LEARNING ABOUT CONSERVATION IN THE GALAPAGOS: Lessons on Hope
Text: Andreea Lotak; Photos: Andreea & Justin Lotak · 12 min read
We weren’t sure of what we would experience in the Galapagos from a conservation standpoint before getting there. Most readings seemed pretty pessimistic regarding the future of this archipelago that has a long history of humans making reckless use of its unique resources. We didn’t know that the Galapagos of nowadays, with a tourism industry that dominates the economy and a growing population, would make us feel that maybe it’s experiencing the most hopeful time since a ship of Spaniards accidentally reached the shores of one of the islands in 1535, thus starting the centuries of exploitation that have led to the decline of the archipelago’s biodiversity.
One early morning in Puerto Ayora, the main tourism hub of the Galapagos on the island of Santa Cruz, we set out to visit the headquarters of the national park and the Charles Darwin Foundation center. In the relatively short walk along the main avenue, we passed marine iguanas seeking the heat of the sun on the sidewalk, a couple of black-tip sharks swimming close to shore, a plethora of birds, the ever-present sea lions in the Academy Bay and Sally lightfoot crabs contrasting with the black, volcanic rocks coming out of the shallow waters. The streets were quiet and local businesses were just opening, preparing for the day ahead. Another hot one, typical for the wet season. Once getting to the entrance of the park we were greeted by two very friendly rangers that directed us to the office of Christian Sevilla, responsible for the Conservation and Restoration of Island Ecosystems department within the park. For little over an hour we had the privilege of learning about conservation efforts, struggles and development directly from someone who has been working with the park for over 12 years and who has contributed to the "Management Plan for Good-Living in the Galapagos" as part of the Technical Group who elaborated it in 2014.
CHALLENGES & INITATIVES
During this conversation we caught a glimpse of something that transpired in other interactions with locals in the Galapagos: a sense of pride in living in and contributing to the protection of a unique place on Earth, a certain rhetoric that brings conservation at the forefront of the dialogue.“You can find on the park’s website the full text of the Management Plan of the Galapagos. It’s all there, 200 pages” recommended Mr. Sevilla wholeheartedly. In doing so we’ve discovered a truly impressive volume of work for the betterment of life in the Galapagos for all of its living entities. It starts with a “Decalogue of Good-Living” which almost sounds like an idealistic constitution of a commune, but it’s being realistically applied in the everyday development of the archipelago. It is promoting ideas like “quality over quantity”, “acquiring shared responsibility” among all citizens, “education towards sustainability”, “social credibility” by encouraging collaboration of all residents to care for the environment and to support efforts of preventing plagues and invasive species, conservation and rational use of resources, and with an emphasis on the interdependence of human settlements with the larger ecosystem.“The one thing we have clearly understood is that without the support and collaboration of the community we cannot have the Galapagos. We call Galapagos a ‘social ecosystem’ - the union of the community with the ecosystem’s management, which is what generates conservation. The community needs to be empowered to contribute to the conservation of the Galapagos. Through awareness programs we’re trying to outline that this concerns us all who live on the islands, that we’re all benefiting and making a living off the resources of this natural heritage and that it’s up to all of us to preserve it. People pay to visit and see the unique species and places in the Galapagos and that money generates an income for the residents, so we obviously have to reciprocate and be conscious that we need to protect and respect these natural resources. This is what we’re trying to do. It’s not easy, but we do have plenty of success and positive outcomes here in the Galapagos” explained mr. Sevilla.
In the text of the Management Plan it’s all summed up as: “the obvious is that in the present and in the future of the Galapagos there can be no conservation without development, and no development without conservation”. That stands for generating consciousness for the growing flux of human population that can no longer be stopped, to understand that its destiny is closely intertwined with that of the natural ecosystems on the islands. Messages of awareness abound in public spaces on San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz, recycling efforts are growing, people we’ve met, from taxi drivers to hostel owners, seemed deeply aware of the need to respect the limited resources of the islands. This positive state is the result of efforts that have started in 1959 with the creation of the national park, followed in 1998 by the establishment of the marine reserve and continued by efforts to bring more and more special status protections to the area.
Such an optimistic outlook might raise the brow of those who regard the situation in the Galapagos from a more critical perspective. In reality problems still abound: there’s air and water pollution; the islands are plagued still by rats and other invasive species; people bring their pets, mainly cats and dogs that pose a danger for the local population of birds or the introduction of parasites; recycling only reaches 40% of the waste; and there’s still some illegal fishing and poaching. We can add that the method of transportation using speedboats among the four inhabited islands can easily disturb or injure wildlife, and they can only take up to 30 persons at a time, which doesn’t appear to be the most eco-friendly solution. In fact, during this conversation with Christian Sevilla, he constantly kept a rather humble, moderate tone when speaking of conservation successes and failures in the Galapagos: “We live in a unique place, a World Heritage Site, but from a social standpoint there are still problems. For example, the water on the island here [Santa Cruz] is not potable, you can get sick drinking it [due to waste and pollution]. There are germs and parasites that accidentally make their way to the island, not with bad intentions, but when coming here people bring them, whether out of ignorance or by mistake. There are filters, a system of quarantine in place, airport controls in Quito, in Guayaquil, but it’s not perfect yet. We don’t have yet the full capacity of controlling everything so there is always the risk. The containerships bringing goods to the islands are quarantined and fumigated, but we’ve still had species brought in, like snakes for example. It happens despite all the efforts. The majority of these arrivals are accidental, they come mixed in with the cargo. We had ants, the Argentine ant that in other parts of the world has already posed problems, problems which we didn’t use to have here in the Galapagos. Mosquitoes that carry the Dengue and Yellow fever which we didn’t use to have either…Then there are species that have been introduced but that have not yet become invasive. Fruit flies are an example of a species that we’ve had here, that is a problem worldwide, but that has not become an invasive species because we’ve detected it upon entering the Galapagos and have kept it under control”
He then continued telling us how there have been around 1,500 introduced species to the Galapagos, of which 256 have become invasive. Surprising or not, cats seem to be the main threat of all these new-comers brought in by humans. Though they have successfully eradicated an impressive number of goats on the Santiago island, they have left behind the resilient berries that are now growing unharmed because the goats are gone. On Floreana island, with the smallest human population of the four inhabited islands, a program to eradicate rats and get rid of the feral cats would cost US$20 million. On Isabela, guava trees are a pest that is almost impossible to stop, conquering territory to the detriment of endemic trees and bushes. Therefore, a lot still needs to be done that requires financial resources the park doesn’t have at all times. Though imperfect and with a lot of room for improvement, the frame created for the conversation around the future of the Galapagos gave us a sense of hope that we weren’t necessarily expecting to find. Sustainability is definitely at the center, while the model of eco-tourism is the aim for economic development. On San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz, Isabela and Floreana highly successful breeding centers and programs have reestablished endemic populations of Giant tortoises and land iguanas and the marine reserve is now a safe haven for some of the largest populations in the world of sharks and other large ocean species.
The Galapagos is an exceptional place for many reasons. Not only has it sparked a revolution of our understanding on how other species as well as our own have evolved, but it’s also currently one of the best conserved areas on Earth, slowly recovering from the destruction brought here by humans. It’s territory is a national park, a marine reserve, part of the world natural heritage, a biosphere reserve, a whale sanctuary, a RAMSAR site. "Only a small portion, corresponding to a total of 3% of the territory can be developed for rural or urban areas. Some 97% represents protected land. And if you add up the marine protected area of around 133,000 sqkm to the terrestrial one, it results that only about 0.3 or 0.2% of the total area of the Galapagos is allocated to rural and urban development” said Mr. Sevilla.
When asked about collaboration and partnerships with other national parks around the world, he confirmed: “Yes, we do have partnerships and collaborations with the majority of parks from around the world. We always participate in international conventions and meetings of protected areas, we can say that almost always we’re invited to speak about our adaptation of methods to the environment of the Galapagos or about the innovations we make in the conservation efforts. With Australia we have partnerships where we’re trying to take and adapt methods that have worked there because they, too, have unique species. Through trial and error we’ve learned. In many areas that concern conservation, eradication of invasive species or methods applied, we’re world leaders. We’ve had failures and lessons learned. We’re not 100% efficient but we can say that we’re one of the best national parks, protected areas and World Heritage Sites in the world. And it’s important to mention that the success we’ve had is due in part to the special regime from which the Galapagos benefits”.
The latter statement refers to the fact that the province of the Galapagos has a special status and is a self-governing entity, decentralized from the power in Quito. Also, in 2015 the Ecuadorian Congress passed a law that reinforced even further the special status of the province, creating the frame for greater conservation efforts and protections of the environment and the unique ecosystems of the islands. This law also benefits local residents by offering them specific advantages. This is all part of the same "Management Plan for Good-Living" and vision for the development of the archipelago.
GALAPAGOS IN THE AGE OF TOURISM
Turning the conversation toward one of the themes that concerns us most, how tourism is being handled in the Galapagos, its impacts and the economy it creates, Mr. Sevilla started by pointing out that the national park has a special department dedicated precisely to these issues, with experts in the tourism field. He offered though some very interesting insights:“There are regional aspects of tourism on each island. For example, the type of tourism that we have on Floreana is the kind that we would like for all of the Galapagos — a tourism that involves the entire community, a tourism from which everyone wins. Now on the island of Santa Cruz, let’s say it’s more specific. We have tour operators, agencies, they are the ones that win the most. The community benefits as well, but not at the same equitable level like on Floreana. For example, there, the hotels and inns take turns per week of who receives visitors in order to balance out their earnings, whereas here there is competition. However, the tourism department of the park has greater knowledge on all of this”.
Due to lack of time, we didn’t have the opportunity to arrange an interview with them as well, but what we learned from Christian Sevilla was of great help to better understand the system that the park has in place and that is reflected in the way all tour operators work. “We have it all organized. There are places where you can go on your own and others where you can only be with a naturalist guide because we can’t have more than 16 people at a time in one spot”. When Justin asked about the increase of this industry in the 12 years he’s worked for the park, Mr. Sevilla was quick to say:“We’ve seen a significant growth in tourism in the past 12 years. Increasing tourism improved the economy, obviously. With that you can see a growth of local population and also of invasive species introduced to the Galapagos”.
There are now around 250,000 visitors annually. He considered that a majority of the invasive species weren’t being brought in by tourists and that insects are the main pest coming with them, but that we can all do our part by collaborating with the authorities at the ports-of-entry, especially by making sure that we’re not bringing parasites, fruit, soil or seeds from other places that are hitching a ride in our shoes, clothes, or bags. We, as visitors, can do more individually to avoid these pests than the authorities can do collectively when having to deal with a large flux of people that get impatient while waiting in line for controls. Since tourism is now the main source of income for the local economy and the conservation efforts, the authorities are confronted with a catch-22 dilemma: how to handle the growth of this industry that sometimes conflicts with conservation in a way that it still generates income, specifically for the benefit of said conservation.“The money you spend as a tourist to get a permit to enter the Galapagos [as of March 2017, $100 for most foreigners over the age of 12], due to the special regime granted to the archipelago, stays in the Galapagos and goes toward its conservation and development programs. That money comes to us, the national park. We allocate about 50% of it directly to conservation efforts and to everything that means running the national park, and the rest is divided among different institutions. For example, among municipalities for social development and projects in the communities, projects to meet environmental standards, and then a smaller percentage goes to the local navy and military, to the marina and other such institutions. But, by law, 100% of all revenue from entrance fees stays in the Galapagos. This is only referring to the fee that visitors pay to get access to the Galapagos and does not concern the earnings of agencies and tour operators. For them too there are other laws, like in many parts of the world — an agency that profits from a natural resource obviously has to contribute to the protection of that resource or area. Many of them have social and environmental responsibility programs, they try to promote responsible tourism. There are large local companies that work with the park in reforestation efforts, or in educational programs and that invest a percentage of their profits into the Galapagos. Then there are partnerships with organizations and foundations from around the world that help us with conservation efforts through donations and other initiatives. The central government as well allocates a small percentage of its funds toward the Galapagos, but we can say that we are mainly self-sustained through the revenues brought in by tourism”.
It is estimated that tourism brings over US$60 million to the local economy, contributing to over half of the total annual income and employing close to half the resident population of working age. Finally, we wanted to know whether the black market of wildlife traffic and objects made from animal parts or rare flora is a major problem in the Galapagos so that visitors can stay alert and not fuel this without realizing it. “Before, souvenir shops used to make objects from or sell pieces of coral. It’s difficult to extract coral in the Galapagos but they were doing it. Nowadays that’s gone, the majority of the craft shops make objects from wood. If it’s endemic wood, it’s sourced from trees that have already fallen. There are still problems, but they’re minor. It’s not like in other parts of the world where this is a more serious issue. We are aware, however, that there are still places where one can buy endemic species of animals. Being such unique species they also cost a lot of money. We have detected such activities in the past but it’s not a widespread phenomenon”. Needless to say that this is an easy one to avoid when shopping for souvenirs in a place like the Galapagos. A living animal should definitely not be on the “to buy” list, nor should anything that seems like it was taken illegally from nature. Our experience has been that the souvenir shops in the main areas didn’t have anything to do with black market activities, but it’s best to stay alert and ask questions.
Having had the chance to catch a glimpse of the intricate process of righting the wrongs from the past and trying to restore an ecosystem that is a world treasure we felt like the Galapagos was on the right path. Not the ideal one, but the only realistic one that embraces and tries to solve the challenges of humans sharing space with wildlife. Strangely, that tameness of the biodiversity of the archipelago that visitors from the past had noted numerous times seems to have passed as well to the people now living here. The pace of life has a unique vibe, violence is a rare occurrence and there seems to exist a willingness for creating a community among all life on the islands. The place feels like an experiment at a reduced scale of how humans on Earth in general can coexist with fragile biodiversity. Ecuador and the province of the Galapagos have inherited both a treasure and a burden. By carrying this burden they have allowed us all to still enjoy today the beauty of a place that is unmatched in its biodiversity.