We live in a gray world. Nothing is wholly bad or wholly good. This is certainly true with ecotourism in the Galápagos Islands.
On the one hand, ecotourism has been blamed for much of the recent woes occurring in the Galápagos Islands. Over the past 30 or so years, the Galápagos have experienced an ecotourism pilgrimage of remarkable proportions. The number of people touring the islands has increased from about 2,000 in 1970 to an estimated 140,000 in 2007. Mainland Ecuadorians – searching for a livable wage and a better life – have followed the tourists to the islands. The number of people living in the islands have increased at a rate of about 4% per year and now number about 30,000. Impressive considering the islands contain very few resources to sustain human life – fresh water supplies are scarce, forest resources are basically nonexistent, and very little land is suitable for agriculture. As a result, nearly everything edible and material has to be imported from someplace far away. This creates problems. Harmful fungi, plants, insects (i.e. fire ants, wasps, aphids, etc.), and mammals (such as black rats) harbor themselves within the cargo destined for the Galápagos. Once introduced to the islands, they assault endemic scalesia trees, giant tortoises, finches, and everything. Today, the situation is so bad that introduced plants have surpassed the number of native plants throughout the archipelago.
Furthermore, most imports make a one-way journey to the islands. Once used, solid waste is either buried or burned in the islands. This, of course, creates pollution which effects this fragile ecosystem as evidenced by the declining number of endemic populations and unsanitary drinking water.
Unfortunately, these problems are reinforcing. That is, more tourists are transferring more money to an ever-increasing population. This population then demands more goods, services, and extractive resources. This, in turn, creates more imports that introduce more exotic species, solid waste, pollution, and ecosystem degradation.
A fundamental tenet of ecotourism is to provide the local population with enough income so that they will want to preserve the ecosystem that attracts the tourists. Thus far, however, this model is failing the Galápagos Islands. The ultimate insult to the people of Ecuador and the Galápagos tourism industry came on June 26 of this year when the United Nations officially placed the archipelago on their ill-famed “World Heritage Site in Danger” list. Reasons include unsustainable growth in the number of tourists visiting the islands, unsustainable growth in the number of people living in the islands, increasing numbers of introduced species, and illegal commercial fishing in Galápagos waters.
However, we live in a gray world and nothing is wholly bad. So, it is important to also remember the benefits of ecotourism.
Ecotourism in the Galápagos is a $150 million per year industry. The portion of this money that ends up in the hands of the local population has provided them with a better quality of life. The education system has been improving, health care is better, and the eyes of local villagers shine with hope for a prosperous future. Last week I saw a parade of school children march through downtown Puerto Ayora. This was no rag-tag parade: the children sporting fancy costumes streamed by for nearly 20 minutes. They were dressed as boobies, frigate birds, giant tortoises, dolphins, and all things natural. If these children can learn to love and appreciate Galápagos wildlife then there is hope.
The tourism industry also supports conservation efforts and the long-term protection of these islands. Vigilant tour operators report illegal fishing as they patrol Galápagos waters. Tourist dollars have helped to eradicate introduced goats and feral pigs from northern Isabela and Santiago Island – introductions that occurred long before tourists began visiting the islands. Visitor donations are also used to help repatriate giant tortoises into the wild, to educate the local population on issues of conservation, to implement recycling programs, and others. Clearly, tourism provides an important source of revenue for conservation efforts.
The benefits of tourism are not confined to island inhabitants. Visitors are given a first-hand education on contemporary environmental issues. They take this education back home and share it with others. Tourists are reminded how much we need healthy ecosystems and how these ecosystems provide us with clean air, clean water, food, and recreation. Because natural resources are rare in the Galápagos, they serve as an important reminder of the vital connection between human communities and our natural world; a connection that has been all but lost for a vast majority of our planet’s urbanites.
Most important of all, tourists experience a profound connection with other living creatures. The Galápagos facilitates this connection better than any other place on earth. Galápagos wildlife does not fear, hide, or scurry away from people. Rather, people are often forced to step over sleeping sea lions, nesting boobies, or sun bathing iguanas. Call it what you want, but the fact is animals in the Galápagos trust humans and for a few days human visitors feel like a welcomed part of the global community. Tourists experience a sense of planetary innocence. I can’t emphasize enough how powerful this is. People who visit the islands can never again watch an animal flee from sight without wondering “why? ...what have we (as humans) done to animals all over the world to make them so afraid of us?”
Finally, it is more than obvious how much people need other living things. It is sometimes humorous to watch kids and adults alike interact with the Galápagos wildlife. People are drawn to the wildlife like magnets – they want to get as close as possible. They want to walk off the trails to get closer; they want to touch the sea lions, giant tortoises, and boobies. This magnetic attraction (between people and wildlife) is so strong that it is a constant labor for the naturalists to remind people that it is against park rules to do so. In short, people need nature, and though we sometimes forget this, the Galápagos reminds all visitors of this important need. I am certain people who visit the islands become ambassadors for nature even if they were not before. Lately, many people are quick to point out the negatives of ecotourism. They pay little attention to these benefits.
Back in the U.S., some people have told me that they would never visit the islands because they do not want to contribute to their degradation. While this self-imposed “boycott” may absolve them from personal guilt, it will in no way solve the problems facing the Galápagos. On the contrary, it would be heartbreaking if tourism failed in the Galápagos. It would be another example of how human communities were unable to coexist with ecological communities. The fact is, sooner or later, humans are going to have to learn how to live in harmony with nature. The reason is simple, human communities are dependent on healthy ecosystems and the human hand is everywhere. We can no longer feel good about creating artificial boundaries around our world’s most precious places and think we can protect them. So, can humans coexist with nature? While the answer is very much in doubt, a lot of progress is being made in the Galápagos Islands.
A couple weeks ago, two large wind turbines were off-loaded onto San Cristobol Island. A third turbine will be erected by October and when this happens nearly one half of San Cristobol’s energy needs will be met by this clean renewable source. Similarly, Isabela and Santa Cruz Islands have already installed solar technologies. More progress has been made with recycling and reducing solid waste. Metropolitan Touring (the company I work with in the Galápagos) established the Galápagos Foundation in 1998 that initiated a recycling program. As a result, in 2006, 40% of all Galápagos solid waste was recycled. Plastic and cardboard are returned on cargo ships and glass is processed on the islands and used to manufacture paving tiles. These tiles are used for the roads and walkways on Santa Cruz and San Cristobol Islands. Thus far, nearly 600 tons of solid waste has been recycled.
Besides recycling, the Galápagos Foundation also uses some of its donations for educating the local population on environmental issues and implementing sustainable agriculture and a small sustainable fishery.
Since Charles Darwin’s visit in 1835, the Galápagos Islands have played an important role on the global scientific stage. These islands are the cradle of evolutionary thinking and helped us understand, fundamentally, the way our natural world works. The Galápagos Islands can once again be of critical importance to all of humanity. Imagine if people learned how to live in harmony with nature in the Galápagos. Perhaps this could serve as a model for other human communities and in the process help humans figure out a way to share this planet indefinitely.
In 1984, the Galápagos Islands became a United Nations Man and Biosphere Reserve. A designation declaring the islands of global importance to both the natural and social sciences. In other words, a designation that strives to build a sustainable human population within a fragile and precious ecosystem. Those of us who take this designation serious believe that the greatest gift that the Galápagos will provide our planet is yet to occur. I believe this is the great challenge and potential magic of today’s Galápagos.
Securing a sustainable future will not be easy but the immediate road ahead is quite clear. First, immigration to the islands must be halted. Second, the number of tourists visiting the islands must be capped. Third, if Ecuador is unable to police its waters for illegal fishing, then the world community must step in. Either way, the unsustainable harvest of shark fins, sea cucumbers, lobster, and all kinds of fish must be stopped. Fourth, cargo leaving the mainland for the Galápagos must be carefully quarantined for exotic species. And, fifth, the local community must be given a thorough environmental education. Only then will they learn to love the islands, and consequently, become the angels that guard them.
As we think of the future of the Galápagos, it is important to remember two important realities. First, people will always be a part of the Galápagos ecosystem (as tourists and as residents). So, sustainable planning must be a priority. Second, it is not too late. Ninety-seven percent of the islands are off-limits to residents and tourists, nearly all native and endemic wildlife can still be found in the Galápagos, and the Galápagos Islands are still the largest most pristine oceanic island chain in the world. As the world community considers the future of the Galápagos, they ought to pose the question, “how can we make ecotourism a lighter shade of gray?”