Goodbye Galapagos
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, July | August 1997

A secret Peruvian cartel has hatched a radical plot to destroy Ecuador's economic future. The scheme involving ecotourism, economic terrorism, and the Galapagos Islands was conjured after troops failed to settle a long-standing border dispute.

The savvy clique of educated Peruvians saw the handwriting on the wall that declining oil reserves and fisheries in both countries would fall behind the growing ecotourism market as sources of foreign exchange. They searched for a simple way to collapse the future Ecuadorian market and struck Inca gold with a plan that would maximize Peru's future share of foreign currency.

They began by asking why so many upscale foreign ecotourists choose the Andes of Ecuador over Peru, which has higher, more spectacular peaks surrounded by legendary Inca ruins. Two answers surfaced: personal security and the Galapagos Islands. Tourists primarily focused on seeing and photographing the fabled wildlife of the Galapagos in peace and serenity often visit the Ecuadorian highlands on the same journey. Destroy that limited island experience, and the nation's future economic and political stability (rated very high for Latin America) would begin to unravel.

About six months before Peruvian terrorists took diplomats hostage and Ecuadorians ousted their president, I scrawled this fictional conspiracy theory in my 1996 Galapagos diary. The Peruvian cartel is sheer whimsy, but the basic scenario reflects my ominous feeling that the government of Ecuador is doing the same thing to its own country by encouraging the systematic destruction of its natural and cultural heritage in the Galapagos Islands. The primeval lure of a place with rarefied life forces that gave Charles Darwin his powerful vision of the nature of global evolutionary processes, where so many modern photographers go to translate that vision onto film, is being sacrificed for short-term economic and political gain.

I do not mean to discourage Galapagos tourism. To the contrary, I advise photographers with a burning desire to see the islands to go sooner rather than later. I've been five times in nine years on local boats chartered by Wilderness Travel of Berkeley, California (510-548-0420), and the islands seem as safe and visually compelling as ever. In fact, most visitors return blissfully unaware of any problems after living on a boat for a week amidst islands teeming with birds, reptiles, and marine mammals wholly afraid of human approach. The growing plight beneath the surface is as invisible as a malignant tumor in a playful child.

In December 1996, the United Nations took the first step toward revoking the islands' World Heritage Site designation by placing them on its "Sites in Danger" list. In February 1997, the interim president of Ecuador conspicuously left proponents of environmental abuses in place as Galapagos officials, after announcing national removal of past political appointees. Of course, these officials don't think of themselves this way. Defenders of social justice, they are fighting for the innate rights of the 14,000 Ecuadorian residents of these once-uninhabited islands to make a basic living off the surrounding lands and seas. The problem is that 95 percent of the land area is Galapagos National Park, while the waters are in the Galapagos Marine Reserve.

Media coverage began in 1995, when masked fisherman brandishing machetes stormed the Charles Darwin Research Station and park headquarters on Santa Cruz Island. Researchers, staff, and breeding giant tortoises were effectively held hostage. Locals were upset that the first "experimental" sea cucumber season had ended. The limit was 550,000, but over 10 million of these $12-per-pound delicacies (served in Japan, but notably not in Ecuador) were delivered to large offshore processing ships before the government finally closed the season.

In the absence of strong local or national intervention, illegal fishermen camped on beaches inside the national park and the director of the Darwin Station received death threats. Those who spoke up against overfishing in the capitol city of Quito were branded "ecoterrorists intent on soiling the international image of Ecuador" by the Undersecretary of Fisheries.

Immigrants have flocked to the Galapagos as the great fisheries of Peru and Ecuador decline toward economic extinction. The same upwelling of nutrient-rich cold waters from Antarctic currents accounts for both a photogenic profusion of life above the surface in the Galapagos and what used to be the world's most productive fishery below the surface along the mainland coast. Peru failed to heed repeated UN warnings of gross overfishing and shifting currents before their yield collapsed 90 percent during the seventies.

The volcanic islands of the Galapagos begin 15,000 feet below sea level to create an ideal breeding ground for marine life where cold currents are forced to well up into equatorial waters. The birds, reptiles, and marine mammals of the islands flourish in unique and splendid isolation because of the profuse numbers of fish.

Darwin recognized that other desert islands could not have supported the thirteen different species of finches, frigate birds, boobies, albatross, sea lions, fur seals, land iguanas, marine iguanas, and giant tortoises weighing six hundred pounds. In 1959 on the centennial of the publication of Darwin's theory, Galapagos protection began as an international success story. The Ecuadorian government worked with private organizations to set aside all uncolonized lands as national park under some of the world's strictest controls. Tiny villages on the 2 percent of remaining lands didn't pose much of a problem until they grew after the mainland fishing industry collapsed.

Park visitors must be accompanied by trained and licensed naturalist guides. The great majority of guides are dedicated environmentalists, but some who objected to the 1995 revolt were not only threatened by fishermen, but also by rogue local guides who were true believers in their people's rights to fish without restrictions. One guide was seriously beaten with broken bones, while another left the islands after being threatened with bodily harm for writing a critical article.

Were it not for a personal incident, I might have returned home in 1996 to write a glowing travel piece about how the Galapagos was at peace again. The natural splendor of the islands appeared undiminished, but what happened on a calm Sunday morning in Porta Ayora set me on the course of this investigative story. Barbara and I were walking across the public square with friends from previous visits. As we watched children skip out of church into the arms of waiting parents, one man, bare to the waist, kissed his small daughter and put her on the back of his bicycle. I smiled and lifted my camera.

The man leapt off his bicycle, flexed his muscles, and threatened me with four-letter words. I doubt he saw me shoot off one frame before I put my camera down. He turned out to be the guide who had beaten up a fellow guide over the sea cucumber issue. Why he had not been held accountable was evident when I learned of a video tape showing thousands of fresh sea cucumbers drying on the local rooftop of a Galapagos official, well after the season had closed.

National politicians operate on the principle that the Galapagos will continue to be a golden goose of ecotourism longer than they are in office. Some have said that its loss would be no big deal, since only 50,000 of the 500,000 annual visitors to Ecuador go there. But that affluent 10 percent normally travels through Quito and visits other parts of the country. According to one estimate, these Europeans, Asians, and North Americans drawn to the Galapagos account for 80 percent of tourism foreign currency. The majority of other tourists are from Latin American countries on limited budgets or for purposes left unchecked on their travel documents.

Ensuring the long-term survival of the Galapagos ecosystem much as Charles Darwin saw it 160 years ago will require major controls on the extraction of natural resources. Park authorities recently seized three boats for industrial-level tuna and shark fishing and have also found evidence of Japanese aphrodisiac trade in dried sea lion penises. I'm convinced that tourists living self-contained on boats who walk up to photograph unconcerned nesting birds on island trails have far less impact than local people and pirate vessels bent on making a living from the seas.

If the demise of the wild Galapagos upsets you, now is the time to voice your opinion to Fabian Alarcon, President of the Republic of Ecuador, Quito, Ecuador.

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