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9 minute read
Michael D. Lemonick

TOMAS DE BERLANGA, BISHOP OF Panama, named them Las Encantadas–the Enchanted Isles–in 1535, and more than 4 1/2 centuries later, it’s hard to argue with his view of the Galapagos archipelago. Even today, the cluster of islands, a province of Ecuador that lies some 600 miles off the South American coast, seems idyllic: the giant tortoises known as galapagos, which gave the islands their name, still amble across the scrubby landscape, sea-lion pups and Galapagos penguins gaze unafraid at scuba divers, marine iguanas crawl over volcanic rocks along the shore, and strolling tourists have to detour around blue-footed boobies (a type of seabird) busily performing courtship rituals. Puerto Ayora, the islands’ largest town (pop. 8,000), comprises a tranquil collection of quaint hotels, craft shops and seafood restaurants.

But there is trouble in this seeming paradise. Beneath the calm surface, tensions are seething among scientists, fishermen, tour operators, smugglers and politicians. The hostilities threaten not only to disrupt the peaceful pace of Galapagos life but, far worse, to upset the fragile environmental balance in one of the world’s most cherished ecological reserves.

Last winter machete-wielding locals protested a government ban on sea-cucumber fishing by blocking the entrance to the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora and the headquarters for the national park that encompasses 97% of the islands’ land area. The invaders held workers captive for four days, harassed scientists and threatened to kill tortoises. In a more serious uprising last month, the headquarters and research station were occupied for two weeks, along with the airport in the provincial capital of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno–this time by residents angry about the government’s refusal to consider their demands for greater local control of the islands. “Both times the station and the park were pawns in the game,” says Johannah Barry, executive director of the U.S.-based Charles Darwin Foundation, which raises money for the research station. “What’s going to happen the next time?” International tour operators are wondering the same thing; they are scheduled to meet this week with officials in Quito to find out how the government proposes to resolve the disputes.

For scientists and conservationists, the answers are crucial. The Galapagos is not just an exotic vacation spot; it is a unique ecosystem where biology and geology have gone to bizarre and instructive extremes. The archipelago’s 15 main and 106 smaller islands are dotted with the volcanoes that gave birth to the Galapagos more than 3 million years ago; some are still active. Opuntia cactus, spiny acacias and palo santo trees have taken root amid the hardened lava of the lowlands. On some of the largest islands, the higher elevations have patches of dense, moist forests dominated by Scalesia trees, which are giant relatives of sunflowers, and by giant ferns.

It’s the Galapagos’ astonishing variety of animal life, however, that has captivated visitors ever since De Berlanga, whose ship was blown off course en route from Panama to Peru, stumbled on the archipelago. Because the chain was never attached to any other land mass, all the resident species are descended from ones that flew, drifted, swam or were carried there. Ninety-five percent of the reptiles, 50% of the birds, 42% of the land plants, 70% to 80% of the insects and 17% of the fish live nowhere else in the world. Among them: giant tortoises, Galapagos penguins, waved albatrosses, flightless cormorants, Galapagos fur seals, seagoing iguanas, three types of rice rat, Galapagos bats–and 13 species of Darwin’s finch, whose variously shaped beaks, perfectly adapted for the foods they subsist on, were used by the scientist to illustrate his theory of evolution.

Efforts to protect this natural laboratory began as early as 1934, when some islands were set aside as wildlife sanctuaries. The national park was created in 1959; in 1986 more than 27,000 sq. mi. of ocean in and around the archipelago was designated a Marine Resources Reserve, and four years later the inland waters also became an International Whale Sanctuary. The Galapagos have also been designated a unesco World Heritage Site and a Man and the Biosphere Reserve.

Precisely because of their distinctive features, the islands have become a magnet for tourists. The number of visitors has swelled from 1,000 in the early 1960s, after the Darwin Research Station opened, to more than 50,000 last year. Many of the off-islanders are ecotourists who are respectful of environmental laws, but some of the tour operators are not. Ship crews dump garbage and sewage directly into the sea, says Alfredo Carrasco, secretary-general of the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Isles. “Tourists used to come here out of a pure interest in nature,” he laments. “Now the tour operators are promoting recreation instead.”

The influx of free-spending visitors has triggered a migration from the mainland of people seeking tourism-related jobs. In 1970 the year-round population was about 2,000 people; now it is close to 15,000 and growing 8% a year. The new arrivals are already straining the Galapagos’ water supply and waste-disposal systems, and they are putting pressure on the social fabric as well. “The newcomers just come here to make money,” complains Esperanza Ramos, who arrived with her husband and four children in 1968. Like other residents, she blames the new wave of immigrants, many of whom have not found work, for the prostitution and drugs that have taken root in the isles.

The human population explosion has brought in hundreds of non-native plant and animal species that are threatening to devastate endemic life. Alcedo Volcano on Isabela Island–home to more than a third of all the Galapagos giant tortoises–is approaching ecological collapse as a result of an infestation of goats and burros. The goat population is so large (50,000 to 75,000) that between 100 and 150 kids are born every day. The goats knock down cacti and trees and munch on the vegetation on which the tortoises depend, while the burros trample the tortoise nests. Elsewhere on Isabela, dogs have eaten most of the land iguanas. On Santiago, goats, pigs, burros, cows and rats have wreaked havoc on the native plant communities. Fire ants and two types of alien wasps have taken hold on several islands, as have 300 species of non-native plants–100 of them in the past decade.

At the same time, fishermen have been plundering the waters of the marine sanctuary. In 1994 they pressured the government to allow three-month harvests of lobster, shark and sea cucumber–the latter two prized as delicacies in Asia. The shark fishery never opened, but environmentalists say many hammerheads and Galapagos sharks, as well as other species, are still being caught illegally for their fins.

When the sea-cucumber season began in October 1994, things quickly got out of hand. Dozens of fishing boats appeared, drawn by the high price the sluglike creatures fetch in Asia. According to Jack Grove, a Florida-based naturalist and photographer and founder of the nonprofit group Conservation Network International, many fishermen bought their registrations on the black market. By December, park officials estimated, as many as 7 million sea cucumbers had been harvested, far more than the authorized limit of 550,000. There are reports that boats coming to collect the sea cucumbers arrive with prostitutes and drugs from the mainland, and some prostitutes are said to be paid in bags of sea cucumbers, which they later trade for cash.

Officials found large numbers of fishing camps on national parkland, particularly on the shores of Isabela and Fernandina, which scientists consider the world’s largest pristine island. Unlicensed fishermen had cut down and burned protected mangroves (home of the rare mangrove finch) to dry their sea cucumbers and had slaughtered dozens of giant tortoises for food. Reacting to the overfishing, the government shut down the season a month early, triggering the protests last winter. But illegal harvests are continuing–and now seahorses and pipefish, valued in Asia for their purported aphrodisiac and medicinal value, are being taken too. A small Asian “test market” has also developed for Galapagos sea urchins as well as sea-lion genitalia and teeth.

Eager to save this irreplaceable scientific resource–yet mindful that the Galapagos generate as much as $60 million annually in tourism revenues–the national government has tried to curb the worst excesses. But it has not provided park officials with the backing they need to fight poachers or to wipe out introduced species, and it has come under intense pressure from fishermen, corrupt politicians and a charismatic leader named Eduardo Veliz, the Galapagos’ delegate to the National Congress. Tapping into widespread local resentment, Veliz pushed a law through the Congress that would give the islands enormous autonomy in setting their own rules for tourism and development. When President Sixto Duran Ballen vetoed the legislation and substituted a less favorable bill of his own, Veliz and his allies launched last month’s mini-insurrection, threatening to hold tourists hostage and set fire to parts of the park if their demands for more home rule were not met.

Veliz called off the protest when the President backed off and agreed to set up a special commission that will include Galapaguenos in negotiations on a new charter for the islands. But he made it clear that if the situation does not improve, more disruptions could follow. Conservationists acknowledge that islanders need to make a living. They fear, however, that increased local autonomy will in the end benefit the human population at the expense of animals and plants.

It is not too late to save the Galapagos. Among prescriptions scientists suggest: cut off immigration, institute a quarantine system to keep out foreign species, upgrade waste and sewage systems, give park rangers more funds and authority to wipe out poaching and illegal fishing, and give local inhabitants a bigger stake in the tourism industry.

None of it will happen, though, without strong action from the Ecuadorian government and pressure from scientists and conservationists in the North and South. As Sonoma State University paleontologist Matthew James puts it, “If there’s one place in the world where we should draw a line in the sand, it’s the Galapagos.”

–Reported by Andrea Dorfman/New York and Ian McCluskey/Galapagos

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