TERRA was given the festival’s “Grand Prize for Best Film” (the Jury: Jon Bowermaster takes us with stunning images on his sailing boat and kayak right into the beauty of the seventh continent. A place, not many of us will ever have the chance to see. He delivers a subtle message about climate change as we visit various research stations. The funding acquired for this film shows in professional visuals and a round delivery.)
And DARWIN was given the prize as “Best Environmental Film” (the Jury: The message is clear in this film stuffed with beautiful shots of all the famous Galapagos species such as the turtles, iguanas and marine life. Simply too many people are pressuring the 3% of the island that is accessible for the public. Tourists and the people depending or co-depending on tourism “visiting” nature to death.)
I’ve obviously seen the films many times now, in small editing rooms, various computer screens and on big screens and each time out I pick up small things I hadn’t seen previously. More interesting each time out is watching and listening to the audience, getting a sense of what they respond to in each, what they laugh at, what they moan at, when it is that they start looking at their watches.
While the two films are quite different, set in two very different environments, they share one common theme: Both are pristine environments threatened in part due to man’s rapacious desire to put his/her footprints … everywhere. In both places booms in tourism have both benefited and put at risk environments that we love. The challenge for the very near future is to figure out how to both protect these special places while at the same time making them just accessible enough that visitors can come, see and return home as ambassadors for protecting them.
This coming weekend both films show at the prestigious San Francisco Ocean Film Festival, at Pier 39 on the Embarcadero. (TERRA at 1 p.m. on Saturday, DARWIN at 4 p.m. on Saturday.)
This National Geographic-sponsored exploration is a one-of-a-kind look at Antarctica from a unique perspective – sea level.
For six weeks we explored the Antarctic Peninsula by sea kayak, sailboat, foot and small plane, observing the fast changing evolution of this most remote place. Impacted by climate change – temperatures have warmed along the Peninsula faster than anywhere on the planet during the past 50 years – this part of Antarctica is also experiencing a boom in tourism and nations fighting over who owns what as its ice slowly disappears.
Given my interest in and commitment to exploring the world’s ocean and bringing back stories from it we couldn’t ask for a better honor than to be regarded as the film “that most effectively raises awareness and increases understanding about environmental and sustainability issues facing the oceans and its inhabitants.” That is exactly our goal.
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.”
While Sea Shepherd’s chief cheerleader and trouble-inspirer Paul Watson is holding forth from his ship, The Farley Mowat, continuing its chase of Japanese whale hunters off Antarctica and (recently) being arrested on a thirty-year-old warrant in Portugal (where he had gone to attend a meeting of the International Whaling Commission) … the Washington state-based environmental group’s second-most visible campaign is ongoing, in the Galapagos.
From a very prominent, second-story office just across from the main fishing dock on Santa Cruz Alex Cornellisen manages the Shepherd’s Galapagos operation. At the moment, it is a two-person band. His focus is on trying to keep a global audience alerted to issues of over fishing and illegal fishing. To that end the group has already donated a boat to the park rangers, to help them enforce the marine reserves rules and regulations. A veteran of Sheperd’s Antarctica campaigns, Cornellisen is happy to be in the slightly less-amped environment of Galapagos. That said, his predecessor was chased out of the country when the shark fin “mafia” put a hit out on him.
“In Ecuador you can get someone killed for $40,” says Cornellisen, standing on the balcony of his office, looking down at the main dock where small fishing boats are unloading legal catches. “So you have to take threats seriously here.” His primary concern about the Galapagos is that while there are plenty of rules against illegal fishing, enforcement is difficult.
“Last year we were responsible for several raids which resulted in the confiscation of about ninety thousand sea cucumbers, and about thirty thousand shark fins. But there is an enormous amount of illegal fishing that still continues. For example, the legal quota for sea cucumbers last year was about two million allowed to be taken out of the park. Only about 1.2 million were reported, yet there was an increase in illegally caught and confiscated sea cucumbers. What was not being reported just ended up being sold in the illegal markets.
“It’s not just a few Galapaganians doing the illegal fishing. There’s a big group from the north, from Costa Rica, that comes here to take shark fins. They catch them within the park’s marine reserve and then take them out of the supposedly protected waters where they are sold mostly to Asian countries, like Korea, Taiwan and Japan.
“All this shark finning has an impact on tourism, not just the fish population. If there are fewer sharks to observe, there will one day be fewer tourists coming to see them. Without sharks the whole ecosystem will crumble and then the question is will tourists continue to come to the Galapagos?
“Enforcement in the Galapagos is not as efficient as Sea Shehperd would like to see.Plus, there’s a lot of corruption in the local Navy. Sometimes the Navy will alert illegal fishermen that the park officials are in the area.I’ve been coming to the Galapagos ever since I first joined Sea Shepherd in 2002 and every time I come, for a month or so, we catch poachers. So it is possible. They are absolutely out there and we know how to find them and pass the information on to the park. But the Navy often warns off the poachers so that by the time the park rangers arrive … they are gone.
“Unfortunately we don’t have any jurisdiction to apprehend the poachers, so all we can do is notify the park and start pulling in the long lines, which is mostly what they use to fish for sharks.
“I think it would certainly help if the park rangers were armed. If you go to a supermarket in Quito you see a security guard with a gun protecting bags of potatoes. Here we have this beautiful pristine ecosystem called the Galapagos Islands, and the park rangers have absolutely no jurisdiction whatsoever, they are not even allowed to carry batons. I think that the park rangers should definitely be armed. I think if the word got out to the illegal fishermen that the park rangers were armed and capable of making arrests, I think it would be a lot harder for poachers to come in here and take sharks or any other species.”
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.”
It would be wrong on its face to say that tourism is the biggest problem facing the Galapagos today. Simultaneously, it is accurate to say that the growth in tourism in the one-of-a-kind archipelago is the primary reason the islands are “in danger.” Those are not my words, but UNESCO’s, in 2007 … the same year Ecuador’s new president claimed the islands were at “great risk” and signed a decree making their protection a national priority. You get the sense that just defining the exact problem facing the Galapagos, for both locals and outsiders, is tricky.
With ninety seven percent of the islands off-limits and under national park protection – small, guided tours limited to 60 designated sites – the system that introduces tourists to the nineteen Galapagos islands has long been regarded a model of eco-tourism. But the success of that model is what puts them at such risk today: In 1991 there were 41,000 visitors, this year there will be close to 200,000; during that same period human population has risen from a few thousand to 40,000. Those are a lot of combined footsteps – as well as ship and plane traffic — for such a fragile eco-system (the so-called “Mona Lisa of biodiversity”).
The sudden arrival of so many people from so many parts of the world introduces parasites which threaten both flora and fauna; permanent residents arrive desirous of re-creating their mainland lifestyles, including cars, dogs and cats, and air conditioning; tour operators are pushing to expand their offerings to include sport fishing and skydiving.The Ecuadorian government has tried, with limited success, to limit migration and is considering raising the national park fee paid by every tourist from $100 to $135, an attempt to slow the numbers.
Jack Nelson is one of the Galapagos’ most-veteran tour operators, coming to the islands to live permanently in 1967. Like others like him, in different settings around the world who have watched their own personal paradises become overly popular, he is alarmed.“To a tourist, things look good. You still see a lot of animals, and not many other people,” he says. “But get outside those controlled (national park) parameters, and you’ll find a big mess nobody can figure out what to do about.”
While we were filming in and around the islands we met longtime Galapagos guide Sylvia Vargas on a few occasions. A native Ecuadorian, she’s been coming here for more than twenty years and has lived in Puerto Ayora off and on since first visiting as a teenager. She feels both blessed to be working in such an incredible place and worried that tourism and migration may be taking too big a toll.
“Personally, I think tourism should be capped for the moment. Higher entry fees haven’t worked to slow the growth. One tour operator I work for recently told me that the people who are coming to the Galapagos today are coming with a different idea about the place – they don’t ask as much anymore about wildlife, their first questions are about the comfort of the ship. They want more air-conditioning, more service, nicer cabins, a massage, a more comfortable mattress and expect a lot of chemicals on board to keep things clean and tidy … all of which have a direct impact on the Galapagos. More energy used, more garbage created, more pollution.
“I came first in 1984 when there were two thousand people living in town and two cars. I knew everyone on the street and was offered food by friends every day. The electricity on the island used to shut down at night. Now there are twenty times as many people and two hundred times as many cars. And we have electricity twenty-four hours a day. I miss the peacefulness of back then.
“But I have talked with people who work as guides in other places and they always say that we Galapagos guides are spoiled because we see such incredible wildlife every day. I guess they are right. But for me the most popular sites are too crowded, sometimes there are so many people I feel … embarrassed.
“My biggest worry is that more people living here means more demand for everything. I don’t see people thinking about having a different lifestyle than what they have on the mainland. They will tell you they came to the Galapagos to live in a peaceful place, but they expect to have exactly the same things that they had on the mainland. Why would you have a pet dog or cat here? Why would you have a car if you live in town? Why would you build a new house with air conditioning, when electricity is so hard to create? At Christmas on the mainland we decorate our houses with lots of outdoors lights and now they do the same thing here even though the power comes from a gas generator and the gas comes from far away.”