Taking to the Streets, Galapagos-Style
Street protests are not a common occurrence in Galapagos, but a recent decision by the Ecuadorian government to fight over fishing and illegal fishing by giving fishermen tourist permits – over other residents, who’ve been waiting patiently themselves, many for years – sent locals into the streets armed with pots for banging, loudly. Virtually everyone who’s moved to the Galapagos in recent years has come with hopes of participating in – getting rich off? – the booming tourism industry. With permits greatly reduced, the line of hopefuls is long. That the government is trying to buy off fishermen by letting them jump to the front of the line isn’t sitting well.
Near the front of the protest is a solitary gringo, a sixty-something man in a red polo shirt and khaki shorts, carrying a placard and a megaphone. Jack Nelson’s father came to the Galapagos in 1961, by thirty-six-foot sailboat; he opened its first hotel. When the son came a few years later, hoping to avoid the U.S. draft and maybe adapt to island life, he never anticipated staying. He went on to become the Galapagos first tourist guide and is still here, watching the place he loves evolve. The hotel has been sold but he still co-owns a dive shop, so is actively interested in who’s getting new tourist permits … and who is not.
“The human population in the Galapagos is doubling every five years. What is really significant about that number is not just the environmental impact or living standards, but it’s political in that the political majority has been here just five years. There are people who don’t know anything about the place, don’t really understand what the issues are but since they have become the majority the government responds to their demands.”
Does he still love the place? “In some ways. It’s certainly still very beautiful but it’s becoming less enjoyable to live here because of the political problems and conflicts and things like increased noise pollution and contamination.
“One thing that’s killing the place is the introduced species that arrive with all the increase in tourism and business. Here’s a great example. A young lady arrived at Baltra with a rose that her boyfriend gave her wrapped with tissue and foil around the base to keep it damp. At the airport the national park rangers jump her, take it away and burn it with their cigarette lighters because it’s an ‘introduced species.’ Simultaneously at the dock a few miles away a ship is unloading thousands of tons of uninspected cargo – bales, boxes, crates and bags of stuff, much of it carrying invasive species of one kind or another.
“What do we need? Desperately, better public education about the local issues and economics, in a way people on the street can understand. Pretty presentations with university level vocabularies are meaningless. If people can’t understand where the money is coming from … or not… they don’t care about anything else.
“Education about simple things too, like the problem with the introduction of species. Everybody who comes to live here wants to bring a dog. And not just any dog, but a special breed. One wants a German Shepard, another a Great Dane, another a cocker spaniel. It shows that they don’t really understand the impact of that on this place. It’s not just dogs and cats; we have five new species of introduced gecko living here that are competing with and chasing out the endemic gecko. Which changes the balance for the birds, plants and soil and on and on, a cascade of changes.
“We definitely need stricter migration policies and realistic caps on the number of boats and number of beds and how many times they can turn over each week. Now, for example, a lot of the tourist boats are running what I call the nine-day week. They sell a five-day tour and a four-day tour, which means on a couple days each week they’re doubling up, turning over a lot more tourists than the caps should allow, which raises the pressures on everything. Another problem is that local population is promoting more and more mass market, lower quality tourists because they have no access to the first-class tourists. And mass-market tourism brings heavy environmental impacts for low profit and requires even more infrastructure.
“I think we may be coming to a point where a whole lot of the laws, regulations and policies have to be reformed. When you’re in the tourism business the last thing you want is trouble. Like street protests, for example. Even perceived trouble in a tourist town can cause cancellations and wreck business for a long time. So to avoid ‘trouble’ sometimes we just go along with bad things we see happening around us. But it’s too late to ignore now.”