) of land: make sure the local people are involved from day one. And don’t assume that the NGOs, Westerners, or whoever, are the ones who can “educate” the local people.
Not everyone agrees. Epler: “The switch in philosophy to promote local involvement in decision-making and sustainable development is a global trend but has been criticized as it diverts manpower and funds from conservation to human development. Among the opponents is George Schaller, one of the world’s preeminent field biologists. Schaller (in Mitchell 2006) states that,
‘There are certain natural treasures in each country that should be treated as treasures, and it is up to conservation organizations to fight on behalf of these special places. Too many of these organizations have lost sight of their purpose. Their purpose is not to alleviate poverty or help sustainable development. Their purpose must be to save natural treasures.’”
This issue is complicated and much more than our little blogger brain can wrap itself around, but we do feel there are many questions that need to be asked. Here are a few:
- As socially conscious tourists, should we sometimes put on our “conservationist hats” and avoid the very places we most want to see – to help preserve them?
- How can biologists, conservationists, and sustainable tourism professionals work together to help sites both maintain natural treasures and contribute to human progress? Isn’t it possible to do both through well thought-out programs?
- Are large NGOs part of the problem? Are outsiders the best people to educate the local population about the importance of their land? If they are involved, what are the best roles for them?
- Have entities concerned with the biological issues worked with anthropologists, educators, economists, and others to understand the immigrants of the Galapagos? If it is concluded that population control is necessary to maintain the eco-system, how can efforts in Ecuador address those citizens who may want to immigrate, instead helping them find fulfilling and economically-feasible work on the mainland?
There are many questions to be posed and to be answered. Like many issues, this one is clearly not black and white.