Galapagos – Canary in the Coal Mine?
Fernando Ortiz grew up on mainland Ecuador and has lived in the Galapagos the past twenty years. His career path has led him from tour guide to dive guide and eventually dive company manager. Along the route he decided that talking to tourists about conservation was not enough, so he made the leap to full-time environmentalist. Today he runs Conservation International’s office in Puerto Ayora. We talk on the town’s main dock, Zodiac’s whipping back and forth behind us overloaded with tourists, bags of cement, cases of water and beer, two-by-fours and cement blocks, frozen chickens and everything else needed to run a community of 40,000 on an island separated from the mainland by six hundred miles.
“I have realized a few things in the last few years regarding how best to preserve the Galapagos, primarily that it doesn’t matter how good your technical arguments or human arguments are, it’s not about that. It’s mostly, and unfortunately, all about economics and politics.
“I try not to be critical to tourism as an economy. In fact, if we analyze it in one way, tourism is probably the best way in which nature can pay in cash for its survival. If I were to go back to the islands as I saw them for the first time, nineteen years ago, I would probably find the same biologic, ecologic and evolutionary processes still happening, the same blue-footed boobies still nesting on the same trails. The same for the sea lions and penguins. Tourism has actually been well controlled, despite its growth. It’s the indirect impacts of tourism that we need to control.
“For that we need to be able to make some hard political decisions which then need to be followed out by everyone. Unfortunately when you have, let’s say a mayor who is looking for a re-election, he may not favor some regulations that sound restrictive for some of his potential voters. While some of our politicians are aware of the fact that natural resources are limited here in the Galapagos, that there is not enough water, not enough land, that we can’t produce much here locally, who understand the importance of conservation, most regard those as things that can be ‘negotiated.’ Nature cannot be negotiated.
“My children are growing up here and there couldn’t be any better place for a child to grow up. It’s fantastic, they are having experiences no other child – certainly no city kid – can have, which is very important. But do I think we’ll have to leave the Galapagos eventually, because it’s changing too fast. There are simply too many people. All of a sudden there are things here that didn’t used to be here, like violence and crime, a result of too many people.
“The frustration is that I think we know how to save and protect the Galapagos, but I don’t think we have the political will to follow through. In a way, I have become a Galapagos expert, working in different trades and that experience allows me to be analytical right now, to see things from different perspectives, and I still think it is possible there is room for optimism. Again, though it sounds cliché, I really do believe we can make a difference otherwise I wouldn’t be working in conservation, I would probably still be working in tourism, making more money while I can, having a great time scuba diving every day.
“But I know that things can be better managed, especially on land. The difficult part is that we are now surrounded by a one-hundred-and-thirty-eight-square-kilometer marine reserve, which is harder to manage. Thanks to illegal fishing and a boom in industrial fishing many of the beautiful fish that make the Galapagos special are at risk. On paper we are able to come up with strategies to protect them. But we have to have strategies that go beyond the limits of the Galapagos, beyond the marine reserve, all the way to the mainland and further.
“Ironically the Galapagos National Park and the Galapagos Marine Reserve are far advanced in terms of having the right tools and the right resources for managing the impacts of people. Many other protected areas in the world look up at us because we are breaking new ground here, things that are then replicated in other protected places. But we also have our failures, which unfortunately are also being replicated.
“Tourism, if well managed – and I emphasize, if well managed – has a chance to become the best opportunity for people to make a living here, without effecting the environment. But we have to keep our eyes on not just what happens to the visitor sites but the rest of the Galapagos. Let’s not be so short term. But if you look at the numbers, the growth in tourism is scary. We’ve had sustained growth for the past twenty years of twelve to fourteen percent a year and don’t see it slowing down.
“We have allowed market pressures to rule tourism in Galapagos. Many of my friends are tour operators and I ask them all the time what if something gets out of control here – species disappear, too much pollution — and tomorrow people start canceling their trips to Galapagos. What would happen then? They have no answers. Neither does the government on mainland Ecuador. Everybody knows we have a so-called golden goose here and that we need to take care of it. I hope as a society, and as institutions, that we can cope with this challenge. I believe there is an important group of well-intentioned people working in the right direction. All we can do is hope for the best.”