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Loving the Galapagos to Death

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.”

What Would Darwin Think?

Often by the time the mainstream media runs big stories about an environmental battle it’s often too late. I’ve seen it up-close dozens of times during the past couple decades and have reported so many David-versus-Goliath stories – usually positing good-hearted indigenous peoples and international environmental groups against greedy, monolithic utility companies and strong-arming government agents – that the stories have almost become fill-in-the-blanks. (Just change the name of the indigenous tribe, the utility company and the country and the story – and outcome – are usually very similar.)

Yet despite ominous recent headlines in the Wall Street Journal (“Galapagos Under Siege”), the Times (“Can Darwin’s Lab Survive Success?”) and UK’s Independent (“Tourism, Over-Population and Overfishing Have Become the Blight of the Galapagos”), I happen to believe that the Ecuadorian archipelago will survive (even if more and more of its endemic creatures may not) and flourish. In some respects, as the standard bearer for the planet’s evolutionary history, it simply must. As Alex Hearn, a marine biologist with the Charles Darwin Research Center on Santa Cruz Island told us about the Galapagos future, “if we can’t get it right here, where can we?” A microcosm of the planet’s wildlife, if the Galapagos loses its wildness it will feel like the end is near for the rest of our wild places.

Given my interest in man’s relationship with the sea, it was hard not to go to the Galapagos for a first-hand look at exactly how we are impacting this once truly special place. Spurred by comments by the Ecuadorian president (“the Galapagos are at great risk”) and UNESCO, which first declared the Galapagos a world heritage site and has now put it on an “in danger” list, we took video cameras and digital recorders and came back with a story not so much about the incredible biodiversity of its wildlife but about how man is wrestling with his presence there.

The film we’ve made – “What Would Darwin Think?” – is nearly complete; in advance of that I wanted to share some of the stories, photos and videos brought back from several weeks of conversations and poking around.

According to a recent report by the Darwin Foundation, “Galápagos at Risk” the islands’ crisis does not just stem from an unprecedented rise in tourism, but also from a change in the marketplace. “Early tourism in the Galápagos was characterized by nature-loving tourists,” the report said, seeking “to learn about Darwin and see the amazing species that helped him to develop his theory of evolution.” It noted that these guests were “easily accommodated by smaller, locally owned tour operators.”

But, the study continued, the market expanded to include “eco-tourists,” who also like to visit places like Machu Picchu, the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, Easter Island and the Great Barrier Reef. These tourists are “often more selective in terms of required comfort and is better served by multinational tour operators,” the report said.

A consequence has been that local owners cannot compete with the foreign-run companies doing business in the Galápagos. Of the $418 million generated by tourism annually, only $63 million is estimated to enter the local economy. And of the 80 tourism boats allowed to operate in the Galápagos, only about 40 percent are locally owned.

“We have to think about the people and not just the plants and animals, or it will all collapse,” the report concluded.

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