Paradise lost in the Galapagos Islands

Modern life has caught up with the cradle of evolution. Too many tourists, expanding population, over-fishing and pollution are endangering the flora and fauna
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The Independent US

It does not take long to realise that the Galapagos Islands, the world's last surviving wilderness archipelago, are on a collision course with the needs and appetites of the 21st century. Already on the plane from mainland Ecuador, the sheer strange-ness of the place becomes apparent as all passengers, Ecuadorians as well as foreigners, are handed a landing card, as though the destination were not just islands 600 miles off the coast but another country altogether.

It does not take long to realise that the Galapagos Islands, the world's last surviving wilderness archipelago, are on a collision course with the needs and appetites of the 21st century. Already on the plane from mainland Ecuador, the sheer strange-ness of the place becomes apparent as all passengers, Ecuadorians as well as foreigners, are handed a landing card, as though the destination were not just islands 600 miles off the coast but another country altogether.

"If one of the products you are bringing is not permitted," warns the small print on the card, "it will be retained and incinerated." And the island officials mean business. At the airport on the tiny island of Baltra, baggage inspectors pull tightly wrapped clumps of garden vegetables out of suitcases with the satisfaction of customs officers making a marijuana seizure.

Chili peppers, for example, are on the banned list because they can quickly cross-breed with native chilis and threaten the delicate balance of the islands' ecosystems. So when Galapagenos want to serve aji, the chili-based relish that adorns almost every Ecuadorian dinner table, they have to make do with bottled peppers.

The 100-yard crossing from Baltra to Santa Cruz island, the main population centre in the Galapagos, has to be on a pedestrian-only ferry. Why no bridge? Because Baltra and Santa Cruz have separate ecosystems, and even a structure as basic as a bridge carries the risk of contamination and invasion, of unwanted animals, plants, marine life, insects and even bacteria.

Such sensitivity seems admirable, at least until the bus on the other side of the ferry begins the 25-mile journey to Puerto Ayora, the main town on Santa Cruz and the biggest population centre on the islands. Near the crest of the island's one sizeable hill, a sign points to the Santa Cruz rubbish tip, a vast, uncontrolled expanse of household detritus, discarded building materials and toxic chemicals. Further on, the towns of Bellavista and Santa Rosa are eyesores of corrugated iron, concrete and half-finished buildings. Puerto Ayora is a deeply dysfunctional community, marred by every conceivable human blight. The groundwater is contaminated with sewage, making the tapwater undrinkable and causing multiple skin and gastric problems, especially among children.

Rapid growth in the past few years has brought rampant alcoholism, drug abuse (cocaine and marijuana are freely available) and sexually transmitted diseases, including Aids. A staggering 30 per cent of the town is estimated to be HIV-positive ,a fact the tourist industry does its best to keep quiet.

A crime wave has resulted in the unexplained disappearance of at least two people, a prominent local artist and a resident Dutchman. Prostitution flourishes, not least at a pair of whorehouses a couple miles out of town where 14-year-old boys are habitually taken for their induction into adulthood.

Even the more promising signs of progress in Puerto Ayora - mobile phone stores, internet cafés, and countless T-shirt and tourist souvenir stores - seem strangely out of place. This is, after all, the holy grail of the world's naturalists, a living demonstration of Darwinian evolution and a continuing testament to the observations that Darwin was first able to make here when the islands were unspoilt and almost completely uninhabited in the 1830s.

An important consoling thought is that, by law, only 3 per cent of the Galapagos Islands has been developed for human habitation. So however jarring Puerto Ayora may seem, there are still vast stretches of thick, untouched vegetation, pristine beaches populated by iguanas and turtles, remote laval promontories visited by rare seabirds, in other words, everything that has made the Galapagos a very special way-station on the global eco-tourism trail for the past 45 years.

But there are other significant causes for concern. First, the population of the islands is growing at an unsustainable rate. The figure was 18,000 in the 2001 census, but has now reached 22,000 and possibly 30,000 after non-permitted residents are counted. (There is much illegal immigration, as well as illegal purchases of residence permits.)

That puts pressure on land and other resources; there are reports of human incursions on to wildlife areas on at least one island. It also increases the risk of so-called "introduced species", be they animal, vegetable or bacterial, playing havoc with the preservation of the Galapagos as a unique habitat system.

Within the past few years the dengue fever mosquito has arrived, another capable of carrying avian malaria and West Nile virus, and a destructive moth called the citrus-leaf miner. There are now more introduced plant species than native ones, and more than 400 non-native insect types, at least a handful of which are likely to pose serious risks.

The new people who arrive need jobs, and one of the fastest-growing sectors has been fishing. But there are at least three times as many fishermen as local waters can support, and lobster and sea-cucumber stocks have become dangerously depleted. A roaring illegal business in shark-fishing - the fins are worth a fortune on the Asian market - and the equally illegal use of longlines and driftnets have also raised alarm bells among conservationists and international environmental groups.

Tourism, too, has been growing at an unsustainable rate, an increase of 10,000 visitors per year, to close to 110,000 in 2004. Ever bigger boats have become ecological liabilities in themselves, dragging their anchors along the coral beds, dumping human waste and oily water into the Galapagos Marine Reserve and posing all sorts of risks when it comes to the introduction of invasive species or diseases such as Aids, which almost certainly came in via the tourist industry.

On top of all of that has come a more than usually tawdry period in Ecuadorian politics, in which the Galapagos have come to be seen not as a valuable resource for tourism revenue and international prestige, but rather as a fertile territory for the granting of jobs and other favours to the political friends and allies of the country's desperately weak President, Luis Gutierrez. Since Colonel Gutierrez came to office just more than two years ago, there have been 11 directors or acting directors of the Galapagos National Park, the body set up by the Ecuadorian government in 1959 to safeguard the islands' biodiversity. Morale has plummeted as dozens of respected park managers have been pushed out or induced to quit, and the resulting drop in staff numbers - 180 now compared with 280 three years ago - has made it almost impossible to enforce the park's strict legal framework. And patrols designed to stamp out illegal fishing have dwindled to almost nothing.

Because of his fragile grip on the Ecuadorian Congress, President Gutierrez finds himself beholden to an independent deputy from the Galapagos called Vinicio Andrade, who is in turn very closely tied to the fishing lobby. Mr Andrade's alternate is the president of the island fishing cooperative, and believes the fishing sector should if anything be expanded, not shrunk.

As a consequence, the fishermen were given permission to harvest four million sea cucumbers last year - 10 times the absolute upper limit recommended by technical experts - and this year are hoping to be able to go after big-eye tuna and swordfish in the open waters of the 140,000sq-mile Marine Reserve.

With all these problems pummeling the Galapagos at once, it is easy to become despondent. "I think of the Galapagos as a paradise lost," one observer heavily involved in funding Galapagos projects said on condition of anonymity. "I can't see too much hope of a paradise regained."

Several foreign governments and international bodies including the UN and the Inter-American Development Bank have piled pressure on the Ecuadorian government to address the situation before it spins out of control, but to little avail. A delegation from Unesco, the UN educational, science and cultural organisation, visited the islands last week and generated news coverage in Ecuador, but the scope of the mission was modest: essentially, the delegates were there to decide whether they would recommend a fuller evaluation in a few months.

Eliezer Cruz, the last widely respected director of the National Park before the musical chairs of the Gutierrez presidency began, described what he saw as a new philistinism creeping in, the view that the islands were now ripe for development and exploitation; history and biology be damned. "We're on a clear curve," he said. "There is a crisis in the park."

Perhaps most alarmingly, the complex structure of park management - encompassing Ecuadorian conservation officials, national politicians, international scientists, tour operators and fishermen, among others - has degenerated into bitter rivalries and deep resentments.

The tourist operators accuse the fishermen of sabotaging the very resource they all depend on. The fishermen say the tour operators are greedy businessmen from the mainland who refuse to share their wealth, or their employment opportunities, with the islanders.

The fishermen and local politicians such as Leopoldo Bucheli, the mayor of Puerto Ayora, spit bullets at what they see as the deeply one-sided attitude of foreign governments and environmental groups, exerting enormous efforts to conserve animal and plant life while neglecting or demonstrating active hostility to the human occupants of the Galapagos.

"We need to have a balance of interests between people and nature," Mr Bucheli said in his office, adorned with pictures of tortoises and a life-size sculpture of a giant turtle sitting on a filing cabinet. "They just spent $8.5m to eradicate goats. If they cared that much about the fishing stocks, that money could have been used to indemnify the fishermen and pay them not to fish."

The bitterness of such sentiments - which tend to confuse multiple issues rather than clarify them - belies the fact that, strangely, almost everyone agrees what the core problems are and how to address them. Everyone agrees the management of the Galapagos has become over-politicised, even if they do not agree who is politicising what. Everyone agrees the number of both residents and tourist visitors needs to be curbed. Everyone agrees more resources need to be directed towards island-dwellers, so fishermen are presented with viable alternatives.

The problem is how to reach some of the solutions before the community has torn itself, and the islands, apart. "This is a pivotal moment, where the decisions we do or do not make will have a lasting effect on the future well-being of the islands," said Graham Watkins, director of the Charles Darwin Research Station, which oversees a panoply of conservation and scientific projects. Dr Watkins believes the answer has to lie locally, and depends crucially on all the interest groups coming together and negotiating towards a common goal.

Since Dr Watkins' arrival a couple of months ago, a dormant local management advisory council has resumed its work, and the fishermen - at least on Santa Cruz, if not on the other inhabited islands - have expressed an interest in alternative employment.

The Charles Darwin Station has employed them to clear invasive outside plants, particularly blackberries, from swaths of the Santa Cruz highlands. The fishermen have also been paid for working on studies investigating the degree of fishery stock depletion.

But the degree of local co-operation does not address what is perhaps the biggest issue, and that is the ambivalent role of tourism. On one hand, the Galapagos depends on tourists for the revenues needed to survive. But on the other, the increasing tourist numbers, and the contaminations they produce, are a large part of the problem.

Roque Sevilla, a former mayor of Quito an environmentalist and also the head of Ecuador's largest tour operator, believes the answer is to set a maximum annual number of tourists and, when that point is reached, refuse to allow in any more.

He said he would increase the entry fee (now $100 for non-Ecuadorians) and use the extra money to beef up conservation and enforcement of the islands' strict rules. "It would be like a very, very special club," he said.